Female composers: “Degenerate”, “Deviant” or Deliberately Downgraded?


The first International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival in Salzburg 1922 with Ethel Smyth Standing next to Paul Hindemith in the middle

This week saw the opening of an exhibition on women composers in Vienna. It follows a run of performances Of Baruchs Schweigen – or Baruch’s Silence, by the composer Ella Milch-Scheriff with a text by Yael Ronen. It’s a powerful biographical treatment of Ella Milch Scheriff’s father Baruch Milch, told in a riveting musical language that keeps listener attention utterly engaged for nearly two non-stop hours. The music carries the narrative and never allows its story or its language to fall into the black hole of boredom. Constant rhythmic and melodic changes are bolted onto a substructure that moves ever forward on a steady chassis until its inevitable conclusion.


The Viennese production on the stage of the Semperdepot

Baruch’s Schweigen as performed in Fürth – the spectacular Viennese performance is to be released next year by Capriccio

I was invited to sit on a discussion panel about women composers in order to debate the point of whether gender can ever be a reason to be declared “Entartet”. The panel consisted of moderator Irene Suchy, one of Austria’s best known and most popular media personalities and a spokesperson against both historic and current injustices that have caused Austria much cultural self-harm. She was joined by Werner Grünzweig, head of the music collection at Berlin’s Academy of Arts, Gerold Gruber, head of exil.arte at Vienna’s University of Performing Arts, Désirée Hornek of the Musikverein and Christine Rhode-Jüchtern who has published extensively on women composers including women composers specifically banned during the Nazi years. Needless to say, all were fully outfitted with weighty doctor and professorial titles as befits such a panel. All had interesting and enlightening contributions to make, especially Dr. Rhode-Jüchtern who was able to outline how women composers were actually more accepted during the 19th century than one might have expected, a point underlined by Dr. Hornek who pointed out that the earliest statutes of the Musikverein from 1812 were also specifically addressed to female membership. That the 20th century should have been regressive in light of what appeared to be the first glimmers of gender equality is a matter of complex speculation.


Henriëtte Bosmans 1895 – 1952 to hear an example of her work please refer to my article The Lost Legacy of the Netherlands

The challenge for me remains not the where or why-for of women composers, as it’s perfectly clear women have as much emotional, technical and intellectual competence as men in order to achieve what we call “artistic greatness”. The social, economic and indeed biological restrictions, such as childbearing and the specious argument that women have “smaller brains” have one by one been deconstructed and slowly facilitated the participation of the 50% of humanity previously excluded. Nobody could doubt that they have equal ability and entitlement to express themselves and reflect on the society in which the live. It’s really a question of wondering what there is to argue about and dissenting voices might have been welcomed in the midst of so much mutual agreement. It has ceased to be a question of whether women are capable composers, or musically competent or indeed have anything musical to impart: folk and pop music have both been bastions of female creativity for so long that no obvious arguments to the contrary are likely to be heard from even the most bone-headed male-chauvinist-pig. Women may have been regularly devalued as individuals in the music industry and made into objects of desire for a presumed masculine market, but nobody ever questioned their creative strength.


Rosy Wertheim 1888 – 1949 to hear an example of her work please refer to my article The Lost Legacy of the Netherlands

And it’s perhaps in the word “strength” where the problem lies. It’s a word that is laden with gender prejudice for the simple reason that biologically, men are physically stronger and larger than women. In the intimate world of sexual attraction, one party asserts and inserts, the other submits and receives: one party is the subject, the other the object. It plays out in concepts such as “active” and “passive” and implies weakness in the feminine where none actually exists. Such misapprehensions recall the old joke about the promiscuous gay man at the clinic for sexually transmitted diseases: when asked if he was “active” or “passive”, he replied that there was “nothing passive in the way I do it.” There is indeed nothing “passive” about permitting penetration.


Vítězslava Kaprálová 1915–1940 To hear an example of her work please refer to my article The Musical Price Paid for British Betrayal

Most crucially, “strength” also implies authority, and without female authority within the upper-reaches of arts’ management, there can be no platform for women composers. It inevitably leads to the chicken and egg argument of what should come first: are there sufficient women composers for whom a platform should be created, or would the availability of a platform result in women composers? Such circular arguments are endemic. Of course Vienna’s historic Musikverein does not deliberately exclude women composers and makes every attempt to avoid presenting sub-standard composers of either gender. The organisation can pat itself on the back that it has no gender prejudice, only “quality of work” prejudice. This is beyond disingenuous: actively making space for the best women composers does not feature as a point of concert programming in most venues. Being seen by their punters as not pandering to “political correctness gone mad” is one of the most effective forms of censorship as it passively excludes not only women but also ethnic minorities.


Vally Weigl: 1894-1992, wife of the Composer Karl Weigl and also an early practitioner of Music Therapy

As a result, the Musikverein believes that it doesn’t discriminate against Black or female composers, it simply doesn’t play any. They would argue that there aren’t any to play. I would argue that they simply haven’t been looking and by doggedly sticking to an agenda that only represents 50% of humanity, they are shown to be tacitly anti-female and minority composer. I remember the same people sticking their noses in the air and pronouncing that the composers banned by the Nazis would have been recovered immediately after the war had they been any good in the first place. As long as the entitled and powerful decide what platforms are made available, they also decide what and who is allowed to be heard. It’s a form of passive censorship. Like the tree falling in the forest with nobody to hear it – does it make a sound? If there is no platform for women composers how can we hear what they have to say?


