Teaching at Shimer has reawakened my interest in the fine arts — partly self-defensively, as I may be called upon to teach their introductory course on the fine arts — and classical music in particular. Recently, continuing my haphazard attempt to “bone up,” I looked through the classical music selection on Netflix, and it struck me how stuck classical music is in the Great Man approach to the arts. The marketting approach for the middlebrow audience is fairly consistent: the Great Conductor (Bernstein, Karajan, Berlioz, etc.) realizes the Great Conductor’s Great Symphonic Works in one of the truly Great Performances of the 20th Century. Things are not much better for the “truly” high-brow appreciator of classical music, however, as there is still a definite macho element in appreciating the less accessible works of modern classical music.
There are obviously great female performers in the classical music world, though my impression is that women are still vastly underrepresented in the headlining roles of conductor or solo recital pianist. Yet the obstacles to a woman conductor are seemingly insuperable. Hostility to contemporary work narrows the window for a young composer of any gender, and in classical music in particular, the likelihood of discovering a previously neglected woman who can now get her due is vanishingly small — a woman could certainly write or paint in the privacy of her own home, but to be a classical composer, one needs vastly greater institutional support. Perhaps there are forgotten piano compositions laying around in an attic somewhere, but the odds of finding a “lost” symphony by a woman composer from any of the Heroic Eras of classical music — someone who was composing alongside Mahler et al., for example, in the same way Mary Cassatt was painting alongside the Impressionists — are seemingly at or near zero.
What do you think, readers?