When an Orchestra Was No Place for a Woman

Women were first hired into a major orchestra in 1913, when six female violinists joined the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in London. But in Vienna, female musicians were not officially offered auditions to the philharmonic until more than eight decades later.

Today, 15 of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 145 permanent members are women, with four more going through the statutory transition period to becoming full members.

Vienna may be an egregious example of gender inequality in the classical music world. Yet it is not the only one. Another of the world’s top orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, first admitted a woman in 1982, a century after it was founded.

The Vienna Philharmonic, established in 1842, has been weighed down by history and by tradition, and by a somewhat convoluted recruitment process. All players are recruited from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. And until 1997, the opera would not allow women to audition for the philharmonic.

(The Vienna Philharmonic did have a woman performing regularly with it by then — the harpist Anna Lelkes played with them for 26 years, but was not allowed to join formally, and did not receive full payment, until 1997.)

Once musicians pass the Vienna State Opera audition, they have a trial period lasting three years before becoming permanent members of the State Opera. It takes three more years to transition to membership in the philharmonic.

Daniel Froschauer, chairman of the self-governing Vienna Philharmonic and one of its first violinists, said he kept a close eye on auditions at the Vienna State Opera. Last year, he said, when four women were hired for the State Opera orchestra, they were chosen “not because they’re women: because they’re the very best players.”

Mr. Froschauer, 53, noted that next year, he would become the oldest member of the orchestra’s first violin section, as more and more senior players retired. The number of female musicians, he added, “is ever-growing.”

He also noted that Austria’s first female chancellor, Brigitte Bierlein, took office in June. “It’s a changing world, even in good old Vienna,” he said.

Women still make up less than half of most orchestras in Continental Europe. An August 2019 survey by two University College London academics showed that in Continental orchestras, 36.6 percent of members were women. In the United States, it was 40 percent, and in Britain, 44 percent.

“I don’t want to throw stones at Vienna, because all of us in classical music are in glass houses, in all questions of diversity,” said Gillian Moore, director of music at the Southbank Center in London, which includes the Royal Festival Hall.

“It’s clearly an odd thing to see an orchestra that is so predominantly male,” she said, referring to the Vienna Philharmonic. “I absolutely accept that they are making progress.”

The problem in classical music boils down to gender roles: what society and tradition allowed women to do, and how those roles endured.

Europe has recognized female musicians for at least three centuries — mainly pianists, harpists and vocalists. Clara Schumann (1819-96), one of the most famous pianists of her time, composed her first piano concerto at age 16, performing it at the Leipzig premiere.

For the most part, however, women performed in private, not in public, except in all-female ensembles; the world’s first women’s orchestra was formed in Berlin in 1898. Even in the United States, which was far less hidebound in terms of musical tradition, it was not until 1930 that an orchestra, in this case the Philadelphia Orchestra, hired a woman in a tenured position.

Entire sections of the orchestra remained male because their instruments were considered unladylike.

The cello was deemed indecorous because it had to be placed between a player’s legs. Flutes and horns were thought to make a woman’s face look funny; percussion instruments were viewed as exclusively male.

But change does appear to be afoot in Austria. In September, Marin Alsop, an American, became the first female chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. By her own admission, she would not have been given the job a decade ago.

The Radio Symphony Orchestra “really own, and are accountable for, the fact that they’ve been extraordinarily conservative, almost to the point of absurdity, in terms of gender equality,” she said in an interview this month. “They are extraordinarily open to the idea of righting this wrong.”

Ms. Alsop is also the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil. “I don’t find the same openness everywhere I go; it’s really quite surprising,” she said, noting that the #MeToo movement had had a huge impact on the classical music world.

Still, Ms. Alsop is one of a handful of female conductors on the global stage, and their arrival is very recent. In 2014, for example, women represented only 1.4 percent of conductors in British orchestras, according to “Gender, Subjectivity and Cultural Work,” a 2018 book by Christina Scharff of King’s College London. In Germany that year, out of 27 artistic directors, chief conductors or conductors identified by the survey, none were women, according to the book.

“Classical music is a very small microcosm of our broader society, and it’s a very conservative microcosm: We’re wearing the same clothes we’ve been wearing for 200 years,” Ms. Alsop explained. “It’s very very traditional. You have to see a lot of women in a role before you start to become comfortable with it as a society.”

Once a woman is elected president of the United States, she added, “maybe that breaks some of those barriers.”

At the Vienna Philharmonic, Mr. Froschauer said the orchestra was “actively searching for female conductors” and had approached a few. One “said she wasn’t ready,” he noted. “We don’t want to put somebody in the position where they’re not happy.”

Seeing women regularly conduct the Vienna Philharmonic’s main concerts will be significant. Hearing many more women players may be further evidence of a long-awaited shift.

“Let’s just accept that women have a huge role to play,” said Ms. Moore of the Southbank Center. “And if we don’t have an orchestra that looks like society, perhaps it’s not going to be as exciting.”

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