discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Can you hear the sex of a composer?

Can and does music reveal the sex of its composer? Critics reviewing the work of female composers were sure that they could ‘hear’, for example, that Fanny Hensel was a woman. 220px-Fanny_Hensel_1842 Hensel’s songs may not ‘betray a woman’s hand’, they may even suggest an ‘artistic study of masculine seriousness’ but nevertheless, all but one lack ‘a commanding individual idea’. Another critic admired ‘all the outward aspect; yet we are not gripped by the inner aspect, for we miss that feeling which originates in the depths of the soul and which, when sincere, penetrates the listener’s mind and becomes a conviction.’ And yet another, praises the ‘gracious, pleasant element’ but felt a lack of ‘powerful feeling drawn from deep conviction’.

That was in the 1840s, but it still goes on – the fear that perhaps you can’t tell the sex of a performer (and therefore you might have to hire women on, gasp, merit) underlie the resistance to blind auditions for orchestral players. (If you want the hard core stats, if from 14 years ago, see Goldin, C. and Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: the impact of ‘blind’ auditions on female musicians. American Economic Review, Vol. 90, No. 4, pp. 715-741 – and thanks to equality warrior Rebecca Nestor for that reference).

It’s somewhat depressing that those ideas about inner aspects, powerful feeling, not to mention penetrating the listener’s mind, lurk somewhere not too far beneath the surface of the classical music industry today. Take a look at some of the choice phrases regarding Marin Alsop’s conducting of the Last Night of the Proms, quoted in

Funnily enough, the same people who don’t see the need to crush the ridiculous suggestion that women’s essential physical and intellectual weakness makes them unfit for purpose, whether conducting an orchestra or creating a large-scale composition, do however rush to challenge similar suggestions when applied to, say the anti-semite Richard Wagner. Here he is, in a rather attractive hat.richardwagner2010 (Wagner, of course, wasn’t born an anti-semite, he chose to become one, whereas none of the composers I’m writing about chose to become a woman. But that’s another debate…). So: Wagner’s defenders argue that we should all enjoy Wagner’s music because you can’t hear his anti-semitism. You can’t hear the composer, only the music. You can, and you should, separate the human being from the music. Think Christian Thiellemann, in weary defence of his favourite composer (him in the hat), insisting that ‘music cannot be politicized. That is the great misunderstanding of every age. You cannot win over D major or C major for a certain political cause. That’s the good thing about it.’

This might suggest therefore, that the chord of C major is the same whether written down by a woman or a man. But, if it is the same, why are there so few women composers? In part, because not everyone has access to the education and materials necessary to place that chord of C major on a score. Then, if and when it is placed on the score, the sex of its author becomes part of the response to the chord, as with Fanny Hensel above. Yes, on one level, it’s nice to think of music as ahistorical, apolitical. In which case, it doesn’t matter whether a woman (or indeed a virulent anti-semite) wrote the chord – the music is the music. But it does matter why Wagner, had the opportunity to write the chord, when countless women have not. And it does matter why Wagner’s music was then performed, in public, and continues to be performed and recorded every week of the year. Whether loved or hated, Wagner’s music is heard, when the music of countless women is not. The chord of C major is not, in itself, political. Who is allowed to use it, is.

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One thought on “Can you hear the sex of a composer?

  1. Pingback: Can you hear the sex of a composer? | shadowofthecourtesan

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