December 2020 – January 2021


The glass curtain

By Anna Goldsworthy
Image of Gwyneth Jones in Tosca, 1982

Gwyneth Jones in Tosca, 1982. © Ira Nowinski / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

Classical music’s problem with women

During the vanished Belle Époque of 2019, I guided a small tour group through some of the summer music festivals of Europe. Over the course of our travels, we spent many hours in Baroque churches: so many hours, in fact, that the churches have converged in my imagination into a type of ur-church, representing Europe itself, with a vast fresco called Culture. Close to ground level, you might sight a cadaver in a glass case, clutching a crucifix in its mummified hands, interred within beauty but nonetheless persuasively dead. Memento mori. 

We began with a series of recitals at the Salzburg Festival on the theme of “Lacrimae”, including a performance of madrigals by the late Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, whose reputation as the O.J. Simpson of his day – successfully evading punishment for the gruesome murder of his wife and her lover – has not detracted from the dark fascinations of his music. But, above all, our business was opera, and we partook greedily of opera festivals in Munich, Bregenz and Verona. Over little more than a week, we saw an opera in which a woman is offered as a prize in a singing contest (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg); an opera in which a free-spirited woman is murdered (Carmen); an opera in which an Ethiopian princess suffocates in a vault for love (Aida); and an opera in which a young woman loses her virtue, takes her own life, and is conveyed to the river in a body bag (Rigoletto). Naturally, each of these women was somebody’s daughter or lover. Usually she had to die because of sex. Puccini’s Wild West fantasy La fanciulla del West was a welcome outlier, in which a young woman redeems a group of miners through the purity of her heart, escaping with both her life and her cowboy.

Opera’s female body count is hardly surprising. As Edgar Allan Poe blithely remarked, “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”. And yet never before this festival tour had I felt the presence of male sexual anxiety so closely, as the very engine of creation. In most operas, the soprano is the most powerful presence, the beating heart of its lyricism. The soprano must also – therefore? – be punished. Of course, sopranos are not opera’s only objects of desire, or the only ones who die. (Think of Tosca’s Cavaradossi, delivering a loin-melting “E lucevan le stelle” in the moments before his execution.) But the death of a beautiful soprano is often not only a structural necessity but an aesthetic pleasure. And I, the “feminist” listener, consistently feel enchanted and even redeemed by it. 

In her 1991 book, Feminine Endings, musicologist Susan McClary moves from a feminist critique of Carmen (which doesn’t require much of a stretch of the imagination) to a feminist critique of sonata-allegro form, which underlines much common-practice classical music. It is not quite Andrea Dworkin’s formulation that all intercourse is occupation, but it is similarly inflammatory (and reductive): “In classical music, the erotic continues so often to be framed as a manifestation of feminine evil while masculine high culture is regarded as transcendent.” Premised on a 19th-century interpretation of an 18th-century process, it is a flawed analysis, but I have always enjoyed McClary’s muscular style, and sporadically present it to my students as a provocation. At the end of this exquisite week of femicide, it seemed a good idea to share this with my tour group. “Can’t you just let the music wash over you?” asked an exasperated businessman, who had paid good money to tour these festivals, not to be lectured on sexual politics. And, of course, I could and indeed have let the music not only wash over me, but through me and out of my own fingertips over decades of recitals as a pianist. But what had it always been saying?

In Nam Le’s exhilarating, conflicted monograph on David Malouf for Black Inc’s “Writers on Writers” series, he describes his willing enlistment into haute culture as a scholarship student at Melbourne Grammar. As a scholarship student at a private school in Adelaide, I found similar solace in classical music. Music provided me with a home, identity, meaning, companionship, structure, hairshirt. All the kit required to survive the wretched era of adolescence. The codes of music, though complicated, were easier to parse than those of social interaction: is it any wonder that so many musicians are on the spectrum? If, as Nietzsche maintained, the ear is the “organ of fear”, then classical music is enormously comforting. It offers enough complexity to please a savant alongside generous helpings of reassurance. The laws of the status quo are embedded in its structures: reprisal, return to the norm, triumph of the tonic key. V will return to its I. Closure is reiterated ad nauseam. 