Sex and Character by Otto Weininger 1880-1903

(Masculinum Femininum, Berlin Cabaret song from the 1920s by Misha Spoliansky, performed by Ute Lemper, Robert Ziegler and the Matrix Ensemble in an English translation by Jeremy Lawrence)

Masculine fear of active passiveness is what disturbed the sexually confused Otto Weininger when he published his notoriously misogynistic, yet highly influential Sex and Character in 1903. It is here that he presented the concept of the predatory, soulless female who entrapped and enslaved “transcendent” masculinity. Human sexual nature has long relied on the mind-game that balanced the dominator and the dominated. By extension the “dominated” was not allowed a voice, an opinion, a thought or indeed entitlement to an afterlife. They were condemned to be empty receptacles, ready for being filled and thus fulfilled by their masculine dominators. The many dystopian visions of the early 20th Century took Darwinian ideas as their handbook and if nature predetermined the dominance of the strong over the weak, then this clearly applied equally to the gender binary. To Weininger, the empty vessels becoming predatory presented a vision of zombie nymphomaniacs who needed to be subjugated before they soiled masculine purity. The concept fascinated and intrigued fin de siècle Vienna with Franz Schreker, Alexander Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss incorporating the femme fatale in opera and Mahler forbidding his wife Alma from composing.


Ruth Schonthal 1924-2006

The Austrian composer Ruth Schonthal (Schönthal) born in Hamburg in 1924, died in NY 2006: String Quartet No. 1

Yet it was precisely this binary that was being questioned at the same time. Magnus Hirschfeld, the world’s first specialist in sexual research had already ascertained the indivisibility of homosexuality from human nature. He recognised it as a natural variance from heterosexuality while viewing it as an intrinsic element of human nature, like left-handedness. There was no obvious evolutional explanation, but such “variations from the norm” did not constitute in themselves negative “deviations” or “aberrations” – which more than “degenerate” is the real definition of “Entartet”. Gender needs to be seen in the context of sexuality despite it obviously being a separate aspect of the human condition. The emergence and acceptance of homosexuality is important in this discussion as its existence questions the masculine entitlement to “strength” and its various associations such as “active”, “dominant”, “aggressive” etc. The entitlement to “Dominance”, so much the underlying goal of heterosexual men, had suddenly been opened to those perceived as effeminate men and masculine women. The definition of “strength” in any context other than the physical was losing validity. The arguments that feminine creativity was restricted to childbearing were empirically destroyed as mothers and indeed, gay men and women were seen to be successful in running both industries and countries or indeed, fighting wars. Even the evasive view that the creative intellect may be subject to qualitative gender characteristics can be dismissed. Certainly the quantitative creative capacities of women is now beyond dispute and even to argue in its defence raises suspicions of special pleading where none is sought or required.


Rachel Portman, English film Composer Born in 1960

Rachel Portman’s score for the film Chocolate

Yet oddly, in the matter of serious music composers, a genre demanding the utmost intellectual and creative rigour, the question appears to remain unresolved. How can the general public be more accepting of a Bjork or a Billie Holiday than a Fanny Mendelssohn or an Alma Schindler-Mahler? The politics of power appear to be more threatened here than even in the notoriously misogynistic world of film and television where Rachel Portman, Laura Karpman, Debbie Wiseman and many others have received the highest recognition. Soundtrack composer being out-of-sight and therefore out-of-mind is possibly part of the explanation. Yet what is the explanation for the perception that female participation within the so-called “high arts” is more “deviant” than their contributions to popular culture? A female can be accepted as composer of the soundtrack for Batman the Killing Joke (Lolita Ritmanis) but not as the composer of an opera or a symphony? What’s “deviant” is of course this state of affairs within the field of serious music where pride is taken in critical, objective thinking. Gender equality has brought greater wealth and prosperity to society in general. For this reason, the subconscious resistance to gender equality within serious music must be overcome if it’s ever to realise its potential beyond the half of the population it’s represented for past five centuries.


Berlin Born Ursual Mamlok 1923-2016

Trailer to documentary on Ursula Mamlok

And as gender and sexuality are linked, it’s appropriate to take a critical view of other minority interests in the arts perceived as threatened by the encroachment of gender equality. As a gay man, I’m never far from discussions that scoot gingerly around the implication of homosexual misogyny. Anecdotally I can’t see how more than circumstantial evidence can be offered and therefore feel the arguments of some feminists that gays, rather than heterosexual men are the hindrance to gender equality, is wrong. The agendas of gay people are inevitably different from gender issues. Being female is not a question of sexual preference, but a matter of being accorded a place within the less entitled 50% of humanity. Being homosexual is being accorded a place within the less entitled 5-10% of humanity. The common cause of establishing gender equalisation and fighting homophobia is therefore obvious and shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive.


Wendy Carlos, Born in 1939 as Walter

Over the past five decades we have seen the strict binary of hetero/homosexuality dissipate into something more fluid and less easily classified. Already the same lines between male and female are fading as transgender offers an endless variation of choice and sexual preference. As a result and with time, artistic strength and vitality will soon be seen as something that’s a human rather than gender specific characteristic. Until then, it’s time to stop assuming there isn’t a problem.