At last, some sense about women in classical music

At last, some sense about women in classical music


norman lebrecht

April 01, 2014

In the past few weeks we’ve heard the head of London’s South Bank announce that women are suffering discrimination in orchestras, a London college founding a special programme for women conductors and various antediluvian men protesting that women can’t conduct.

So along comes Nicola Benedetti with a refreshing dose of common sense and a ticking off for the dinosaurs.

She tells Radio Times:

‘Sixty years ago the world’s top violinists were overwhelmingly male.

‘Today, we have Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Lisa Batiashvili, Vilde Frang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Alina Ibragimova … in fact, I could possibly list more top female violinists than males.

It really pisses me off when people attribute their rise to the ‘sex sells classical music’ thing.’

She adds: ‘Sexism is a worldwide problem but I think that classical music can be prouder of its integrity than many industries.’

Go, Nicky!

UPDATE: Here’s a manufactured response in old media by ‘a professor of marketing’ which cites Nigel Kennedy as a sex object.

nicola benedetti elgar


  • And don’t forget that many women composers have won contests and awards. Things are very different now and sexism will be reduced to a minimal expression in a few years.

  • Halldor says:

    Still, sure it’s only a matter of time before a well-connected head of a major national arts institution, on a six figure salary, starts lecturing me and my £19k a year male graduate classical music admin pals on how we’re oppressing her. Again.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Women ARE being oppressed, Halldor, in the arts world, and they are being oppressed in the WHOLE world.


      • Anonymus says:

        So are men. Inferiors are oppressed. Superiors oppress. It’s not limited to women, it happens everywhere.

  • Graham Lack says:

    Can’t wait for a certain Mr William Osbourne to weigh in. He’ll inevitably turn the conversation toward musical life in Germany. It’s ok, I’ve turned my fax machine off.

    • Uh, you mean like women representing only 14% of the personnel in the Berlin Phil — at my last count, might be slightly higher now. For my positive comments about Germany’s musical life see the post I put up a few minutes ago at:

      Women trumpeters and trombonists in top orchestras internationally still have about 2% of the positions even though one can tick off the names of top women players who demonstrate that they can play at the highest levels. The last two first trumpets and the last two first trombones in St. Louis have been women. So why is this so rare in other orchestras?

      Over the last 30 years there has been great progress, but I would be wary of comments about equality in orchestras that are too broad. Still some work to be done.

  • Anonymus says:

    And the science says:

    “Brain Connectivity Study Reveals Striking Differences Between Men and Women.”

    “…Females outperformed males on attention, word and face memory, and social cognition tests. Males performed better on spatial processing and sensorimotor speed. Those differences were most pronounced in the 12 to 14 age range…”

    Discrimination sucks, but nature does discriminate too. Including us.

  • G Ell says:

    There is another angle to sexism in classical and opera. It concerns the fixation wth female singers as Barbie Dolls who are preferred over and above the Zaftig even when the former can’t sing without mike/amplification or have no substantial artistry of their own. The perennial female as object or worse, as harlot. And the sad thing is that so many female singers themselves contribute to the stereotype. No doubt at the insistence of their agents and pressure from intendants, etc.

  • David Boxwell says:

    I guess Ginette Neveu, Jelly d’Aranyi, Giocanda de Vtio, and Ida Haendel were so much chopped liver “sixty years ago.” Just to name four.

    • G Ell says:

      None of them beautiful or glamorous by today’s shallow standards and so would likely be confined to academia for a living.

      • thekingonthevioln says:

        All the above four could play the violin marvellously……

        The above mentioned are all utter mediocrities. Poor intonation,stage presence, notwithstanding the glamour and sex appeal. I cannot understand the gain…..I can only perceive the loss

    • Stereo says:

      Well said, Ida Haendel has forgotten more about playing the violin than Nicola etc will ever know.

      • kindadukish says:

        What a load of pious, holier than thou drivel. It would seem that in some peoples mind being an attractive woman and having tremendous talent cannot be squared, and we wonder why the misogyny continues in the classical music world!

    • Anon says:

      Er, sure, but Nicola’s observation – that many of the violinists of years gone by were men, generally, is no less accurate for there having been some female violinists too.

      Of the names you mention, I suspect only Ida Haendel will really be familiar to most, where as the likes of Perlmann, Oistrakh, Kreisler, Stern, Suk, Ricci, Milstein, Menuhin, Grumiaux, Heifitz, Gitlis are arguably quite well known.

  • Geoff Radnor says:

    And Ida Haendel is still at it , So There!

  • Andrew says:

    The number of women playing in orchestras and each of the instrument categories is directly proportional to the number of girls who pick up these instruments in the first place and do the hard work to follow through to become pros.

    If there’s a bias in the business it’s simply people noticing that in their own experience, they hadn’t seen women playing a______. Then one, and then many more come along to master each of these disciplines and everybody forgets there was ever a time when women didn’t play ______.

    What’s galling is the hissing PC enforcers that won’t stop with their whining that there’s been some terrible injustice committed and we have to apply some sort of affirmative quota to make everything right in their eyes. These are the real racists and sexists; the ones who when they see an orchestra member or a conductor,can only see their race or sex.

    • kindadukish says:

      You state that “The number of women playing in orchestras and each of the instrument categories is directly proportional to the number of girls who pick up these instruments in the first place and do the hard work to follow through to become pros”

      Have you really thought this statement through?

      Whislt I might agree that in certain categories e.g. brass (but dont tell that to the many women playing in brass bands up north) the numbers may be limited, even this is changing and refreshingly we are beginning to see women appear in the brass sections of leading orchestras.

      Where I really do take issue with you is over string players, if orchestras reflected the number of women coming out of music schools were accurately reflected in orchestras then we would see a very different make up then we currently do.

      I understand that the music schools across Europe (even Vienna) are producing significant numbers of very talented female string players but where are they?

      This is not about “hissing PC enforcers” as you put it but an attempt to ensure that talent, of whatever gender is given the opportunity to compete on an equal basis.

      Think about this, if your daughter came home and said “I can’t be a musician because I am a woman” what would your reaction be.

      As the father of a daughter I know what mine would be!

      • Yes, the majority of the upper string students in Vienna are women. An Austrian colleague judged an oboe competition for school children a few years ago. Of the 15 or so competitors all but one were girls. The Vienna oboe is entirely unique and one of the most precious parts of the Vienna sound. Without women, they won’t be able to keep their tradition alive.

  • An earlier blog on this topic described a talk Jude Kelly gave about discrimination women in classical music face as antediluvian, and described Alice Farnham’s course for women conductors at Morely College as a knee jerk reaction to Kelly’s speech.

    Even if women in classical music have made progress, much of it is relatively recent, so the term antediluvian to describe discrimination is misleading.

    And of course, problems still exist, such as the extreme lack of women conductors and the attitudes toward them e illustrated by Panula and other highly influential people. This would not make Farnham’s course a knee jerk reaction, but something based on actuall problems.

    • Another aspect of this problem is that there are still many women around who suffered discrimination earlier in their lives that strongly harmed their career trajectories. Even if things are better now, these older women still experience the effects that discrimination had on their lives.

      It’s a challenge to balance the perspectives that alternate between three levels: 1) the successful gains for the rights of women, 2) the lingering effects of past discrimination, 3) and the pockets of discrimination that still exists.

      I would like to add that Panula’s recent comment doesn’t correspond to his support of women students in the past. I think he just had a crotchety moment, as they say. In the off chance I live to be 84, I hope people won’t hold me accountable for everything I say.