When I was that same teenager, my father, Peter Goldsworthy, published his first novel, Maestro. “If you want people to believe your lies, set them to music,” says one of his characters, the Austrian pianist Eduard Keller. I did not believe Keller, or my father. For me, music was exclusively the domain of truth and beauty. And it has been made of stern stuff, carrying me well beyond adolescence. In my darkest moments, I have frequently been asked to perform exactly the repertoire necessary for my rescue, as if some cosmic diagnostician has accurately gauged the problem. Bach still makes it all better, as does Schubert, as does Chopin.

But are those musical codes themselves suspect? Musicologist Philip Ewell recently offered a critique of the “white racial frame” of music, as exemplified by the German theorist Heinrich Schenker, whose analytical tools are taught in graduate schools throughout America (which is where I learnt to use them). Ewell wishes to “recouple this severed link between Schenker’s hierarchical beliefs about music and his hierarchical beliefs about people”. Of course, musical hierarchies preceded Schenker’s interpretations of them; as in any language, hierarchies are implicit in musical structure. But Ewell’s broader point is an important one, and once you have seen the white racial frame it is hard to look away. 

In Verona, my tour group attended a spectacular production of Verdi’s Aida. Based on the 1913 staging in the same Roman amphitheatre, it looked like the Golden Years of Hollywood before there was Hollywood: cavalcades and obelisks and palm trees and scores of torch-wielding extras. But Aida was in blackface and, in in the final act, a troupe of children cavorted onto the stage in brown bodystockings. (“Piccaninnies,” gasped the dowager in the row behind me, fondly.) Was this truly still allowed in Italy? 

In Munich, we went to the Bavarian State Opera’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the opera described by Goebbels as “the incarnation of our Germanness”. For this production, directed by David Bösch, the character of Beckmesser was no obvious Semitic stereotype, but Hans Sachs delivered his final rousing speech about holy German art just the same, in the very theatre in which the opera was premiered, just down the road from where Hitler – who claimed to have seen this work more than a hundred times – launched the Nazi Party. How do you solve a problem like Meistersinger? In his 1956 Bayreuth Festival production, the composer’s grandson, Wieland Wagner, removed all visual references to Nuremberg, in an attempt to disappear the nationalism. More recently, Barrie Kosky set part of his own Bayreuth production at the Nuremberg trials, with Wagner himself taking the stand. On this occasion in Munich, Sachs’s final pronouncements were accompanied by a test pattern projected onto the scrims: presumably the intention was to throw some interference into the sentiments, to ironise them, to encase them in the safe grip of quotation marks. But, inevitably, the power of Wagner’s music burst free of the quotation marks, and the good burghers of Munich rose to their feet, just as they always had, cheering for – what? Wagner? The Fatherland? The deft work of conductor Kirill Petrenko, himself the object of anti-Semitic vitriol when appointed chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic? Indeed, who could remain sitting after such a performance? (Not I.) But even as I stood up, I had that morning-after feeling, and it was part of a larger morning-after feeling. Where was this place my body had taken me?

I realise this feeling is hardly mine alone, and nor is it exclusive to classical music. What do you do with a problem like Honegger? What do you do with a problem like Louis C.K.? The answer is not entirely straightforward, which is perhaps why everyone is shouting. It is easy and gratifying to issue cultural infringement notices, as Waleed Aly has observed in these pages. Dig deep enough in any cultural inheritance and you will find the putrefaction; usually you don’t need to dig very deep at all. But the opposite side is equally strident. Surely one of the funniest images over this remarkably unfunny year was that of vigilantes protecting the statue of George Eliot in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. (Social media had a field day about the dangers of the Jane Austen Society.) It didn’t much matter who Eliot was, or what she stood for. It was all about staking a position: The statues must be protected.

In Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator – a doctor and amateur Flaubert scholar – observes:

… what a curious vanity it is of the present to expect the past to suck up to it. The present looks back at some great figure of an earlier century and wonders, Was he on our side? Was he a goodie? What a lack of self-confidence this implies: the present wants both to patronise the past by adjudicating on its political acceptability, and also to be flattered by it, to be patted on the back and told to keep up the good work.

But perhaps the real vanity lies in imagining we can meet the past on its own terms. It is the Sisyphean task any classical musician sets herself: it underlines the fetishisation of “style” and “authenticity”, and the rigours of Historically Informed Performance Practice. All culture is subject to the editorialising of the present – to our amendments and annotations – regardless of whether we know we are doing it. We pass it forward, covered in our fingerprints, even if we think we are wearing white gloves. Even if we imagine, as citizens of the present, that our gaze is the truly transparent one.

And if all texts are mutable, some are more mutable than others. As New Yorker critic Alex Ross writes, “when modern people play a Beethoven quartet it, too, becomes modern, even if certain of its listeners wish to go backward in time”. When an opera is being staged, it no longer belongs entirely to the past, and perhaps ought not be subject to its protections. It has become a ritual, enacted in real time, embodied by 21st-century persons for a 21st-century audience. And if that audience is moved by it, is it not complicit in its transgressions?

I have often thought that if we were truly in the business of acknowledgement, each concert might begin with a tribute to those generations of anonymous women who transmitted the musical culture. Virginia Woolf famously suggested, in A Room of One’s Own, “that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman”. Anon, as it turns out, was very busy. She also sang lullabies to her infants; she accompanied singalongs and school choirs; she kept music alive in salons and eisteddfods and music societies; and, above all, she taught music to multiple generations of children. In my early childhood, significant women still came attached to their pianos – my kindergarten teacher, my primary school teacher, my grandmother – even before I met the piano teacher, Eleonora Sivan, who changed my life. 

The majority of young pianists I teach are women; the majority of concert pianists are men. The majority of people who teach your children are women; the majority of people running our performing arts organisations and festivals and orchestras and music departments are men. It is easy to imagine the glass ceiling is not there until you feel it graze your head. Where do all my piano students go? Most of them slip into the ecosystem, where they quietly make everything work. They become the home cooks rather than the celebrity chefs, in that larger context of women’s unacknowledged labour, which feminist economist Marilyn Waring identified as “counting for nothing”.

When I was a child, hankering for conventionality, I persuaded my mother to buy me a board game called The Office. As soon as we came home and removed it from the box, she flew into a feminist rage. Each character in the game had a clear role, represented by a card: here were the bosses, manspreaded across their swivel chairs; here were the secretaries, with their over-rouged cheeks and simpering gazes. “It’s fine,” I reassured her, “it’s only a game.” (In fact, I kind of dug it.) But out came the scissors and the sticky tape. Soon the office had a new chief executive, with pink alice band and bashful smile, while the secretary glowered into his cigar. “That sounds like women’s lib gone a bit too far,” my great-grandmother tut-tutted, and quietly I agreed. 

But now, sometimes, I would like those scissors and that sticky tape. Meet the orchestra. Here are the “rank and file” musicians lined up behind their principals. The concertmaster enters and we applaud. Finally, here comes the conductor, with his maestro hair. This does not have to be a gendered equation, but the further up the hierarchy you move, the more gendered it becomes: female conductors remain as rare as female chief executives. Orchestral hierarchies are militaristic, which is perhaps necessary for precise group outcomes, but unlike in the military, you are rarely promoted to general from rank and file. The feudal system may be a more accurate analogy: those who begin as a serf are likely to remain one. And, not infrequently, a droit du seigneur has been upheld. 

In Gwen Harwood’s sly poem “A Simple Story,” the narrator recalls visiting a conductor’s hotel room when she was a young woman, to show him one of her compositions: “I dreamed of a soaring passion / as an egg might dream of flight.” Harwood is merciless towards the woman, presumably her younger self, for being “young and vain”. Once she realises the maestro is not interested in her music, she “removed my lovely body / from one who’d scorned my brain”. 

