Cultural Nationalism and Advocacy


October 15, 2005


Yesterday I sent a post to the list briefly discussing the masculinist nature of Europe's cultural nationalism. Astoundingly, this cultural nationalism affects even the advocacy groups for women musicians in Germany. This explains, in part, why the women's groups for music in the German-speaking world have never joined the protests against the VPo.  I think analysis and discussion of this problem could help American and European women in music get past these problems and work more closely together. From the outset, however, I should mention that it is difficult for me to discuss this problem objectively. I have been deeply involved with advocacy in Germany for 25 years, so my thoughts come from a personal perspective. They should be opened to analysis and discussion, and balanced with other people's views.

After moving to Germany in 1980, Abbie and I learned that if we faced gender conflicts, we could not necessarily count on support or solidarity from German women. For many complex reasons, feminist resistance and protest are not a large part of Germany's music-world. (The lack of protest against the VPo is an example.) We also noticed that a kind of ethnocentricity causes even the women's groups to view us as possibly intrusive outsiders. 

We have found that it doesn't necessarily matter how legitimate our causes are, or that we have lived in Germany for 25 years, that we speak German fluently, that we are deeply versed in German customs, that we are deeply involved in the country's cultural and educational life, or that we have probably done more for women in German orchestras than anyone in the history of the country. We are still viewed as outsiders who should only receive conditional support. 

This sort of ostracism is probably difficult for Americans to understand. If a foreigner has lived in America for a quarter of a century, he or she will very likely be considered essentially an American, but in the German-speaking world, even more than in most European countries, immigrants are always considered as essentially foreigners -- sometimes even after two or three generations of residence. And they are treated accordingly.[1] 

Another general reason for our ostracism in Germany is that the legacies of the 20th century left Germany with a deeply wounded national pride. When foreigners criticize them, it is like rubbing salt into their wounds. This is especially true for Americans, who are often quite presumptuous and hypocritical in their judgments of Germany and Austria.  The people in Germany often do not consider that Abbie and I have been literally -forced- into resistance and protest for the sake of Abbie's preservation as an artist -- to say nothing of her women students. (For an vivid example, see the documentation of Abbie's experiences in the Munich Philharmonic at: )

On another level, the anti-Americanism is more specifically political. Since the end of the Second World War, the US has defined the rightwing extreme among the Western industrial countries. Many US foreign and social policies have no comparison in -any- European country. (Militarism, the death penalty, the neglect of urban environments, and the lack of national health insurance are but a few examples.) This has created an increasing cultural and political divide between the two continents. It is exactly the progressive, educated and cultured classes in Germany and Austria -- including their advocacy groups for women-- that quite justifiably harbor the strongest anti-American attitudes. 

I think there is also resentment because some members of the women's groups here feel we have circumvented them. That is true. We spent years trying to enlist their support to little avail. The social conditions in the German-speaking world make it very difficult for women to deal with institutions like the Vienna Philharmonic without international help. It was only when this became clear, and when it became clear that we were being ostracized, that we turned to the international community. 

Another aspect of the problem is that I have suggested in my articles that the VPo's racial ideologies are part of a long historical and cultural continuum that also included the orchestra's close collaboration with the Nazis. Most discussion of the German music world's Nazi past is a sorely taboo subject in Germany. Musicologists and writers who break this taboo are often severely ostracized. For example, the musicologist, Dr. Fred K. Prieberg, who specializes in the musical history of Nazi Germany, has suffered terribly from this treatment. Even Dr. Clemens Hellsberg, the chairman of the VPo, has faced severe criticism for his discussion of the orchestra's Nazi past in his book Democracy of Kings. My discussions have also raised considerable resentment.

We still feel, however, that most of the problems women musicians face can only be solved through close international cooperation and solidarity. On one hand, culture is clearly something inherently local, and Europeans are very justified in trying to protect their cultures. At the same time, we should remember that the old European traditions of cultural isolationism may have little impact on what is already a globalized market for cultural products, one in which India's Bollywood, Japanese animation movies, and Brazilian and Mexican television soap operas have a place alongside Hollywood blockbusters. The VPo, for example, is the most internationally marketed orchestra in the world. The New York Times has noted that the Philharmonic's New Year's concerts have around 50 million viewers worldwide. The orchestra's egregious sexism and racism will never fully end without close international cooperation among women in music.

