Women in the Concert Hall

Washington Times 5.29.01
Balint Vazsonyi

"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 categories.

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 and instrumentalists.

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 man's realm.

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 nothing about.

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 by history.

At least let us try to keep music out of this losing game.