Women in the Concert Hall
"As musicians, singers, composers and conductors, women are
changing the face of classical and contemporary music as we know
it. May 31 - June 2, the National Symphony Orchestra celebrates
these great women in music with its first Women in the Concert Hall
Festival." Thus proclaims the "Kennedy Center News"
the staging of yet another breakthrough event at what its president
calls "the nation's center for the performing arts."
In a different political climate, one might shrug one's shoulder
and put the outrageous statement down to harmless hype - a marketing
tool to sell tickets. Alas, during the past thirty-or-so years,
generations of Americans have been brought up subjected to increasingly
fraudulent statements about the world around them and, especially,
the world preceding them. Typically, these statements denounce the
past and extol the virtue of the 1960s' generation in correcting
the "errors" of all the millennia directly preceding Woodstock.
A large area of this ocean of misinformation has to do with women:
what they have and have not done, what they were "not allowed"
to do, and how they can certainly do everything men do. Dealing
with decades of nonsense far exceeds what a column can attempt,
but a few comments about women in music are entirely appropriate
as the celebrations on the Potomac get underway.
(Incidentally, it is quite difficult to write articulate prose
when one would like to jump up and down and scream, "have you
all gone stark raving mad?")
The suggestion that women singers are something we owe to the liberation
of women must impress the least informed, even, as preposterous.
Do copy writers at the Kennedy Center believe that two-and-a-half
centuries' worth of coloratura, soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto
parts in opera and oratorio have been composed for and performed
by male chauvinist pigs in drag?
Let us therefore turn our attention to instrumental music. During
my teens in Hungary, the reining monarch of musical performance
was the pianist Annie Fischer. This did not come about as a result
of Title IX legislation, but by the magic she produced on the platform.
Despite the darkest period of Stalinism this happened to be, she
was treated, and lived, in the manner of royalty. It was also during
that same period that the musical world mourned the loss of the
brilliant French violinist Ginette Neveu who died at the height
of her young career in a plane crash.
When I arrived on the London musical scene in the mid 1960s, the
place of pilgrimage at the upper end of the generation scale was
the home of Dame Myra Hess, a lifelong idol, also, of American audiences.
At the youth-end, everyone was watching in awe the comet-like development
of the cellist Jacqueline du Pré.
Lest anyone should think that women in instrumental music were
a late arrival, compared with singers, all one needs to remember
is Clara Schumann. First celebrated as the child prodigy Clara Wieck,
she married the composer Robert Schumann and, as well as giving
birth to seven children, continued to tour and elicit the admiration
of the musical world as perhaps no other person, male or female.
She was born in 1819 and died in 1896.
I ought to be embarrassed to continue wasting the readers' time
on what is perhaps no more than a silly overreach by zealous public
relations employees. But I cannot help thinking that something important
is at stake.
We live in a society where a majority has been persuaded that white
males have kept "women and minorities" from fulfilling
their potential, until the Women's Movement and the Civil Rights
Movement began to fix things. It is further believed by the same
people that, given appropriate legal parameters, great accomplishments
will follow in proportion to people's race, sex, and other statistical
Well that certainly does not hold true in the arts, especially
music. In matters of talent, a person either has it or not. The
liberation of women has produced neither more nor greater musicians
than previous ages. Indeed, we find the equivalents of yesteryears'
greats only after searching with a microscope. So much for singers
If we now look at the "women can do everything..." question,
we might get to the real debate. The politically unpalatable fact
is that all great music was composed by men (representing a tiny
area of the world at that), and all great conductors to date have
been men. I recall having a heated argument about this with my son's
girlfriend in the mid 1980s in California. Although she had never
been within miles of a classical music concert, she took exception
to my suggestion that conducting, for some reason, seems to be a
It is an integral part of today's upside-down thinking that nature's
arrangements are unacceptable if they do not fit social theory.
Another component of the same mind-set is that people are entitled
to strong opinions about all sorts of things they know absolutely
Why literature produced a Jane Austen, but no composer of equivalent
stature - no one knows. No political argument, only the appearance
of a truly great female composer or conductor could change the picture.
But here is food for thought. The liberation of women has not produced
anything like another Jane Austen. And, with all the learning mandated,
subsidized, coerced, and forced upon women, with all the positions
and opportunities handed to women since the early 1970s, Marie Curie
(1867-1934) still is the sole great in all the sciences, and no
one has even come within a light-year of her accomplishment.
Why should we consider all the above? Because poison is being spread
daily across our society by those who think that accomplishment
can be legislated, and that recognition ought to form a part of
social justice, distributed by government, instead of being conferred
At least let us try to keep music out of this losing game.