Feminist Music at the Southbank: I. WOWhat?!

A visit to the Southbank Centre last week has compelled me to think a few little thoughts about ‘feminist classical music’. Here is the first and it is not a cheerful one:::

This weekend, the Southbank Centre is hosting an event called the Women of the World Festival (WOW). It is described as ‘a festival of talks, debates, music, film and comedy celebrating women’. As a feminist festival in a classical music venue of national importance, it seems like a very good opportunity in which to think about and discuss women and classical music. I might even go so far as to say that, if there were ever an event at which it might be appropriate to seriously consider the role of women in today’s mainstream classical music culture, this would surely be it. Surely…

Alongside a plethora of debates and talks ranging from discussions about rape, pornography and race, via fashion and hairstyles, to economics, entrepreneurship and power, there are a number of musical events. There’s an all-women hip-hop and spoken word evening, performances by female singer-songwriters such as Angelique Kidjo and Cold Specks, and experimental/alternative music from Seaming To.

There are also three classical events, the most fitting of which is a recital by the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble performing works from two contemporary female composers Lola Perrin and Thomi Baltsavia, at 1pm tomorrow (Friday 8th March), which I’m sure will be great and is also free. So far so good…

The other two classical events in this Women of the World festival are a recital of Schumann, Schoenberg and Bach by the renowned pianist Mitsuko Uchida (on Wednesday), and a concert entitled Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: Curtain Raisers + High Drama performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and conducted by Marin Alsop, on Friday.

The programme of this concert is as follows:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture, Idomeneo, re di Creta

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: ‘O smania! O furie! O disperata Elettra!’ from Idomeneo

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Overture, Leonore No.3

Ludwig Van Beethoven: ‘Abscheulicher, wo eislt du hin … Komm, Hoffnung’ from Fidelio

Carl Maria Von Weber: ‘Ocean! Though mighty Monster’ from Oberon

Robert Schumann: Symphony No.2 in C

It is fantastic that these two very important women musicians are taking part in this festival. Marin Alsop, especially, is a phenomenal example of a woman doing great things in a discipline which is overwhelmingly anti-women, one of the most male-dominated jobs in Western society: orchestral conducting.

Yet that in no way excuses the fact that we have a concert here which features no women composers at all, in a festival which is supposed to be ‘celebrating women’. This point needs to be taken further though. Working our way down the OAE concert programme:

  1. We have two extracts from the opera Idomeneo by Mozart (man), featuring an aria by the (fictional) character Electra (words by librettist Giambattista Varesco (man), sung by the (real) soprano Emma Bell (woman)), who is an absolutely classic example of the artistic/operatic/social trope of the evil, vengeful, hysterical ‘sorceress-type’ woman. Electra (an invention of men) is jealous of the heroine Ilia and her blossoming love for Idamante, she’s hungry for power, she shows cruelty towards enemy prisoners, she’s obsessed with revenge, and when Ilia and Idamante get married, she wants to kill herself. She’s hardly a woman to celebrate, even though (in comparison to the meek virgin, fallen victim and tender, impotent mother) she seems like the closest that the often-misogynistic operatic stereotypes get to a ‘strong’ female character.
  2. Then we have two extracts from Fidelio by the other ‘great male genius’ of classical music, Beethoven, featuring an aria by the (equally fictional) character Leonore (words by librettist Joseph Sonnleithner (man)). Granted, Leonore is a better example of a strong female character in opera. She finds a way to rescue her husband from imprisonment and execution against all odds, and saves the day without much help. But she does it all while dressed up as a man, whose made-up name – ‘Fidelio’ – becomes the title of the opera, while her own is consigned to the accepted titles of the various spin-off overtures. Problematic?
  3. Then we have an aria from Oberon by Weber (man), with ridiculous orientalist libretto by James Robinson Planche (man), in which the exotic (fictional) princess character Reiza gets kidnapped over and over again, falls in love with her kidnapper, tries and fails in a limp attempt to save his life, spends some time in a harem, and ends up bound for matrimony. So yeah, pretty radical stuff.
  4. Finally, most absurdly, a symphony by Robert Schumann (man (or mann?)). Not only does this not fit in with the aims of the festival, the whole ‘strong women arias’ things, or the silly title of the concert (or wait, is he supposed to be the ‘ladykiller’?), but it’s a particularly enraging choice because Robert Schumann’s wife was a composer. In fact, she is one of the very few (maybe two?) female composers pre-1900 who has been allowed anywhere near the ‘canon’. She was also an incredibly important figure in cosmopolitan musical life in the mid to late 19th century, a world-class pianist, and as good a woman-in-classical-music as any to celebrate, if (like the OAE) you’ve decided that the last hundred years is far too vivid in our memories to warrant an audience.

