Musical Misogyny

An interview of the Vienna Philharmonic

by the West German State Radio

 

translated and transcribed by William Osborne

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The Original German Text.

 

This is a transcript and translation of a segment from a one hour broadcast made by the West German State Radio at 10:05am, Feb. 13, 1996 entitled "Musikalische Misogynie" [ďMusical Misogyny.Ē]The first half was devoted to the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra that categorically forbids membership to women and non-whites.In interviews for this program they elaborate on their belief that ethnic and gender uniformity create aesthetic superiority in orchestras.Five people were interviewed:

 

  1. Roland Girtler, a Viennese sociologist specializing in the study of social groups who are separated, or who separate themselves, from social norms.To these groups belong not only such people as rogues and confidence men, but also elitist organizations such as the Vienna Philharmonic.
  2. Elke Mashe-Blankenberg, a choir director based in Cologne who specializes in performing the works of unknown composers who are women.
  3. Helmut Zehetner, a 2nd violinist in the orchestra.
  4. Wolfgang Schuster, a percussionist in the orchestra who is also its press secretary.
  5. Dieter Flury, a 1st flutist in the orchestra.

 

All the interviews were recorded and edited for broadcast.The interviewerís questions were generally not included.Any statements in italics are my own editorial comments.

 

The interview:

 

Zehetner:"There is one common fight in the field, a battle cry, so to speak, and that is `artistic qualityī.One wants to have music of top quality and sell it in the world.All other interests, including private interests, are of less importance."

 

Girtler:"Music is something special.It is a special deep knowledge; it has something to do with magic.I think many menís groups are to be understood in this way.They carry secrets that are involved with music and tones, just like in Australian aboriginal or Indian cultures where men play certain instruments, and not the women."

 

"Every scientist must discover, and invent the correct term: the human as Ďanima ambitosumí, the human as a being that strives for nobleness, that calls for applause, that wants to be better.And so it is with the [Vienna] Philharmonic.They want to be good, and there are even small groups within this group that set themselves apart.Thatís whatís exciting, thatís whatís good.Itís not bad.And it annoys the others."

 

(Ed. Note: The Vienna Staatsoper Orcehstra/Vienna Philharmonic performs approximately 300 operas per year, and 80 symphony concerts.The orchestra has 149 members who divide the work.In spite of continuing protest for four years no women have been allowed membership except for harpists.Among other reasons, it is felt that women take too much sick leave, and thus make dividing the symphonic work difficult.Pregnancy leave is the principle issue.For further details see my article ďA Difficult Birth.Ē)

 

Schuster:"Of course women can also fulfill this double burden [opera and symphonic.]There is no question about that.It is just the question of whether one takes women in fig leaf positions as some orchestras do--that is, in back row positions where they are easy to replace during sick leave--or whether they can be given full rights.[If given full rights] then naturally one must accept that they would be allowed in the first chair positions of a world-class orchestra.Once there, they canít really be replaced if they take sick leave--which would, of course, be their right.It wouldnít be too easy to simply pull a substitute first flute out of the woodwork."

 

Elke Mashe-Blankenberg:"Iíve noticed that in 1976 or 7, when I started counting the number of women in orchestras in concerts I attended, that women comprised about 10% of the membership.And now after 20 years, itís about 15% in the orchestras of the Federal Republic of Germany.That means a very minimal increase has taken place.And when one notes that over 50% of the music school graduates are women, while only 15% sit in orchestras, then one must assume that the women are in private music areas such as teaching, or that they give up their careers and are simply women with children.After so much emanicipatorial work, one can conclude that society, and especially musical society, has changed very little."

 

"It is notable that in almost all of the buildings where symphonies work, there are no womenís dressing rooms or warm up rooms.They must use the restrooms or storerooms, even though women also work all day everyday.The whole conception of the symphony orchestra is as a menís organization through and through."

 

"The Berlin Philharmonicís bi-laws state that they were a military orchestra. (Ed. Note: The Berlin Philharmonic has less than 10% women.All are in tutti string positions except for a harpist and a piccolo player.)

 

The symphony orchestra, as we experience it today, is 160 years old.We have inherited this very established structure.It has been traditionalized as such, and thus its entire foundation, ideologically and socially, is established as something purely for men."

 

"And if we go into the areas of orchestras where it is especially difficult for women, such as the contrabass sections, or all the brass sections--that is, trombone, trumpet, and horn

--then we find things like pin-up pictures of naked women hanging on the walls of the warm-up rooms.If a woman comes into the orchestra, it has to be taken down."

