Classical music must also tackle merit inequality
Gustav Mahler's music has been given 283 Proms performances and Dmitri Shostakovich's compositions have been played 255 times. During the 2019 BBC Proms season Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony Receives its twenty-eighth performance and was also played in the 2018 and 2017 seasons; while Mahler's Fourth Symphony receives its thirtieth Proms performance, and again was programmed in both the preceding seasons.
By contrast the music of Eduard Tubin, composer of ten symphonies, has never been heard at the Proms. (His five minute Tocatta was programmed in 2005 but not performed due to a conductor change.) This despite Tubin being of the Shostakovich lineage - Tubin's first opera Barbara von Tisenhulm was publicly praised by Shostakovich. Similarly Albéric Magnard's music has never been played at the Proms; this despite Magnard's poignantly lyrical Fourth Symphony being prime Classic FM material. Sir Malcolm Arnold's nine symphonies have received just five Proms performances, the most recent in 1994. This despite Sir Malcolm's symphonies sitting well within the comfort zone of Mahler fans. Of course Mahler and Shostakovich wrote masterpieces. But is their music infinitely more meritorious than Arnold's, Tubin's or Magnard's, as those performance statistics suggest?
The reason for asking that rhetorical question is my concern about the distorting effect of classical music's current single-minded focus on tackling gender inequality. At this point let me head off the social media thought police who will not tolerate anything other than unstinting praise for classical music's next female big thing. On An Overgrown Path was one of the first, if not the first, online resource to raise classical music's gender inequality back in 2006. I was writing about women composers while other bloggers were welcoming Gustavo Dudamel and his Simón Bolívar circus as the saviours of classical music: for example Elizabeth Maconchy was profiled here in 2007, as was Elisabeth Lutyens. My collaborative appreciation with John McLaughlin Williams of Philippa Schuyler - double whammy of woman and musician of colour - has become a standard reference resource with enough page traffic to keep even Norman Lebrecht happy. While my recent posts on Missy Mazzoli, Laurie Anderson, Alice Coltrane, Joanna Goodale and Éliane Radigue have put the blog on the right side of the politically correct 50/50 target.
Now that's enough hubris, let's cut to the chase. Of course classical music needs to correct the current gender inequality. But reality cannot be ignored. Quite wrongly women have been marginalised since classical music emerged as an art form. This means less classical music was written by women in the past, and fewer women musicians have emerged from the conservatories. So in the short term there is, for all the wrong reasons, not enough meretricious music from women composers to fill the supply pipeline and achieve the laudable objective of a 50/50 gender balance. That balance must come, and it will come. But trying to achieve it in the short term by what is positive discrimination by another name is, for several reasons, not the solution. 'Woman' and 'female' are becoming no more than the tools of lazy classical marketeers. Placing greater priority on gender than merit brings the very real risk of a backlash that could undo the invaluable advances in gender equality of recent years. And, very importantly but overlooked, the current priority on redressing gender inequality is simply aggravating another inequality: that of merit as highlighted by the statistics in my first two paragraphs.
It can be argued quite correctly that Eduard Tubin, Albéric Magnard and Sir Malcolm Arnold were neglected long before gender inequality started trending. And it can be argued, again correctly, that those composers lack the box office clout of Mahler and Shostakovich. But if women composers also lacking that box office clout can be programmed, why cannot their male peers? It is not misogynist to suggest that that very few, if any, women composers at this point in time have produced music of the quality of Eduard Tubin's ten symphonies, Sir Malcolm Arnold's nine and Albéric Magnard's four. So why must their output remain marginalised if resources are now available to programme neglected composers ? Of course classical music must tackle gender inequality, but in a measured and realistic way. However at the same time it must start tackling the very real problem of merit inequality.
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