Classical music’s collision with the #MeToo movement should not be surprising, with its insistent hierarchies, its structural allegiance to the status quo. Is it psychologically confusing to attempt to rape Tosca, and then to slip back into a more enlightened present when the curtain falls? Here comes the conductor, with his maestro hair. Here comes the celebrity tenor. I remember the members of the superstar orchestra spilling out of their German aeroplanes when we were teenagers. They were the best in the world at what they did, and we had auditioned for the privilege of their attention. Some of them probably came to Australia to teach music to Australian teenagers. But others had a particular look in their eyes, a particular way of massaging your neck when you sat at the piano. 

Of course, eros is the elephant that is forever in the room. This is something I confront every time I teach Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes to a new crop of innocents, seeking to convey the concepts of “seduction” or “climax” in the most decorous terms available. But I now have a glass window in the door of my teaching room. And windows are important, because we need to look.

Beginning in 2010, the American organisation VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has produced annual pie charts depicting gender representation in literary magazines. Since the count began, women have received a larger slice of pie. In Australia, the Stella Count has tracked similar improvement, with reviews of books written by women increasing from 40 per cent in 2012 to 49 per cent in 2018. To paraphrase Marilyn Waring: counting counts. Both VIDA and Stella are now expanding their remit to other forms of diversity. 

In concert music, women’s representation lags behind. Over 2019–20, the organisation Donne: Women in Music found that among top international orchestras, only 142 works performed were composed by women, as opposed to 3997 composed by men. 

Historically, female writers fared better than female composers. They may have needed to call themselves George, but some still managed to secure a foothold in the canon. It is one thing to produce poetry from an Amherst bedroom like Emily Dickinson – “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” – but it is more difficult, as a Nobody, to produce a symphony. Musical thought needs to be heard, at least when you are learning the craft, and women have rarely had access to willing orchestras. But while there may have been fewer symphonies, there is no shortage of music composed by women for more domestic settings – songs, chamber music, solo piano pieces – and we do not hear much of that, either. 

It is tempting to point the finger at the male cultural gatekeepers here, and their confirmation bias, but female transmitters of music have not always looked after their own. How is that I, as a woman pianist, have devoted my life to performing works almost exclusively by men? I have gasped at VIDA’s pie charts, but should a pie-maker have turned their attention to my janitorial roles of “cultural gatekeeping”, at least up until recent years – the festivals I’ve curated, the concert series I’ve designed – I would be served an unpalatable slice. Perhaps the femicide lies less in the opera plots or the power mechanisms of sonata-allegro theme than in the recurring Vanishing Lady Act – abracadabra! – of our concert programs. 

The irony of all of this is that, for me, playing the piano has always felt like a holiday from gender. Never mind the evening gown and accoutrements: these are just the necessary armour, the spacesuit to convey me to that other place. “You must be best of both man and woman,” my teacher always said, and, at risk of appropriating queerness, this is one of the great pleasures of playing the piano. You get to be the resonant bass voice and the radiant soprano; you are both Liszt’s “amorous Faust” and his “full-blooded village beauty”. Many of the women pianists I admire, such as Martha Argerich and Yuja Wang, have a quality of virility to their playing. 

No language is universal, but a particular language can speak of universal issues. In my most hopeful moments, I imagine the music I love can transcend sexual characteristics or skin colour to speak of something larger. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “If you reject the very premise of racism – the idea skin color directly contributes to genius or sloth – then all of humanity becomes ‘native’ to you.” The inner life articulated by Chopin or Schubert has always felt like one I could meet with my own.

Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” has a visceral, bristling energy that we could call masculine, or we could just say it makes us feel more alive. For a 19th-century middle-class woman, it must have offered an outlet for instincts that had no proper expression in society: frustration, desire, even rage. In a variation on a theme of this essay, Beethoven originally dedicated this sonata to the black violin virtuoso George Bridgetower, with whom he performed it. After a disagreement, allegedly over a woman, Beethoven scrubbed Bridgetower’s name from the dedication, and replaced it with that of another violinist, Kreutzer, who claimed the work was unplayable and never performed it. Nevertheless, Kreutzer is the name that history remembers. In her collection Sonata Mulattica, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Rita Dove imagines a different version of this story, in which “this bright-skinned papa’s boy / could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame / straight into the record books,” resulting in “rafts of black kids scratching out scales / on their matchbox violins”.

At my workplace, the University of Adelaide, every statue is of a man. I am grateful to many of the men thus commemorated, including the Scottish–Australian pastoralist Sir Thomas Elder, who funded a number of the university’s treasures, including the Elder Conservatorium of Music. He now stands proprietorially – hand on hip and several sizes larger than life – in front of Elder Hall, my musical home since childhood. In 2019, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of women’s right to vote in South Australia, the university unveiled a series of banners featuring women of note, such as Penny Wong, Amanda Vanstone, Anne Summers and the composer Miriam Hyde. Each evening, as I ride home through the university, I watch the women flap gently in the breeze alongside these sturdy, enduring men.

Many statues have fallen this year; many should have. But there are others I should like to keep, and yet more I should like to see erected. As Nam Le has observed, “we are not so rich in art to deplore what we have merely because it is not what we might have had”. Might this be how a civilisation comes of age? Maturity is largely about forgiveness of one’s parents. They were not perfect, after all, but does this mean we must reject the inheritance entirely, or can we find a way to augment it? 

In 2015, when the radio station ABC Classic began tracking female representation, it found that 2.2 per cent of average monthly airplay was given over to female composers. In 2020 this has grown to 12 per cent. Spearheaded by content manager Toby Chadd, the station researched neglected female composers in history and commissioned new recordings when necessary. In March 2019, it presented its inaugural Festival of Women Composers, a four-day, uninterrupted radio festival featuring classical music exclusively by female composers. Chadd recalls that the audience reception “flipped” from many people finding it “new and confronting” to people discovering an “appetite for female composers who are now among their favourites”. The amiable, bespectacled Chadd is no member of a cultural antifa, but simply an enlightened gatekeeper, who believes that “each generation holds a responsibility to leave this wonderful thing called music in a more vibrant state than we found it”.

Self-denunciations make good theatre, but they are not enough. We need to do better. Unless you subscribe to essentialism, and believe that white men are exclusively capable of composing or conducting or acting as cultural overlords, then expanding the talent pool can only enhance our offerings. Diversity is not only a box-ticking exercise, as multiple studies have shown. It also disrupts confirmation biases, and leads to broader and more creative thinking. And God knows we need that in classical music just now. Audience numbers were already haemorrhaging; COVID delivered them a body blow. 

Ideally, the enforced caesura of 2020 might have offered us the opportunity to consider what to do differently. Innovation is a means of preservation: without oxygen, necrosis sets in. In South Australia, over recent weeks, we have started drifting back onto the stage. At the Coriole Vineyards in McLaren Vale, in lieu of our cancelled music festival, I programmed some concerts featuring Beethoven and Ravel and – yes, a woman – South Australian composer Anne Cawrse. Everything seemed new again, including the way my colleagues spoke to each after a performance. “Beautiful,” they said unsentimentally, as a comedian might say “that’s funny” without laughing. It did not mean something pretty. It meant something necessary. 

I know a belief in the redemptive power of beauty seems foolish after the century that was. As indeed does a belief in truth in the century that is. Perhaps we are now irretrievably post-truth, post-beauty, post-Grecian urn. Certainly our creations are looking fragile, which is all the more reason to hold closely the ones we love. Over the course of this last year, I have clutched tight to Shakespeare and Toni Morrison and Schubert and Fanny Mendelssohn, as talismans of what we were or are or still could be. There is always room in my arms for more.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. She is the director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide.

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