reflections on Dr. Curtis’ WCFH talk

Dr. Liane Curtis gave a keynote address at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford last week, and I’ve been mulling it over during my spring break. The subject of the talk was “is the label ‘woman composer’ relevant?” As in, do we need to label women who compose “women composers,” or shouldn’t we ignore the gender of the composer and just focus on the music?

She started off by saying, yes, of course we still need to identify women composers as women composers. Women composers should be celebrated for their specialness during, for example, Women’s History Month (March!). But we shouldn’t just program their music in March. We should be special and also normal. There should totally be a men’s history month where all we program is men’s music — we should use the term “men composers,” and celebrate the contributions of great men to the history of music… if only that didn’t seem to be every month already. Special and normal. Like men composers.

She told a story about her own “subtle, subconscious, ingrained sexism.” When she was at a concert with Susanna Malkki as guest conductor, the lights went down and a woman walked out to general applause; and Dr. Curtis thought instinctively, “who’s the soloist?” She knew perfectly well in her conscious mind that this woman was Maestro Malkki, but her knowledge was saturated with patriarchy so that even she was subject to unintentional sexism.

I’ve been on both sides of this experience, so this story felt painfully true. Knowing that every time someone sees me on a podium, they are overcoming a preconceived notion, an implicit association. Knowing that I still do the same thing, too. I also loved her stories of calling out ensembles for programming concerts of all men composers. They write back to her — she’s not just some random lady, she’s Liane F-ing Curtis, after all. They say, “we choose repertoire based on quality, not the gender of the composer.” Dr. Curtis pointed out the bullshitness of this by citing, as one example, the number of times people perform Mozart’s Symphony #1. I mean, really? Is a symphony a 4-year-old wrote with his father (and sister?) really higher quality than everything Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) ever wrote? Hell, no. And if you want to know more about her compositions, you can read about Clarke’s work in her New Grove Online article.  The one Dr. Curtis wrote about her.

The truth is, we program composers we know. And women composers are not taught or included in the canon because they were dismissed in history, and so they are ignored now due to ongoing ignorance. That’s what we call systemic sexism. And Dr. Curtis says the solution is, “to make this ignorance unacceptable.”

For example, I learned this at the WCFH this year: have you ever heard of Julius Roentgen? No, me neither. But he has an entry in the New Grove Online. Apparently he (1855-1932) was a composer, conductor and pianist, who began composing at the age of nine. The last line of his Grove article is, “his first wife, Amanda Maier (b Landskrona, 19 Feb 1853; d Amsterdam, 15 July 1894), a violinist, studied at the Stockholm Conservatory and with Engelbert Röntgen in Leipzig.” But she was also an excellent composer — an assessment I’m basing on the fact that I heard a composition by her at WCFH, and it was gorgeous. Amanda Maier’s article in Grove Online… doesn’t exist. The only mention of her is in Julius’ article, where she is identified as his wife and a violinist who studied with his father. Frikkin’ Wikipedia is more thorough and respectful of her work than Grove.

The ignorance needs to be unacceptable, but until our standard resources get on board and provide information, it leaves the status quo a lot of excuses for remaining in place.

So, I was really grateful to Dr. Curtis for speaking at the Festival. And I’m so grateful that scholars as articulate and careful and thoughtful as she are working to “level the playing field” through advocacy like the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy.

And, frankly, I’m just so glad to have someone providing well researched evidence that the playing field isn’t level! It confirms that I’m not crazy or deluded, and that sexism does still exist — contrary to what lots of people want to say. I know people are uncomfortable when I keep pointing out how thick the glass ceiling is for women in classical music, but Dr. Curtis gives me confidence to keep saying out loud that women are special and normal, that we need to go out of our way to make sure that women are represented in our programming and on our podiums.

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