Gender Inequality and #MeToo in Classical Music

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Western classical music, pertaining to 16-19th century European musical traditions (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and so on), is often referred to, half facetiously, as “dead white men’s music” from the standpoint of our current society and culture. Most of the Western classical music people listen to historically and nowadays has been composed by European males. The publication and documentation of music composed by females who possessed the same caliber and musicality are, in comparison, minimal—notwithstanding the social standard that upper class women were expected to know some sort of instrument by the 19th century. This is indeed largely the result of fictitious misogynism and stereotypes concurring the creation of Western classical music. In context, the same hierarchy was true across the board for literature, art, politics, and vocation.

Today, in the classical music scene, women play a role almost as active and as dynamic as their male counterparts. The extent of music education has provided almost equal opportunities for the exposure to music and professions within the art. Women take an active and publicized role in instrumental and vocal performances, competitions, composition, recording, and education as well. Many of the most achieving and respected modern classical musicians are indeed women.

However, despite progress made throughout the past century, there are aspects still needing attention and change. One of the less talked about aspects is gender disparity in the orchestral scene with the employment of generally more males than females in major orchestras. A notorious case is the Vienna Philharmonic, known and criticized periodically for its conservatism towards hiring female and ethnic-minority musicians. In a study by Quartz at Work, an image from the VPO’s 2018 New Year’s Concert shows only two female musicians on the stage during one of the pieces. Although there are certainly more female musicians holding positions at the VPO than depicted, the publicity of this gender disparity under the spotlight does not necessarily align with the values of gender equality that the general public holds. In fact, there are only about 17 female instrumentalists in the VPO, a much less significant number in comparison to the number of males.

A similar 2014 infographic published on Classic FM shows a trend of higher percentages of male over percentages of female in major American orchestras. For example the Boston Symphony Orchestra has the demographic of 70% male and 30% female, and most orchestras have around 60% and 40% percentages for male and female respectively, with the exception of St. Louis Symphony, which has a higher female percentage than that of male. In the same study by Quartz at Work, data and analyses show that it is more likely for men to hold senior roles, ensuring access to the higher-paying positions in the orchestra while more female players are relegated to the comparatively low-paying positions.

Nevertheless, things are starting to change. Elizabeth Rowe, the principal flutist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, filed a lawsuit against the orchestra a few days after the passing of Massachusetts Equal Pay Act in 2018. She claims that she earns 75% of what her male counterparts of the same positions and roles earns, such as the principal oboist, violist, and trumpetist. It is also important to take into account that although Rowe holds the top-paying female position, she is still paid notably less than male players who hold the other top-paying positions.

In light of the #MeToo movement, more female classical musicians has also spoken out about the continued occurrence of sexual assault in the field of classical music, orchestral in particular, that has long remained a taboo. Violinist Zeneba Bowers recently revealed her personal experience of sexual harassment in 1998. A 26-year-old young musician in training then, Bowers invited William Preucil, the concertmaster of Cleveland Orchestra for a drink after her lesson, hoping to network with the renowned musician and teacher. According to her, Preucil invited her to his hotel room for cigars afterwards and aggressively kissed her and pushed her onto the bed. Bowers, having escaped later, received a call from Preucil threatening to ‘blacklist’ her. William Preucil was fired only two days ago by the Cleveland Orchestra for sexual misconduct as more victims affirmed his past actions. After the downfall of Henry Weinstein, new victims like Bowers have emerged each day with allegations of sexual harassment against prominent musicians, such as James Levine at The Met Opera (who, before his dismissal, was supposed to conduct the opera St. Mark’s saw), and other influential teachers. Sparked by the powerful momentum of the #MeToo movement, the classical music industry is finally revealing its age-old flaws and taboos  

According to an article in The Washington Post, young musicians are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse as their teachers and superiors hold hierarchical power over their networks and future career. Music institutions, too, are reluctant to punish high-profile musicians as they attract more students and donors. As a result, young musicians feel difficult speaking up about such misconducts under the standards of suppression. This, after all, is not so different from #MeToo cases in the film industry and across various different fields.

Throughout time, the classical music field has reformed and adapted itself to rapid social and technological changes. It is no longer something from the past, or simply “dead white men’s music”. Instead, it is a large, functioning industry that is also susceptible to inequality and other social flaws despite its representation of  a higher-than-life art form. In different ways, female musicians and many other victims are voicing themselves against such practices of hierarchy and ‘gagging’ through legal means, protests, and simply speaking up.

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