It is so absurdly ironic a programme choice because Clara Schumann’s compositional career, and her potential place in history, was curbed and compromised by the chauvinistic dictates of the day. It was considered natural and necessary that her husband’s career was put before her own. Robert Schumann once wrote: ‘Clara herself knows that her main occupation is as a mother and I believe she is happy in the circumstances.’ And then, we hear from Clara:

I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up on this idea; a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that. That was something with which my father tempted me in former days. But I soon gave up believing this. May Robert always create; that must always make me happy.

(The irony-bru is extra bitter here, since the festival is being sponsored by Bloomberg, who are currently detoxifying after a lengthy lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that they’d systematically discriminate against mothers returning from maternity leave, was recently overturned, to mixed opinions. The Women of the World thank you, I’m sure, Bloomberg.

(Plus, their accelerating spew of financial data is the fizzing, spitting Duracell lodged deep in the anus of finance capitalism. bleurgh…))

To make matters even more outrageous, the pre-show talk (‘OAE Extras, 5.45pm’) has nothing at all to do with the festival or with women, even via the tenuous ‘theme’ of the concert. Instead, it is ‘part of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Bicentenary celebrations’, and ‘looks at what concert life was like 200 years ago and how the recognised classics of today, including Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, were introduced to British audiences’. So: no women, no Electra, no Leonore, no Alsop, no Clara.

But, but, but…

If we’re going to take this Festival seriously, we can at least consider it a good opportunity for us to think, talk and learn about women’s involvement in classical music, now and in the past, alongside the reasons behind their disproportionate lack of involvement in classical music, now and in the past. So to keep the ball rolling, I’ll move immediately on to the arguments that I assume I’d have to make to counter what would be the programmers’, and classical establishment’s, vehement reprisals. I imagine that they would come in the following genres: idealist and pragmatist…

  • the idealist reprisal = “Classical music culture is rooted in a rich tradition of music from the 17th to the 19th centuries, times in which European societies were very different, and the kinds of freedom and equality that women have now were quite unthinkable. It’s unrealistic to expect classical music to embody such anachronistic ideas with the same explicitness as other musics; operatic heroines like Leonore may seem problematic now but at the time they were bold and subversive.” and/or “Even when men held literal ‘authority’ over musical composition, women performers have always been able to reclaim power/agency/rebellion, subaltern-style, through their performance interpretations, cf. McClary/Koestenbaum/Clément, and this programme is a celebration of that tradition.” and/or “Music can’t be sexist. All music is abstract, transcendent, humanist, blah blah, whatever the composer’s gender, and by performing it we can use it to celebrate our own freedoms.”
  • the pragmatist reprisal = “OK chill out, this isn’t exactly a one-off special event, it’s part of the OAE’s season and a pretty standard programme for the artists involved, which just happens to fit into the festival going on at the time. It needs to be seen as part of the ensemble’s wider programming, attracting the necessary demographics and ticking the necessary boxes, and it should be as a positive sign that they’ve decided to make an effort to engage with this festival at all – not to mention that they’ve made a whole concert series out of exploring arias written for the female voice since audiences would have come to hear these big-name artists perform basically anything.”

