Equality before quality: roll over, Beethoven

SchumannA book review in yesterday’s paper drew my attention to an egregious injustice, possibly trumping all other iniquities of our miserable world. Or so the author seems to think.

The book, Sounds and Sweet Airs by Anna Beer, is about women composers in history. The review is by Jessica Duchen. I haven’t read the book, and judging by the quotations from it, won’t do so in the future. I have read the review though, or rather the rant.

The rant starts with the very first sentence: “The under-representation of female composers in concert programming, broadcasting and recording is, if you think about it, little short of scandalous.”

I have thought about it. It’s way short of scandalous. I’ve considered the possibility of replacing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms with Marianna Martinez, Barbara Strozzi and Clara Schumann, or even giving them equal time to make sure women aren’t ‘under-represented’.

I didn’t like the possibility. No sane person would – but then fanatical adherence to an ideology is rather the opposite of sanity.

It’s also the opposite of intelligence. I mean not the higher type, but the basic competence measurable by IQ. Only a deficit in that faculty can account for this statement by Miss Duchen: “As Anna Beer says in her book’s endnote: if a C major chord is the same whether written by Wagner or a female composer, why should the former be played every day and the latter not?”

If such a question can be asked, there can be no answer. I can press a C on a piano keyboard as well as my wife, the sublime concert pianist. But wouldn’t you call for the men in white coats if I suggested that, on this basis, I should replace her on the platform?

Fair enough, if the C major chord were the only music ever composed by a man and a woman, choosing the former over the latter would be discriminatory. But personally I’d find a concert by either of them rather repetitive if nothing but that one chord were heard.

Miss Duchen evidently proceeds from the assumption that the representation of men and women in any group must faithfully reflect their representation in mankind at large, 50.5 per cent women, 49.5 per cent men. And if it falls short, only one explanation is possible: the beastliness of men and the discrimination against women caused thereby.

Here’s her take on the iniquity of Robert Schumann’s music being more popular than his wife’s: “The least congenial partner was, sadly, Robert Schumann, whose idealistic dreams of a marriage of minds, in which he and his wife, Clara, would compose together, lasted only until they began, prolifically, to create children instead.”

This sentence is about as mellifluous as Clara’s compositions. Nothing about them suggests that we’d be better off if she had been composing her own Fantasy and Symphonic Etudes, while Robert gave birth to the brood.

Clara, one of the best pianists of her time, herself didn’t consider her compositions to be interesting enough. They were mostly little nothings she knocked off for her recitals, as was then a common practice. Essentially Clara wasn’t even a minor composer – she wasn’t a composer at all.

This she realised and stopped composing, dedicating her life instead to performances, mainly of the music by two towering geniuses: her husband Robert and her admirer (probably also lover) Johannes Brahms.

But Miss Duchen knows better than Mrs Schumann: “If women were not being sexually objectified, then their frail beauty or domestic virtues were being sentimentalised…” So Clara failed to compose great music because Robert and Johannes saw her as a sex object.

But wait a minute, here’s a little snippet Miss Duchen cites with gushing enthusiasm: “Clara Schumann apparently walked much faster than her husband, often 20 paces ahead.”

Oh well, if that doesn’t clinch the argument, I don’t know what will. Obviously Clara’s greater energy and athletic ability must give her music an edge over that slow coach Robert’s. Who can possibly fault this logic?

Now I have a beef of my own. Not only are the chaps in charge of ‘concert programming, broadcasting and recording’ sexist, but they are also anti-Semitic. How else can you explain the dearth of Jewish composers being performed publicly?

There’s Mendelssohn, Mahler, Schoenberg, one or two others – and that’s it. What about Korngold? What does Prokofiev have that he doesn’t? And only a rank anti-Semite would prefer a Brahms piano concerto to Anton Rubinstein’s, or a Bird motet to Salamone Rossi’s.

And if you think it’s just sexism and anti-Semitism, think again. How many black classical composers are being performed? You don’t know a single one? That’s precisely the point: you don’t know because their music falls victim to racist discrimination.

Just to think that such drivel is being written – and published. But then Miss Duchen is a woman. A case of reverse discrimination, or what?


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