Feature: Women in Orchestras

What would Ludwig van Beethoven think if he could see the gender composition of classical music orchestras today? Would the curmudgeonly composer be cross or pleased to see women on stage performing his Eroica Symphony, for example?

Hopefully, he would be pleased. As violinist Anne Sophie Mutter regularly demonstrates, women can belt out fortissimo as good as the men. Petersfield Orchestra’s recent fine performance of the Eroica was a prime example of strong feminine leadership. Helen Purchase may well have brought a smile of approval to Beethoven’s stern visage even if over 60% of the ensemble was female.

Similarly, Havant Symphony Orchestra, led by top-class violinist, Cathy Matthews, has about the same percentage of men to women. Other local orchestras like the Meon Valley Orchestra, Portsmouth Light Orchestra and Portsmouth Philharmonic have roughly the same proportions.

Back in Beethoven’s day, refined young ladies were encouraged to learn an instrument or sing, as this was regarded as a sign of a good upbringing. The more talented became soloists who played to their friends or to wider audiences in salons or even theatres. Clara Schumann, the distinguished German pianist, premiered some of Johannes Brahms’ works. She earned her living giving concerts around Europe. Jenny Lind, billed as the “Swedish Nightingale”, delighted audiences all over the Continent and, later, America. She was a close friend of Felix Mendelssohn and eventually became Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

However, orchestras were traditionally all-male affairs. The Vienna Philharmonic, founded in 1842, fifteen years after Beethoven’s death, had no female musicians whatsoever. One hundred and fifty years later, in 1997 Anna Lelkes joined as a harpist but her name never appeared in any of the programme lists. Despite being told by the Austrian conductor Hans Swarowsky that her place was in the kitchen, she continued to play with the ensemble. Strangely, she was strongly against other female musicians being admitted.

Then along came a twenty-seven-year-old viola player called Ursula Plaichinger. She caused a sensation by appearing unannounced at the famous New Year’s concert in Vienna in 2015.

The Berlin Philharmonic was equally slow off the mark. Founded in 1882, it took a century before engaging its first female musician in 1982. She was violinist Madeleine Carruzo. Sabine Mayer, the clarinet virtuosa also joined in the 1980’s despite fierce opposition from the male players.

It was not until the twentieth century that, at long last, female conductors came to the fore and made their mark. Simone Young became the first female to conduct the Vienna State Opera. The Vienna Philharmonic recruited musicians only after they had served a long apprenticeship in the VSO.

In 1984 Odaline de la Martinez conducted one of Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade concerts in the Albert Hall in 1984. Today, the American violinist, Marin Alsop, conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Orchestra. She became the first female Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Clearly, women now have a prominent place in classical music performances. Thankfully, they’re here to stay. Most amateur orchestras would be totally lost without them.

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