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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Even if some of the conductors who are willing to program any of the symphonies of Tubin, Magnard or Arnold are invited by first-tier orchestras, they will run into administrators who will simply say "this won't sell. Why don't you do..." and then they'll name a desiccated warhorse that has been played umpteenth number of times. Yes, it will bring an audience in, but what about bartering? Program a Tubin symphony alongside Rach 3 with a top-notch soloist, or the Arnold fourth symphony alongside Beethoven's "Emperor", or if you want to do Magnard, then program him alongside Berlioz or Debussy or any other French composer that audiences will flock to hear.
The trick is to expose audiences to first-rate music that is rarely, if ever, heard and the only way to do it is to program a familiar work beside it. I, for one, am getting a bit tired of seeing Bernstein's "On the Waterfront" Suite being programmed a lot when enterprising conductors should look into Bernard Herrmann's symphonic suite from his Oscar-winning score for the 1941 film "The Devil and Daniel Webster", which is pure Americana at its finest. Instead, most conductors gravitate towards the scores Herrmann penned for Hitchcock movies since that does sell tickets.
Many of today's conductors simply, for lack of a better term, don't have the imagination nor the temerity to stand up for music they believe in and fight for it. Sure, you have conductors who will say we promote contemporary music, but what you see are those men and women who will go after the current trendy composers in lieu of those whose music may be infinitely superior and will draw audiences. In short, if you're not their idea, they're not interested. The same goes for conductors who are approached by erudite listeners or even colleagues who suggest that they look into the music of composers not familiar with audiences. The result? "Err, yeah...I'll look into it", only to find out that you are being patronized and served a delectable dish of lip service, because they have no interest in what you're saying. If it's not their idea, they're not interested. Believe me, I have found out the hard way.
So until conductors such as myself, John McLaughlin Williams and many others who champion the unknown composer get premiere gigs and are allowed to program the works of these men and women, they'll remain unknown.
And one last thought. You don't see Jaap van Zweden programming the music of Pipjer or Vermeulen with any American orchestras, let alone seeing their music played at the Proms by any conductor!
'No objections to the tenor of your piece, though I suspect
you may be preaching to the fishes. Tubin's fourth would bring the house
down at the Proms. I think his seventh is one of the finest 20th century
symphonies, and the tenth brings to mind, in places, Egdon Heath and
VW's fifth, and does not suffer comparison with either. Magnard's fourth
is an old friend, too. Arnold's neglect is a mystery: he could be the
love-child of your programming bugbears Mahler and Shostakovich, but a
better tunesmith (maybe that's why). And think how many wonderful
concerts could be based around the concept of a Northampton Prom.'
Henry Kimball Hadley: The Ocean
Ernest Chausson: Poème de l'amour et de la mer
Claude Debussy Clair de Lune
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Conductor: Alain Trudel
This conductor was thinking.
And Magnard. I was lucky enough to hear the 4th live this year but that was in Tokyo. Very well received - rightly so for such great music.
It's so sad that we get one performance of Tubin for every 1000 of Shostakovich or Sibelius.