I know I’m risking a show trial of straw men here, but I’m pretty sure that these are the kinds of arguments that would be levelled against my criticism, and at any rate these are the kinds of mindsets that I most want to challenge. And I think both can be challenged in the same way, by taking a step back and looking at the WOW festival (and its other events) and then the concert in turn, noting all the discrepancies, and asking – just for once – why?:

  • why is this the only event on the programme which exclusively features artistic works by men?
  • why is this the only event which features any artistic works by men?
  • why – when there are plenty of women writing music today – does the festival choose to fill one of its biggest events with the music of ‘great men’?
  • why do operatic stereotypes, like mad vengeful Electra and voluptuous exotic Reiza, escape the deconstruction and the criticism of programmers and feminist alike?
  • why is it deemed OK to include this concert in a festival that ‘celebrates women’ if it 1) showcases outdated tropes of women in art, 2) could make the effort to feature female composers but doesn’t, 3) opens with a talk that has nothing to do with the festival, 4) focuses (in the second half) on a piece which has nothing to do with its purported theme?
  • why is this classical event the only instance of such extreme cognitive dissonance (Mozart + Beethoven + Weber + Schumann – Women = Women of the World)?
  • why invite the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to play if they never play any female composers’ works (e.g. Weir, Gubaidulina, Panufnik, Oliveros etc.)? There are plenty other resident ensembles that could have been asked.
  • why not use this occasion of all occasions to feature some works by women from the past (e.g. Clara Schumann, Barbara Strozzi, Hildegard von Bingen)?
  • why not – if there aren’t enough ‘appropriate’ pieces floating around in history, between all those poor male geniuses (“how could they know they were being chauvinistic if chauvinism hadn’t been invented as a concept?!”) – ask some living female composers to write music for the occasion? And get an orchestra to play them who aren’t solely capable of playing music composed under Enlightenment patriarchy?

Condescending to Music

The answer to all of these is that classical music is different. Some might think it’s a ‘special case’. It doesn’t need to make the effort. Nobody’s asking it to make the effort. This is not solely an indictment of the Southbank Centre, or of the OAE or Marin Alsop. This is an indictment of classical music in general. It is not that it is a ‘special case’, that Mozart and Beethoven are the only men special enough to be celebrated in a feminist festival. The sad truth is that classical music doesn’t feel like it has to bother, to try at all in fact. And this is because, as I’m beginning to realise more and more, those people in charge of programming, performing and perpetuating classical music culture just don’t take it seriously.

So, in response to the ‘pragmatist’ argument: that may well be the case, but why – when someone has gone to great lengths to put together a multi-faceted, multi-textured festival which adheres quite faithfully to its stated intention of ‘celebrating women’ – was whoever was in charge of choosing the big ‘classical’ tie-in allowed to be so unimaginative, so lazy and so insensitive to the rest of the weekend’s events, to merely assign some pre-existing plan (Marin Alsop doing Schumann 2 with the OAE) and add on a bit of lame woman-flavoured garnish? Why is it OK for the classical event to do that and no-one else, and why do people not balk when they look at the programme, or rub their eyes in disbelief? It just seems very offensive to all women composers, that the one time a programme of women composers is surely absolutely imperative to a concert, not even one of them is deemed good or appropriate enough. It’s like casting a blacked-up white woman as Rosa Parks in a biopic. Tell me why it isn’t like that, and while you’re at it, tell me why you’re desperately trying to think of reasons why it isn’t like that.

And in response to the ‘idealist’ argument: does it not seem strange that the presumably thriving, still-existing art form of classical music has to fall back on all these disclaimers and provisos, in order to provide one orchestral event for a festival whose simple purpose is to focus exclusively on the achievements of over 50% of the world’s population. It’s not a hard task, at least it shouldn’t be. There might at some point be a festival of remembering historic chauvinism, or a festival of denouncing misogyny, but this is not it. It might have been something if there were some explanatory talk, appended onto the concert, discussing the historic predicament of women in classical music, as well as its current state. But no.

The Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers series of concerts by the OAE, of which this is part, focuses on women performers in opera, and the history of the prima donna, which is an interesting and important subject in the narrow field of classical music history. But compared to the role that women have in new music now, and certainly compared to the role that women should have in music, this history – in which women were paraded around a stage in beautiful clothing and jewellery (in front of men in serious formal wear and other women in beautiful clothing and jewellery), then stripped of their virtue and killed or married off in fantastical scenario after fantastical scenario – is hardly the straight-up emancipatory movement that they seem to think it is. And the fact that it is the go-to for a proper festival of contemporary feminism in all its many guises (except the most radical ones, it has to be said) just serves to underline how little the culture has actually changed, compared to most other Western art forms. It is a weak attempt at putting a programme together worthy of the festival. And what it seems to shows us (considering the relative prominence, acclaim and success of the institutions and ensembles involved) is the following three things:

  1. That it is very difficult to put together a ‘feminist’ or women-centred mainstream classical concert. This suggests that mainstream classical music culture, and its tradition, is sexist.
  2. That mainstream classical programmers will not go to great lengths to put together ‘feminist’ or women-centred concerts, even when it is the most appropriate occasion you can possibly imagine, and there are plenty of appropriate composers to choose from. This suggests that mainstream classical music programmers are sexist, or accept a sexist consensus as natural/necessary/acceptable.
  3. That classical events and programmers can get away with being non-women-centred whilst saying that they are, even where it would be very inappropriate and offensive for anyone else to, and that it doesn’t actually seem strange or inappropriate to anyone, but quite the opposite, people actually think that putting on a concert of ‘great men’ composers, at the exclusion of women composers, in a feminist festival is tantamount to ‘celebrating women’. This suggests that either everyone already expects classical music to be sexist, or that classical music culture and the ideology of its initiates is sexist, or (probably) both.

Most of all though, it shows just how unimaginative classical programming is, and just how shallow some of these attempts to make music accessible and relevant and engaged actually are. I’ve complained about the Southbank Centre in this respect before (as well as the OAE). These days everything at the Southbank seems to come as part of a festival. This is both a good and a bad thing. In theory it should mean that concerts have to make some sort of commitment as to the broader ‘theme’ of their programme, or its purpose or slant or logic. But in reality, it also permits instances, like this one, where just by including it in a festival schedule seems to automatically validate its purported engagement or logic, meaning that it doesn’t need to make any effort to really engage with the questions and issues presented.

This programme is a standard example of classical culture’s patronising attitude to its own art form. They apparently don’t believe that a concert programme can engage with the complicated issues surrounding feminism to the extent that any of the other talks and performances can. They assume music’s shallowness – regard the titular ‘Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers’ and ‘High Drama’ – it hardly sounds like a contemporary feminist event, and you certainly wouldn’t get any other artistic discipline offering such a crass, basic attempt to engage with a rich and rigorous tradition of thought. They refuse to critique and to deconstruct the tradition that they’ve inherited – perhaps they’re worried about what they might find, perhaps they think there’s nothing to deconstruct – either way, they seem not to hold it in very high intellectual esteem at all. Theirs is, in general, a consensus which suggests that a classical music programme wouldn’t be able to contribute any serious ideas to the festival as a whole, that it must consign itself to the role of after-dinner entertainment, that it should just sit there and look pretty, as it were. Why else would they decide not to include any compositions by women? Why else decide, in all conscience, that the traditionally-sanctioned, often condescending and objectifying role of onstage performance – of looking and sounding pretty – is the only proper or feasible way for this so-called ‘living, breathing’ art form to ‘celebrate women’.


As we all know, these days such attitudes aren’t surprising. Nobody expects anything more from classical music, ‘doing its bit’ in between the real business of repeating the same rituals and motions over and over. ‘All that it’s really good for’, if we take such weak reforms by (state-funded) institutions as sincere. No wonder reactionary fans decry these meagre attempts at being ‘hip’ and ‘PC’ and ‘engaged’, since they so often amount to so very little. The lesson, in all these instances, is to endeavour to perceive classical music’s lack with clarity, not to expect nothing from it but to expect everything from it, not to condescend to it and its audiences and institutions, nor to essentialise its failings and naturalise its backwardness and parochialism, but to hold it up to everything that we want art to be, and see through the gaps, and then work hard and fast to create all the exciting potential music – yet to be considered possible – which will fill in those gaps and finally take the art form seriously. The solution, as ever, must be in new music, and in new forms of new music.

This entry was posted in feminism, festival, opera, orchestral, theory. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Feminist Music at the Southbank: I. WOWhat?!

  1. Pingback: Feminist Music at the Southbank: II. Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins & Intersectionality |

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