Men only?

Big, bold and brash, the symphony has long been seen as an exclusively male domain. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Diana Ambache
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As everyone knows, women have, historically, been excluded from many things; now, we like to think that we have an equal opportunity. But this is not true - women have been active in most professions for a very long time. Although some 50 years ago women weren't allowed to enter long-distance races in the Olympic Games, today their marathon times compare with front-runners in the men's race. Jane Austen heroines played and sang decorously to attract a suitable mate, but would not have composed; people think that their real 19th-century counterparts could write pretty salon pieces, but not large-scale orchestral works. Now all composers are believed to have an equal chance.

As everyone knows, women have, historically, been excluded from many things; now, we like to think that we have an equal opportunity. But this is not true - women have been active in most professions for a very long time. Although some 50 years ago women weren't allowed to enter long-distance races in the Olympic Games, today their marathon times compare with front-runners in the men's race. Jane Austen heroines played and sang decorously to attract a suitable mate, but would not have composed; people think that their real 19th-century counterparts could write pretty salon pieces, but not large-scale orchestral works. Now all composers are believed to have an equal chance.

Indeed, senior executives in such august institutions as Radio 3 are saying that women composers don't need any special pleading these days. Well, let's check it out. How many symphonies written by a woman have you heard? OK, I'll be a little less demanding: how many women symphonists could you name? My guess is that few people get very far with either question.

Even a short trawl through the reference books illustrates that there are scores of women symphonists, from Marianne Martinez (Austria, 1744-1812) and Louise Farrenc (France, 1804-75) to Sofiya Gubaydulina (Russia, b1931) and Diana Burrell (Britain, b1948), to name but a few. Statistically, there's no competing with symphonies by men, but the ownership is certainly not exclusive.

So what about symphonies being masculine by nature and character? I venture that the symphony is perceived as being in the men's world. Think of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth: ba, ba, ba, Baaaam. "Listen up. I mean business." It demonstrates the epitome of the symphonic idea - a powerful statement. It fits the gender stereotype of men's assertiveness and authority, while female scribblers would, in their wafty, romantic way, not be suited to composing in such a complex and noble form. But let's remember some of a more reflective ("feminine"?) nature, such as Schubert's early symphonies. The truth is, symphonies usually combine both characteristics. Take as an example a work I'm about to perform. Louise Farrenc's Symphony No 3 draws on both sides, using Beethovenian drama in the scherzo, and a Schubertian tenderness and tunefulness in the second movement.

Here are some more clichés. The grand public statement is generally seen as belonging to men; they have the qualities needed to create high art - worldly perception, the intellect, and the ability to abstract. Women inhabit the private world, so their music would naturally be intimate, personal, and small scale. Many women have written long novels; Barbara Hepworth made large-scale sculpture. I don't understand why the symphony should come in the category of "too big for girls".

Many women composers have not been confined by such ideas, and have composed works big in sound, length and aspiration. Vitezslava Kapralova (Czechoslovakia, 1915-40), in writing her Military Sinfonietta, was aiming at imposing public music. In entering her First Symphony in the Wanamaker Competition, Florence Price (America, 1887-1953) was making a worldly statement and seeking recognition for it; it won her the first prize. In my opinion, nationality and individual character are much more audible in music than gender. However, we've still a way to go until, as Virginia Woolf suggested, we think of Anonymous as a woman.

One of the strangest prejudices I've heard is: "Women don't have the brain to write a score." Perhaps it's not worth engaging with; but just for the record, the 1989 symphony by Margaret Lucy Wilkins (Britain, b1939) used mathematical elements akin to processes used by Stockhausen in her search for new structural principles. Diana Burrell's Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals is a highly complex work encompassing a whole world of ideas, both masculine and feminine.

Apart from the sheer musical, compositional challenge that writing a symphony presents, the composers had different reasons for writing symphonies. For Amy Beach (America, 1867-1944), this was a natural activity for a leading member of the New England school of composers. Grazyna Bacewicz (Poland, 1909-69) had an equal career as violinist and composer, and playing symphonies would certainly have given her the idea of writing her own. And some had pragmatic purposes: for Wilkins, it was part of building up a portfolio of work for her PhD. Being commissioned to write a work needs a practical response. Burrell, who incidentally is the Composing Fellow (!) of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, wrote her symphony in the late Nineties in reply to the BBC Symphony Orchestra's request for a new work.

Many factors have influenced how the composers set about writing. The classical Marianne Martinez was true to her time in writing a lively and engaging work aiming to stimulate and entertain. Dvorak recommended that American composers draw their inspiration from folk sources. The American Beach took that to mean using old English, Scottish or Irish songs, inherited from her ancestors, and thus wrote a Gaelic Symphony in 1896. The African-American Price incorporated aspects of her ethnic heritage in her writing, and used the symphonic form to picture Negro life and thought. Galina Ustvolskaya uses the form to pray for humanity's salvation in her Symphony No 3 - "Jesus Messiah, Save us!". Burrell's wish was to make a huge musical creation, embracing great contrasts, and showing possibilities.

But did they write anything original? In my opinion, all the composers I have mentioned have their own authentic voice and innovative ways of communicating. They have added to the sum of human achievement and enriched the world with their imagination. Ustvolskaya created a unique cross-fertilisation of orchestral and religious music using texts by an 11th-century German monk in three of her five symphonies, and producing an atmosphere of mesmerising Orthodox ritual in her Third. Farrenc's Symphony No 3 starts with a solo oboe - unprecedented in my knowledge. It's a poignant and personal beginning, and wonderfully independent of the clichés of noisy openings needed to attract attention. Bacewicz writes in an idiosyncratic language, combining her Polish origins, the discipline of a classical training and her deep knowledge of string playing.

It raises the question of how open-minded we are as listeners. If you turn the radio on and listen to an unfamiliar work blind, I suggest that you won't be able to tell the gender of the composer.

Given the restrictions women have suffered through social attitudes, how did those that overcame the obstacles do it? Devotion to music seems to be the strongest force (after all, there are easier ways of earning a living). Education and good connections helped, too. The aristocratic Martinez received a broad cultural education including three years of lessons with Haydn, and lived in Classical, musical Vienna. Farrenc ran the foremost Parisian salon of the mid-19th century and was married to a music publisher. Beach's colleague George Chadwick called her "one of the boys".

Here's a quote from the Radio Times: "For many years it was regarded somewhat as a reproach against women that they had done nothing 'worthwhile' in the way of musical composition... Since woman has become 'emancipated', however, she has shown that in the realm of music, as in other spheres, she can perform wonders." That was published in 1925. There is no "Women's School", yet women still suffer the problem of being lumped together as a group. For all our thinking about political correctness, it seems we have not moved on as far as we thought we had. The truth is that the equality question was not solved then or now.

The Ambache Chamber Orchestra gives the UK premiere of Louise Farrenc's Symphony No 3 at St John's Smith Square, London SW1, tomorrow

Comments