 

"In the music world there are many...er...let us say, little erotic jokes told that have to do with sexism.This doesnít flow so freely if a woman trumpeter is sitting there.Then, as the men in the group say, they must remain clean.Iíve heard this argument many times, that women destroy the atmosphere, and that the men want to remain unto themselves."

 

Girtler:"What I have noticed that is interesting, is that the Vienna Philharmonic would also never take a Japanese or such.If they took one, this also would somehow by appearances put in question the noble character of Viennese culture.A Japanese doesnít fit in Vienna. But this is not racist!"

 

Flury:"From the beginning we have spoken of the special Viennese qualities, of the way music is made here.The way we make music here is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul.The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe.And it also doesnít allow itself to be separated from gender."

 

"So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers.It is a racist and sexist irritation.I believe one must put it that way.If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant. Therefore, I am convinced that it is worth while to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards."

 

Girtler:"One respects women, of course.One applauds a good singer.Thereís a good story about that.A famous singer had terrible nervousness because she was going to sing for the Vienna Philharmonic.But she was surprised how they applauded her.They had high regard, but from a distance, as in aristocratic groups: polite to outsiders, like patrons, but allowing no real inclusion."

 

Girtler:"I have noticed that the Philharmonic has an initiation ritual, an entrance ritual, that is similar to Australian aborigines.It is expected that the young man who is to be taken into the menís group must show that he can accomplish certain things:He must submit to certain tests of courage, he must show a certain ability.But then, he must also clearly and outwardly show that he is a carrier of secrets."

 

"This is also the case with the members of the Philharmonic, at least when you observe the audition rituals.I mean the procedure that is carried through when someone is accepted into the masculine union of the Philharmonic.He must audition behind a screen.There are about 25 who carry out the testing.Those auditioning cannot see them, which produces a horrific stress.They must audition through two or three rounds, they are sought out, and then they must present themselves.And then they must submit to a sort of initiation of novices.(Presumably he means a probationary period in the orchestra.) Only after about three months are they informed whether or not they will be admitted.It is like in a monastery.This is exhibited by all menís groups."

 

Schuster: "The acceptance ritual is based solely on the criteria of quality.He who has put behind himself an "ox tour" of an audition lasting several hours, or sometimes even two such auditions, and who has proven himself the victor according to what is actually a merciless K.O. system, and who after three years in the opera has shown his manhood [seinen Mann stellt] can become a Philharmoniker.But this is not to be understood as a ritual, but rather like everywhere else in the economy, it is the bitter necessity to maintain the highest quality.And it is also simply the question: Must an artistic organization inevitably be the mirror of our social reality."

 

Elke Mashe-Blankenberg:"If Germany is going to train so many male and female students, then the country must also ensure that decisions are made upon quality and not gender.And it is provable that the quality and grade average of the women students in music schools are equal to those of the male students.And yet it is quite openly known that here in Germany, and unfortunately in the whole of Europe, that positions are filled on the basis of gender instead of quality.And when it comes to women, these aphorisms that you hear such as "Quality always wins", are a pure farce."

 

(The three orchestra members are asked how they would feel if women were allowed into the orchestra:)

 

Zehetner:"It would absolutely not be a shock, no surprise, absolutely not.The only consideration is whether an established structure already existing as a unified whole, should be frivolously tossed overboard."

 

Schuster:"If we need this or that person, then we will take them without regard to race or gender.Otherwise, we couldnít remain on the top."(The moderator asks if he finds this good.) "I find this good.If a woman comes who is old enough, and is in a position to take a position and fill it properly, then the orchestra would not object."

 

(He did not explain how women could show they are qualified, since they are not allowed to audition.)

 

Flury:"No, truthfully said, I wouldnít be indifferent.I would have an uneasy feeling in the situation.And that is because we would be gambling with the emotional unity (emotionelle Geschlossenheit) that this organism currently has.My worry is that it would be a step that could never be taken back."

 

Girtler:"In the 1840s the Philharmonic was founded as a menís group, which was typical of the time.And the Philharmonic has been able to maintain this character as a menís group up to the present.And this is somehow even exciting.This disturbs some.But it is explained historically."

