Women and Music
Reading the New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section of Sunday, February 19, I was reminded of just how far women still have to go to be fully recognized in the music profession. There were no women conductors listed among the major orchestras scheduled to perform over the next several weeks in New York. There were no works of women composers on the programs of these orchestras.
In another set of articles this past week, the Times detailed major changes at the Metropolitan Opera. It will devote more performances to contemporary music, but no new commissions or conducting positions are going to women. This adds to the lamentable record of opera. Even in her heyday, the great operatic conductor Sarah Caldwell was I believe only once invited to occupy the Met’s podium.
Nor has the attention devoted to lyricists ever equated artists such as Betty Comden and her stunning predecessor Dorothy Fields with their male counterparts Oscar Hammerstein, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin or Lorenz (Larry) Hart.
Prime attention to women in music is most often accorded to operatic divas, especially those who dominated the Met in the past (Sutherland, Horne, Scotto, Callas, Price) and the newly minted superb and gorgeous (here goes some male chauvenism) Renee Fleming, Angela Gheorgiou and Anna Netrebko. Male singers who equal their acclaim, such as Placido Domingo, Bryn Terfel, and Robert Alagna (husband of Ms. Gheorgiou) are fewer in this realm.
While it is heartening to look at American orchestras to see them largely populated by women—as opposed to many European orchestras—these are relatively secondary roles, and mainly anonymous.
In another field, choral conducting, there are now few, if any, women to equal the conductors who once occupied prominent positions at universities (Elaine Brown, Helen Hosmer or Margaret Hillyer). Women pianists have also just about vanished except for, in my opinion, the greatest pianist on the stage today, Marta Argerich. Gone are the likes of Guiomar Novaes, Myra Hess, Rosalyn Tureck, Gina Bachauer or Alicia De Larrocha whose performances mesmerized audiences.
In the early 1990’s the greatest American woman pianist Claudette Sorel approached me to initiate a Women In Music series at NYU where I was then Associate Dean in the School of Education; the series was begun. Women honored at the University included Ms. Falletta and Queler, and the superb popular artists Margaret Whiting and Judy Collins.
I haven’t mentioned other forgotten women of the past—Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Weick Schumann, Lili Boulanger, even Mrs. H.H.A. Beach who wrote lovely choral anthems in her time.
One of my great teachers, a woman, Modena Scovill, used to say “The older you get the more you shrug your shoulders and the less you wring your hands.” This is the prevailing attitude about women musicians today. While it is acknowledged that a problem persists, most people shrug their shoulders and the pain in the neck is temporarily alleviated.
What we need is a good jolt from a woman to seek a cure for this occupational disease. Is there anyone out there?#