Have Women Had Just Opportunities in Music?

Music of Yesterday

In a recent issue of The London Musical Times Mr. Ernest Newman, the eminent English critic, has been discussing the ever-interesting subject as to why there are no great women composers. He points out the fact that women have never really had a chance to show what they can do. To use his own words:

“Many people accept contentedly the absurd argument that because women have not done any great creative work in music in the past they will never do it in the future. They, it is true, try to give a semblance of science to the wild deduction. One of them will point to the differences, or supposed differences, between the brains of men and those of women – as if any of us knew what it was in the brain, or out of it, that made genius! Another will tell women, kindly but firmly, as befits one of the superior sex, that she is much too excitable to have the necessary control over her ideas and emotions that highly original work in art or science requires. This theory conveniently ignores the fact that hundreds of thousands of women are superior to the average man in bodily and in mental health and in self control, and that many masculine geniuses have been weaklings, invalids, or unmistakably unbalanced, if not, at times, actually insane.”

“We have the spectacle, for example, of Herbert Spencer solemnly using the early death of Miss Constance Naden as a warning to women against prolonged scientific study, while he himself was a chronic valetudinarian, compelled to restrict his hours of mental labor, and only able to carry on his work by means of private funds that spared him the necessity of fighting the battle of life at the same time that he pursued his literary recreations, as so many women have to do. Then again, there is the investigator like Mr. J. Donovan, who in his “Music and Action” decides that musical creation is the product of a certain active i.e., masculine, psychological state, and that women being passive, musical creation is, of course, beyond them; which looks rather like saying that men are creators because they are men, and women cannot be creators because they are not men!”

Opportunities Denied

After showing that women have done creative work of the highest order in other lines of art work, Mr. Newman goes on to say:

“No one who looks into the matter can doubt that women, until quite lately, have not had the same social and economic advantages in the study of art men have had. They have found difficulty, in some countries, in being admitted to the conservatories. In 1856 Miss Elizabeth Stirling was refused the degree of Mus. Bac. at Oxford, not because her composition was not good enough, but because the statutes did not authorize the conferring of the degree on a woman. Even today the more successful of them are handicapped in a way that men are not. Many publishers look askance at women’s scores, so that the composers have either to adopt masculine pseudonyms or to dupe the publishers or the public by suppressing their Christian names – Miss Ethel Smyth’s Mass. for example, having to bear on its title page simply “By E. M. Smyth”.

“But the worst obstacle to them has been the fact that women composers have been drawn from a much more limited field than men composers.”

“Suppose, for instance, that in the eighteenth century the daughters of humble parents had been born with a real gift for composition. What earthly chance would it have had to develop? How many fathers, even supposing they had the means, would spend money on the education of the girl in the technique of composition? Even supposing the paternal sympathy to be there, how many poor men could afford to deny themselves the profit of their daughter’s labor in order to keep her at home studying counterpoint? And how many girls of this class, even if by some good fortune they could have gained all the necessary knowledge could afterwards find the leisure to apply it? Economic necessities would drive them into either marriage or work of some kind that would make the steady pursuit of musical composition impossible.”

“The result of the constant pressure of all these forces would be to restrict the necessary education to (1) young ladies of wealth and position – as is shown by the large number of titled female composers; (2) the daughters of musicians.”

Mr. Newman then goes on to the hereditary point of view, with regard to musical composition and arts and sciences in general. In conclusion he shows the difficulties composers have had to contend with in the past:

“If space permitted, the problem could be followed up along another line – that of economics. The histories of art and literature and science show how dependent we have been for the greater part of our best work during the last 2,500 years upon the chance of genius happening to coincide in the same individual with (1) inherited income, or (2) the favor of a patron, or (3) the possession of an official or academic post, or (4) a business that provided means and leisure, or (5) some similar economic surety. In art, good work can now and then be done, for a short time, under conditions of poverty, but not often and not for long.”

Unfair Conditions

“A composer must either live by his work, or have some other means of livelihood that will leave him free to compose. Most of them have either had to support themselves during their earlier years of work by undertaking some official duties, or by the funds of a patron. No such opportunities were open to women. What aristocratic patron ever did for women what was done for Gluck, Beethoven and others? What fried, or group of friends, ever drew upon his or their purse to provide a woman with leisure for composition, as was done for Wagner and Wolf? What posts were open to women? They could not be organists, like Bach and Cesar Franck, nor opera conductors, like Wagner (in his earlier days) and Weber, nor directors of a nobleman’s music, like Haydn. They could not even live a Bohemian life, like Schubert.”

“A man may be poor and awkward and still be received in good artistic society; but a woman who was as poor as Schubert, and live his kind of life, would be cold shouldered everywhere.”

“Again, let us ask ourselves, How much male genius in music would have come to maturity had all these avenues been closed to it? And even if, by some miracle, a woman had come to the front in spite of all these obstacles, would she then have had the same advantages as a man in attaining publicity? By no means. Men have been as reluctant to perform a woman’s music as to publish it. Carlotta Ferrari (b. 1837) found tha tno impresario would produce her opera “Ugo” (1857), simply because she was a woman. She finally had to bear the cost of production at Milan herself. The opera, we read, “achieved a complete success, and from that moment the theatrical directors contended with each other to secure her works.” Well and good, as it happened; but how many women can afford to pay for performances of an opera, in the hope that a success may be won and the doors henceforth flung open to them?”

“All things considered, then, the wonder is not that women should have produced so few good composers, but that they should have produced any, hampered as they have been in their musical education, in the means of supporting themselves during their early years, and in gaining a public hearing. Women have done excellent work in literature and acting during the past two centuries – work quite equal to that of men in several departments. Why is this? Because here natural aptitude – observation, thought, expression – can find an outlet without the necessity for a long course of technical study, which calls for sympathy from parents and considerable expenditure. Moreover, the author and the actor have more chances of appealing directly to the public than the composer has.”