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'
  • @PhilipHensher
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.