Women, men and classical music

At the start of the 20th century, many women entered the workforce and campaigned for the right to vote, while many men tried to figure out what masculinity meant in a world where the importance of physical strength was diminishing. As historian Gavin James Campbell writes, these questions have arisen, among other places, in classical music.

Throughout the 19th century, writes Campbell, many middle- and upper-class women learned music as a domestic art, but women who pursued careers in performance were rare. Over time, however, exceptions like singer Jenny Lind, pianist Teresa Carreño, and violinist Maud Powell have inspired imitation. At the turn of the 20th century, many young American women saw music as a possible profession. Some became part of opera, which was growing in popularity and required talented female voices. Others responded to the refusal of existing orchestras to include female musicians by creating all-female musical organizations.

While performing generally became more acceptable to women, as long as it didn’t interfere with their femininity or domestic work, composing was another matter. Many critics believed that, as written for the Nation in 1902, “on the creative side, music is clearly a manly art”. Some have argued that although women were emotional creatures, it took a man’s mind to turn those feelings into the logical, mathematical form of a musical score.

Yet, writes Cambell, in everyday life, music was increasingly associated with women. As part of their recognized role as moral agents of the community, privileged women formed clubs to promote music as a civic good. In the 1920s, they held free concerts in parks, musical events in colonial homes, and musical programs in factories and prisons.

As more and more women embraced music as a profession or vocation, some men feared that the orchestral world was becoming feminized. Composer Daniel Gregory Mason suggested that the “natural conventionality” of women had led to “an unfortunate tolerance of immobility and mediocrity”. Some worried that boys and men would be pushed away from the entire music world thanks to its “girly” associations.

Campbell notes that those who hoped to encourage boys to engage in music feared that their most prominent role models were eccentric geniuses with long hair and little interest in financial success. In response, some wrote profiles of musicians extolling their strength, while others described the love of music shown by men like Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Schwab.

Some also offered tips for looking for male music. From a 1905 Harper’s Bazaar article, Bach was a “manly music-maker” and Beethoven a “genuine man”, while Haydn looked like “a nice, talkative old lady” and Chopin was “morbidly feminine”. Many lamented the trend of symphonic performances replacing marching band concerts, which represented “the strength, virility and refinement of the male”. John Philip Sousa himself told a reporter that fans of his military marches were “strong and healthy” and loved the “manly music”.

If much of professional music became too feminine for these supposedly manly men, they need not despair; they could still carve out a slice of the classical music world. As Campbell reports, perhaps no associate of classical music was more admired than conductors. “Like the great industrialists, they controlled large numbers with a simple shake of the hand and an eyebrow.” These powerful men, “born to command”, demonstrated “that art and masculinity were not in contradiction”.


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By: Gavin James Campbell

American Music, Vol. 21, no. 4 (winter 2003), p. 446 to 473

University of Illinois Press