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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all