Orchestrated Sex: The Representation of Male and Female Musicians in World-Class Symphony Orchestras
By Desmond Charles Sergeant and Evangelos Himonides
16 August 2019
This study examines the representation of male and female musicians in world-class symphony orchestras. Personnel of 40 orchestras of three regions, the UK, Europe, and the USA, and distributions of men and women across the four orchestral departments, strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion, are compared. Significant differences in representation between orchestras of the three regions are reported. Practices adopted by orchestras when appointing musicians to vacant positions are reviewed and numbers of males and females appointed to rank-and-file and Section Principals are compared. Career patterns of male and female musicians are also compared. Increases in numbers of women appointed to orchestral posts in the last three decades are compared with increases in the proportion of women in the general workforce. The data of orchestral membership are then compared with the numbers of young people receiving tuition on orchestral instruments retrieved from a large national database (n = 391,000 students). Implications for the future of male and female representation in orchestral personnel are then considered.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, acquisition of musical skills by women was applauded, but social conventions prevailing in Europe and America approved their display in private but not in public. Except for the piano and the voice, women were severely limited in their access to musical training, witness the difficulties suffered by the English composer Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) and by other women (Smyth, 1987; Wood, 1995; Gillett, 2000; Vorachek, 2000; Kertesz and Elizabeth, 2001; Meling, 2016, p. 188). Conventions of respectability and appropriateness regarding feminine manners and appearances and attitudes to the female body decreed that some instruments were “unsightly for women to play, interfering with appreciation of the female face or body” or judged their playing positions to be indecorous (Gillett, 2000; Doubleday, 2008). Female cellists, for example, were obliged to adopt an impractical position sitting alongside the instrument in order to avoid a scandalous indelicacy of placing an instrument between their legs1 (Cowling, 1983; Tick, 1986; Doubleday, 2008, p. 18; Baker, 2013).
As a consequence of these social attitudes, women were excluded from professional music-making, and until the second decade of the twentieth century, membership of professional orchestras was restricted to male musicians (Fasang, 2006). The first appointments of women to tenured positions in a major orchestra in the UK were made by Sir Henry Wood, in 1913, by his engagement of six female violinists to the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. The loss of male musicians during the 1914–1918 war brought more women to Henry Wood’s orchestra. By the end of that conflict, their number had risen to 18, but acceptance of women was neither universal nor rapid. Early photographs of major orchestras dating from the 1940s show their membership as resolutely male. Examples from the archives of the London Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1904, show no women until 1942, at which date one lady is visible seated among the 2nd violins2,3.
It was not until 1930 that the first woman was appointed to a tenured fully professional post in an American orchestra, when Edna Phillips joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as its harpist4. Ellen Bogoda also made history in 1937 as the first woman brass player to be hired when she was appointed as principal horn player by the Pittsburgh Orchestra (Phelps, 2010, p. 36).
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