 

(Ed. Note: The moderator notes that the tradition of the Philharmonic goes back to the Imperial Court Ensemble when sayings were common such as, "Women must remain silent in church.Ē or to Viennaís Court Opera, which filled all womenís roles with castrati.Zehetner comments on the unique instrumentarium of the Vienna Philharmonic:)

 

Zehetner: "This tradition naturally brings a certain musical cast of mind with it, and if it is now so that the woodwinds, or the brass, or even the percussion use instruments that are like no others used in the world, then it is no miracle.It is a miracle when one sees that the strings, playing instruments that are common world-wide, produce a sound that is shown to be different when scientifically measured than anywhere else."

 

(The moderator asks how this can be explained:)

 

Flury:"One can probably not find any technical explanation.The explanation in all probability--and this is my very personal opinion--is in what my two other colleagues have already mentioned: the soul.Musical sensibility--for whatever reason it has developed--is oriented to transmute the significant in music, namely, to transport life energy."

 

Zehetner: "Today one can use digital methods to measure certain procedures and represent them graphically.So if you take a simple string tremolo somewhere out of a Bruckner Symphony, you will see that different orchestras receive different graphs.And it is also quite funny that the graph of the Vienna Philharmonic differs quite considerably from the others.There are more similarities in the graphs that are produced by the Berliners and New Yorkers or Clevelanders than with the Viennese and Berliners.This is a phenomenon.Naturally, if one says today that this is attributable to being all men, this is a questionable and also socio-politically indefensible opinion.But in spite of that, it is an interesting point of view.

 

(The sociologist discusses perceived problems with women:)

 

Girtler:"Pregnancy brings problems.It brings disorder.Another important argument against women is that they can bring the solidarity of the men in question.You find that in all menís groups."

 

"And the women can also contribute to creating competition among the men.They distract men.Not the older ones.The older ones donít give a damn, it is the younger ones.The older men are more sensible; women donít so easily craze them.But the 20 or 25 year olds...They would be the problem. These are the considerations.In a monastery it is the same.The alter is a holy area, and the other gender may not enter it, because it would cause disorder.Such are the opinions."

 

Zehetner:"I believe it would surely be pleasant in every day situations if women colleagues were next to one, when it comes to human interactions, because mixed gender groups deal with each other differently than pure menís groups.In pure menís groups statements are probably clearer, more unmerciful, more brutal."

 

Girtler: "Of course, often one canít avoid taking a woman as harpist, because there are no men.But there are tricks, the women indeed plays, but not as a member of the Philharmonic.She belongs to the working group of the State Opera.Indeed one needs her.

 

(Ed. Note: In Europe the harp has traditionally been the only instrument acceptable for women in an orchestra.In 1997 the Vienna Philharmonic made one of its woman harpists an official member of the orchestra.The other has since retired.No other women have been allowed to enter and are still being unfairly excluded.)

 

Zehetner:"We have a male harpist, and two ladies.If you ask how noticeable the gender is with these colleagues, my personal experience is that this instrument is so far at the edge of the orchestra that it doesnít disturb our emotional unity, the unity I would strongly feel, for example, when the orchestra starts really cooking with a Mahler Symphony.There I sense very strongly and simply that only men sit around me.And as I said, I would not want to gamble with this unity."

 

(Girtler concedes that if women are allowed educations, they should be given professional opportunities.)

 

Girtler:"In todayís situation, occupational groups such as professional musicians must open themselves up, because there exists a wonderful and large offering of women musicians who want to offer their services.Earlier they didnít have free entrance to the universities and conservatories.This is certainly a problem today.But if women are allowed to enter universities, and if they can develop high artistic ability, then they must be let into orchestras.I can understand that.Indeed.But in spite of that, from the menís perspective art is fun.Itís fun, itís all about fun.Itís not just about art.Thatís just an excuse."

 

End of interview.

 

The second half of the program is devoted to women who relate their experiences with sexism.One of them is the trombonist, Abbie Conant.You can read about her extraordinary experiences in the Munich Philharmonic in the current Journal of the International Alliance of Women in Music, or on this website.See: ďYou Sound Like A Ladiesí Orchestra: A Case History of Sexism Against Abbie Conant In the Munich Philharmonic.Ē

 

And regarding the Japanese: a recording is played by Toshiko Akiyoshi, who leads one of the best professional jazz big bands in the USA.Neither her race nor gender seems to limit her artistic ability in a genre considered far more "ethnic" and "male" than orchestral music.The women interviewed are all highly recognized professionals.The recordings presented would indicate that women also have souls.