A to Z: Tower

As I near the end of this alphabetic exercise, I look back and note a complete lack of women cited here. Now, this blogging meme-thing was clearly not meant to serve as any kind of exhaustive, or even representative, survey of the long and rich history of classical music. But the question cannot be avoided: why is the long and rich history of classical music so dominated by men? Literature and art had prominent women in their history, but women seem oddly absent.

One answer is that they weren’t absent at all, we just don’t really bother with what they were doing. And that’s a fair point; googling “female classical composers” turns up an enormous number of names. But why have so few works by women endured to eventually enter the standard classical repertoire?

I wish I had a good answer other than “Music has a pretty sexist history”, which is a tautological answer, when you get right down to it. But it is true, nevertheless; witness the fact that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the notion that women were even worthy of being allowed to appear within its ranks. It just seems to me that music has been an undeniable area of enduring sexism; just why that is the case is beyond my knowledge as a layperson. One argument I read recently is that music, unlike literature or visual art, is dependent upon others to work. You can write a symphony, but a fat lot of good it does you if you can’t get an orchestra to play it. As orchestras were, for most of history, dominated by men — well, that’s kind of the ballgame. I suspect that’s at least a chunk of the answer. Even the great male composers often had to struggle to get their works performed, with many of the most cherished masterpieces of all time having never been heard at all by their own composers. Here’s a good article as a starting point on this topic:

Classical music — at least in the United States — is one of those areas that tend to be something of a hole in a lot of people’s education. I’ve been continually surprised by the number of extremely intelligent people I know who can discuss politics, visual art, film, philosophy and popular music in detail who, nevertheless, don’t know very much about classical music – at least, beyond the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) and Mozart. Maybe Haydn or Handel. Maybe Wagner (but usually only Ride of the Valkyries). Maybe a 20th-century composer or two like Stravinsky or Copland. But certainly, never about any of the women over the years who have written classical music. After all, just about every field of art tends to diminish the accomplishments of women, but especially classical music, since most of it that outsiders pay attention to was made in a time when women’s roles in the arts were limited. Even today — in an era where there are countless amazing female composers — when I tell people I studied music composition in college, I still get “Wow, a woman writing classical music! I’ve never heard of that!” about as often as I get, “Wait, people still write classical music?”

But women have always been writing classical music; it’s just that, now, we’re more able to make a career of it, and compete with the guys. In the past, women were often limited in what they could write, thanks to gender roles. The rules for a female composer of the 18th or 19th century (when most of the best-known male composers flourished) were: only solo and small-ensemble works that you could play in your living room (which is why we now know this as “chamber music”). Never large-scale works, like operas or symphonies, where you would need to rent out a concert hall to have them properly performed. It’s easy to see how this was able to limit women; while there are a number of male composers known primarily for their chamber music (such as Chopin), most of them, while they wrote in a variety of genres, made their names through the big stuff. In fact, some of the biggest, most influential composers of that era were known mainly for writing operas, like Verdi and Wagner, or symphonies, like Gustav Mahler. Even the men who became famous for their chamber music were usually able to get them performed in large halls, unlike women, who were limited precisely so they wouldn’t be taking attention — and careers — away from men.

There is a great deal of classical music by women that deserves very much to be heard. Here are a few works by one such composer, Joan Tower, who is still with us and active. I find these works fascinating, particularly the Percussion Quintet.

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (the inspiration here is pretty obvious):


DNA for Percussion Quintet (percussion ensembles can make for some really riveting listening):

Tomorrow: I have no idea. ‘U’ is not the easiest letter….

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