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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before