Updated: Oct 14
On the occasion of today's International Women's Day, we take a look at the current status of women and equality empowerment in classical music - the cradle of all kinds of music.
Today, people around the world celebrate Women's Day. The whole of March even becomes a woman month as in 1987 the American Congress declared March as National Women's History Month, in order to honour extraordinary achievements of American women. We at music is her passion honour outstanding women in music around the globe and in every music genre all year long. This month however, we shine a light on some outstanding women in classical music.
Women in leading positions in classical music are on the rise!
The classical music landscape in Germany is the largest in the world. Of all the opera performances given in the world in one year, about one third take place in Germany. As we are a Berlin-based magazine, it is close to our hearts to analyse this so important music scene in this country according to its equality factor. The proportion of women in German orchestras is 40%, which is a tendency that very much moves towards a balanced gender ratio. If you look at the proportion of women in management positions however, the percentage of men is clearly taking up the largest part. Security and leadership is often associated with men, and this is still particularly evident in classical music at the moment. Still, even in this area, we are slowly moving in the right direction. For instance, if you look at the proportion of women studying conducting in music conservatoires you can see that something is changing. In Germany's music colleges, in the 2016/17 winter semester, 42 percent of those studying conducting were women. Ten years ago, that figure was just 27 percent. But the proportion of women heading Germany's 130 professional orchestras is still much lower than that. What is happening there? Conductor, composer and professor Konstatnia Gourzi explained that to us like this: "(Educational) institutions such as a music academy, for example, have been increasingly confronted in recent years with "having to" engage women. The situation is different in the free market because it usually depends on the will of the organisers or the manager."
If you look at the ranking of the top conductors worldwide, which is compiled by Bachtrack every year, there is a wonderful tendency to observe women behind the conductor's desk. While in 2013, Marin Alsop was the only woman in this ranking, which is based on engagements, by 2019 there were already eight. Even Bachtrack, as the leading online magazine on the classical music market, is certain: female composers and conductors are on the rise, more contemporary music is being played, the opera repertoire offers a greater variety every year.
Emilie Mayer , born in 1812, was called female Beethoven during her lifetime.
German conductor Romely Pfund, for example, who started her career during the GDR in Dresden is aware of a big repertoire of female composers. "I have performed relatively many female composers in the concert hall, for example, Emilie Mayer, a composer from Friedland (Mecklenburg), who lived in Berlin from 1847. During her lifetime she was called female Beethoven. Also, Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) from Lods in Poland is an interesting composer." Emilie Mayer left behind an extensive musical oeuvre, how is it that she is hardly mentioned today and that her male colleagues like Beethoven are still very present in the concert and opera houses of this world? We at music is her passion make it our task, not only on World Women's Day, to erect a monument to all the wonderful female composers and conductors who remain unmentioned all too often to this day.
There are and have been so many wonderful women in classical music, as the Archiv Frau und Musik in Frankfurt proves. With its approximately 26,000 media units by and about 1,900 female composers as well as conductors from 52 nations from the 9th to the 21st century, the Archive Women and Music is the oldest (founded in 1979), largest and most important archive of its kind in the world.
"Women are just as good and very often even better and more flexible than men."
The history of female conductors is a particularly remarkable one in our eyes. If we look at history, in the 20th century, conductors such as Marin Alsop, Simone Young, JoAnn Falletta, Andrea Quinn, Alice Farnham, Kostantia Gourzi and Gisèle Ben-Dor have done true pioneering work for generations of conductors who are increasingly losing their shyness about this professional aspiration and are equally suited as men in leading positions. Konstantia Gourzi is also sure of this: "Women are just as good and very often even better and more flexible than men. They just get less of a chance to show what they can do. The world is more suspicious and critical when a woman gets a position early. A brain researcher would prove to us that the problem is not the woman, but the habit of the system, which usually determines our brain."
A beautiful tendency of mutual empowerment can be observed among female conductors. The generation of the pioneering women just mentioned is especially supportive of the wonderful and strong women in music who followed them. Marin Alsop, for example, is teaching conducting masterclasses, exclusively for women conductors. She explained that women’s gestures are often interpreted differently from men’s and since conducting is all about sending messages to the orchestra with gestures, this matters. A man seeking a big sound from the brass section might be called “strong,” while a woman would be “scary” and off-putting, a man with delicate gestures would be judged “sensitive,” a woman doing the same thing could be called “weak” and lacking authority. That’s why, Alsop said, women needed their own forum to discuss how to convey the music without being caught up in stereotypical gender associations.
Awareness plays a very important role that every single music consumer should have: an awareness of equality in music.
Not only on International Women's Day is the topic of equality a very relevant social issue. More and bigger music institutions like the Salzburg Festival are increasingly being asked to explain why they are not showcasing more female conductors. And even institutions that were born as purely male associations, such as the Vienna Philharmonic (until 1997, they would not allow women to audition), are increasingly opening their doors to women. Here an awareness plays a very important role that every single music consumer should have: an awareness of equality in music. The more each and every one of us becomes aware of this and pays attention to it and, above all, the more important it is that everyone is equally justified in their actions, the sooner we can bring about a positive change.