Our History and Our Activism 

Perhaps I should also briefly discuss our history in Germany. In 1987, only 12 percent of the members in Germany's orchestras were women. When Abbie entered the Munich Philharmonic in 1980, it was even less. The Berlin Philharmonic, Germany's most important musical icon, still forbade membership to women. As an American woman trombonist in a major German orchestra, Abbie's coming struggles were almost preordained. Unfortunately, we knew nothing about sexism in German-speaking orchestras, and had no idea of what we were walking into. 

In 1988, based on the eight torturous years Abbie had already completed in the Munich Philharmonic, we premiered our first evening-long feminist music theater work, "Miriam," at the Stuttgarter Tage for Neue Musik. This was four years before McClary's "Feminine Endings" had even been published. The audience at the premiere was almost entirely comprised of men involved in new music -- almost none of whom had ever been exposed to any significant feminist thought regarding music. To this day, there is a very masculinist stance in Europe's new music scene. Many were enraged by the piece. There was heckling, and a huge amount of booing at the end, except for two obviously lesbian feminists who stood up and vociferously cheered. 

(I will never forget the vision of them courageously standing there defiantly opposing all those enraged men. I don't know who they were, and we never saw them again. How I would like to meet them and give them a hug!) 

We performed "Miriam" for the Munich Biennale in 1990. As with all the festival's performances, a large section of seating was reserved for high ranking cultural officials and new music dignitaries. Before the performance, I gave an interview for Munich's _Abendzeitung_ in which I strongly criticized the Berlin Philharmonic for its sexism. At that point, the orchestra had about 115 men and 3 women. People were outraged that someone, and especially a foreigner, had dared to make critical comments about such an important national icon. The Biennale's administrators were incensed, because they feared my remarks would damage their funding and political support. During our performance, those high denizens in the dignitary section heckled Abbie throughout the entire 90 minutes of the work. (You can see a 12 minute demo video of "Miriam" on the web at:

Abbie is the first and only woman to play principal trombone in a major German orchestra. She is the first and only woman professor of trombone in Germany's history. Abbie's conservatory is part of the University of Tuebingen, where to this day, only 7% of the professors are women. This is one of the lowest representations in any European university, and a statistic that only existed in the States 30 or 40 years ago.

The women-in-music groups in the German-speaking world should remember that they have no one among their ranks who knows as much about sexism in German-speaking orchestras as we do. Nor do they have anyone who has done more (and suffered more) to stop the abuses. And they have no one else who has spent their entire careers creating a specifically feminist form of music theater that has been very widely performed around the world. It is mind-boggling that there are many people in Germany's women-in-music groups that ostracize us. They should realize that Abbie and I could be among their most devoted and effective friends.

Anyway, I hope these hastily written thoughts will help you understand some of the difficulties certain forms of patriarchal cultural nationalism create for women musicians, and how these insidious forms of chauvinism confuse even some members of women's advocacy groups. These social forces are also very strong in the United States. (Masculinist concepts of music-making, for example, still deeply influence the International Womens Brass Conference, where we are also somewhat marginalized due to our opposition to these practices.) It is essential that local cultural identities be protected and preserved, but we should also remember there are times when international solidarity is also essential.

William Osborne

[1] To be clear, I should illustrate the general nature of this xenophobia with a couple of examples. In 1990, the Minister President of Bavaria, Dr. Edmund Stoiber, made a speech in which he warned of the "dangers of a mongeralized society." In 2000, he ran for the Chancellorship of Germany and lost by only one percentage point. The rise of Dr. Jorg Haider's xenophobic Freedom Party in Austria is another example. Both of these men are highly educated and cultured, but that does not prevent them from holding very chauvinistic beliefs. Events like the mass murder of 8000 men and boys in Sebrenica only ten years ago, illustrate the intensity of European cultural nationalism, and the problems that can evolve when it goes wrong. Sebrenica is only about 300 miles south of Vienna.