Preserving the unique sound of men behaving badly

`There has never been a truly great woman composer - and it will not do to blame the men'

THE VIENNA Philharmonic Orchestra is pretty used to controversy, of course, and has such a long history of bad behaviour that a few mild complaints are going to seem like a gnat biting a rhinoceros. Sad to say, members seem to relish their own boorishness. In Vienna, they still tell the story of the night in 1936 when the orchestra was so insulted at being asked to premiere the ghastly Bolshevist Violin Concerto, by the recently dead Alban Berg (and with a Jew as soloist, too!), that at the end of the piece the members rose as one and stalked off before the audience had a chance to applaud.

It is not, in short, an orchestra that gives a toss what anyone else thinks; indeed, the disapproval of others tends to egg them on to new heights of misbehaviour. So the complaints that have arisen since its visit to the Proms last week are not that likely to have any effect.

But people have been murmuring that it is a disgrace, in this day and age, that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra refuses to allow women into its ranks in any other role than that of harpist.

It's an old-fashioned attitude and, no doubt, deplorable. Even if, like me, you think the VPO is the best in the world, this refusal is deeply unfair and grounded in prejudice.

It is also almost certainly true that the orchestra would be none the worse for admitting women. At least, that is the view of plenty of people. One reader wrote to The Independent with the demand that "all such groups should include at least 50 per cent women members. In future, it would be respectful if the organisers of the Promenade Concerts banned all male-only orchestras, ensembles and choirs."

At that last word, an alarm bell should start to ring. Ban male voice choirs? Really? And replace them with what? Are we seriously to propose that Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd, which has no women's parts, should no longer be performed? The idea is obviously absurd. And the more you think about it the more ridiculous it is that musical life should be an appropriate area to exercise equal employment rights.

The whole question of women and music is a puzzling one, and one that has never been properly examined. The Western tradition of music, very unfairly, limits women to a few carefully circumscribed roles. Women could sing, or play the harp in orchestras, and they could play musical instruments in a domestic setting. In recent decades most orchestras have admitted women, but there are some sections of an orchestra, such as the brass and percussion, where women are still very much in the minority.

It is only very recently, too, that women have made any kind of impact as conductors, and such excellent figures as Jane Glover and Sian Edwards remain exceptions in an overwhelmingly male profession. Most of this can be readily written off as sheer prejudice - the idea that it is unfeminine to handle a rowdy instrument such as a trombone, or to yell from the podium at a recalcitrant back-desk viola-player.

But I wonder if it is entirely so. It is not obviously unfeminine to play in a string quartet, and yet the best quartets are all-male. The masculine nature of music is at its most glaring when we look at the great creative figures. If the reader who wanted women to form half the Vienna Philharmonic's membership went on to demand that half the orchestra's repertoire should be written by women, I think we should start to see that the nature of the problem is an exceptional one.

It's striking that there has never been a truly great woman composer. And yet it won't quite do to say that this is merely because of a male conspiracy. The demands of decency and the patriarchy, after all, acted much more obviously to bar women from the visual arts, and yet many women have been able to rise to the top in that field.

But in music, never; even though to sit at home and write a piano trio is not obviously more offensive than, say, writing a novel - another artistic activity in which women have always been able to excel.

Deplorable as the Vienna Philharmonic's continuing chauvinism is, the point must be granted that its character is strongly based in its exclusively male membership. Of course, an orchestra consisting entirely of men is not necessarily a good orchestra. But the excellence of this orchestra, its unique sound and character and its social organisation, are not entirely separable.

I don't say that the orchestra would be made worse by an equal opportunities policy, but it would certainly be changed. There are plenty of opportunities for women in music today, and nothing is to be gained by treating the Vienna Philharmonic just like any other employer. In fact, if we were to do so, something would definitely be lost.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot