Diversity Debate, Features, Music, Top Stories

Diversity and the Concert Hall

Orchestras have had a rough time lately. Rising deficits, inadequate facilities, internal financial squabbles, and an overall lack of interest from the general public have provided more than their share of hurdles for these venerable institutions. Now, in addition to these looming obstacles, orchestras are being faced with a whole new challenge: the call to diversify their programs with more music written by women and minority composers.

To get ahead of this cultural trend, several institutions have started initiatives to synthetically bolster the number of performed works by composers in these aforementioned groups.

In February, the BBC Proms announced plans for fully half of all new commissions to be granted to women composers by 2022. Earlier in March, the website ICareIfYouListen responded to a tweet accusing them of unconscious bias by reaffirming their commitment to “equitable programming” with a primary interest in “promoting the work of historically underrepresented and marginalized artists.”

The website also detailed its apparently already existing policy of “turning down 100% of concert reviews and album reviews that feature works by all white men, with the only exceptions being portrait albums or evening-length works by a single composer.”

In theory, these sound like good-natured progressive policies. After all, who doesn’t like diversity? Like all quotas, however, these seemingly fair percentages begin to break down the moment you put them to the test.

For starters, the majority of students pursuing a degree in Music Theory and Composition are overwhelmingly male—a whopping 77% in the United States as of 2015 with comparable estimates observed in the United Kingdom. If the Proms is indeed committed to its 50% mark, that will likely mean the deliberate exclusion of more talented or, at the very least, more highly educated men trying to break into an extremely competitive field.

ICareIfYouListen’s policy of refusing coverage of all-white male concert programs also sounds good on its face, until you account for the fact that just four composers—Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky—make up a nearly a quarter of all music performed by major American orchestras. Thus, if some young white male composer is unlucky enough to have his work premiered alongside one of those masters—a decision often entirely out of his hands—then he can expect complete silence from a website ostensibly dedicated to the advocacy of contemporary classical music. His offense? The original sin of being born a white man.

The problem with so many of these initiatives is that they fail to properly take into account, or at least thoroughly consider, how much revenue is generated from a handful of composers. Johann Sebastian Bach, Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel, Dmitri Shostakovich, Jean Sibelius, and Richard Strauss are frequently next in line for number of performances in a single season. Why so many performances of works from just a few long-dead composers? The answer so simple as to be tedious: they sell tickets.

Conversely, the music of living composers have tended to make up less than 15% of all programmed works in the past few years. Among those most performed are typically seasoned artists with a well-established body of work—composers like John C. Adams, Thomas Adès, Jennifer HigdonChristopher Rouse, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the octogenarians John Corigliano, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, and John Williams. What are we to do with so many white men on that list? I would hate to think that a media blackout or moratorium on future commissions are how we would thank them for a lifetime of beautiful music.

These are, of course, only a few of the more radical proposed solutions various individuals and institutions are implementing in the effort to make classical music more diverse. Others have taken to dredging up the works of long-forgotten composers in the hopes of disproving the idea of the white male composer altogether. Some have gone so far as to claim that it was “the patriarchy” that suppressed these works from history in the first place.

This movement has led to a meteoric rise in popularity for historic composers like Amy Beach, Ethel Smyth, and Florence Price, the first black woman ever to have a work performed by a major American orchestra. The amount of press now given to these mostly unsung women has elevated them to near-messianic status of forgotten mastery.

“Aaron Copland wishes he could write like this,” observed one overeager YouTube commenter about the first movement of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor, composed in 1932. Evidently missed is the music’s near-blueprint recreation of moments from the same movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 From the New World, composed nearly forty years prior. By this same time, conversely, Aaron Copland had been experimenting with jazz and other contemporary music techniques that were decades ahead of Price’s comparatively tame Romanticism.

This is not meant as a slight to Price, whose music I regard as quite charming and due for some modern reconsideration, but let’s not jest ourselves. Many of these ostensibly forgotten masterpieces are, in fact, fairly standard entrees to their respective musical eras.

Giovanni Paolo Panini: “Concert Given by Cardinal De La Rochefoucauld at the Argentina Theatre in Rome,” 1747.

Truly, in order to have any serious discussion about diversity in classical music, we must come to terms with this seemingly unpleasant and perhaps even painful fact: throughout most of history, classical music has almost exclusively been the pastime of rich white men. It is a genre birthed out of Medieval Europe that grew up just as basic concepts like heliocentrism and human rights were beginning to take hold. It is a pursuit that for centuries was only available to the most affluent aristocrats—overwhelmingly white—in a predominantly illiterate, wretchedly impoverished male-led society. How can we expect it to be anything other than “white male?”

This is not to say that women or minority composers have not made an important impact along the way—they most certainly have. It takes only a cursory glance at Western music history to discover the wealth of contributions made by female composers like Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, and the Boulanger sisters, or the inestimable impact of minority composers like Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, and Duke Ellington, who forever changed the course of American music.

This doesn’t alter the fact, however, that what we most often think of as classical music is intrinsically that of white men. These are the imperial names of Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi, Antonín Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Giacomo Puccini, Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky. That’s just the short list.

We all know their music. It has become deeply embedded in Western culture and no amount of re-writing history to favor “historically oppressed artists” will ever change that fact. Women and minority composers of the past, by and large, were simply unable to flourish against the circumstances of their time.

Fortunately for us, the same Enlightenment principles that made this great music possible have also, slowly but surely, helped to liberate woman and minorities within Western societies from their historically secondary status. As a result, there is now more music being written by composers of diverse backgrounds than ever before—most especially women.

Joseph DeCamp: “The Music Lesson,” circa 1904.

The 20th century gave rise to such leading female composers as the late Galina Ustvolskaya, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Meredith Monk, Shulamit Ran, and that dame of American music Joan Tower. Later came Kaija Saariaho, Judith Weir, Melinda Wagner, Julia Wolfe, Jennifer Higdon, and Augusta Read Thomas, all whose works are now regularly commissioned and performed by major world ensembles. The past two decades alone have seen the rise of such immensely talented composers as Anna Clyne, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Charlotte Bray, Caroline Shaw, Julia Adolphe, and Elizabeth Ogonek, among many others now rising through the ranks of the orchestral world.

I won’t presume to speak for anyone, but it strikes me as incredibly patronizing to suggest that they now require affirmative action to hear their works performed. These women may have very different backgrounds and entirely unique compositional styles, but they do have one thing in common: they all entered into a financially risky and highly competitive field that has traditionally been a man’s game. Do you know the most amazing part? They won.

The world deserves more opportunities to hear the music of these composers. I would personally relish the chance to hear more music by any of the aforementioned names in our concert halls. The same goes for works by minority composers like Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, James Reese Europe, William Grant Still, Tōru Takemitsu, T.J. Anderson, and Wynton Marsalis.

This needn’t come at the expense of other aspiring young artists or forgotten composers from the past who just happened to be white men. When was the last time, if ever, that you heard a piece of concert music by William Henry Fry, Henry Kimball Hadley, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Mieczysław Weinberg, Ralph Shapey, or Malcolm Arnold? It is truly one of the saddest ironies of our time that those most vocal about diversity cannot see the merits of such individuals beyond their Y chromosomes or the melanin in their skin.

None of these men or women chose their sex, just as none of them chose their skin color, ethnic background, or sexual orientation. They all do have one common quality, however: each and every one of them, regardless of race, class, or gender, and in spite of what most would call better judgment, chose to devote their lives to the pursuit of that universal beauty we call classical music. That is something worth celebrating, I think.

In our rush to cultural sensitivity, we seem to be losing sight of that.


Brad S. Ross is a writer and composer based in Brooklyn, New York. He writes about music, film, and other topics for the culture blog ArtsComment, which he co-founded with Benjamin Huggins in 2017.

This article was originally published at ArtsComment. 



  1. Alizarin says

    The irony is that if a white person takes up an art form that didn’t originate in Europe such as Arabic calligraphy for example, they are accused of cultural appropriation. But when a black woman takes up composing for an orchestra, an art form that originated in Europe, it’s fine, it’s great. I do not think art should be judged by the DNA of its creator.

    • dirk says

      The question is very simple Alizarin: black women have two reasons to be categorised under the so called oppressed groupings (the intersectional ones), and whites belong to the world elites and privileged class, simple comme un jour!

  2. AC Harper says

    Over on Big Think a video shows Jordan Peterson suggesting that ‘equality of outcome’ should be a marker of unacceptable mainatream leftish thinking, just as racism *is* a marker of unacceptable mainstream rightish thinking. Peterson argues that this unbounded leftism will result in its collapse. http://bigthink.com/videos/jordan-peterson-the-fatal-flaw-lurking-in-american-leftist-politics

    Arguably ‘equality of representation’ is a variant of ‘equality of outcome’ if it divorces ability from performance. I’m all for women (or any other identity group) not being unjustly discriminated against by reason of their identity – but that doesn’t mean to say that there shouldn’t be justified discrimination based on ability or individual choice. Leftish blindness or aversion to justified discrimination undermines the identity politics edifice.

  3. dirk says

    -Justified discrimination-, superb term, I wonder whether it will be picked up by the media and journals.

  4. Aleph says

    Women did participate in artwork penned and signed by men. Had the model for Charlotte fucked Goethe, there would have been no Werther. And how about the Shakespeare sonnets ? The music of heart-broken Beethoven ? the books of bitter Flaubert ? It could only take women to make such geniuses and contribute in their art.

    Moreover, we should ask that people born of women be less overwhimmingly represented, and that room be made for people born of men.

    • dirk says

      Since I was a young boy, Aleph, I hear now for decades on end a song almost weekly on my radio that goes like this
      – Men made the plane, that take us over the world……..but they are nothing, nothing nothing without women-
      . Sung, I think, by a black female voice. But what does this mean??? Not at al that women should necessarily be represented equally in all professions, composing, artistic, philosophying, mathematical, management and other such categories, at least, that is not how the song is received in my innermost.

  5. Nat Singleton says

    I may be layman and a slug of the patriarchy, my view of concert going is a place filled with white hair, bald heads where the audience reverently sits and listens to the geriatric to Top 40. As to female composers, my cursory examination is their music tends to be bounded by timidity; they seem not to want to make leap into the transcendent ‘and boldly go where no man (woman) has gone before.’

    • Andrew says

      For myself it has been quite the opposite where female composers are often relegated to the special ‘avant-garde’ sets. The performances I’ve seen from Nicole Lizee, Julian Wolfe, and Meredith Monk have all been very challenging.

  6. Caligula says

    It’s not as if classical music hasn’t been dying for a long time. It’s true that performance standards have never been higher, but just as true that few contemporary composers ever find an audience. And far from clear that classical music can survive indefinitely as a collection of museum pieces, with few if any additions to the actually-performed repertoire. Nonetheless, with much of popular music forms becoming ever-more formulaic, it’s surely good to have at least one alternative.

    Yet the economics of commercial classical music recording became impossible decades ago, and what could possibly kill professional classical performance faster than demanding that audiences listen to what they don’t care for in order to meet some “proportional representation” quota?

    I suppose classical music will survive somewhere (perhaps in Asia) at least in amateur performance and appreciation, even if a time comes when it can’t be sustained here. At least I’d hope so, as it’s difficult to imagine a world in which no one will ever perform or hear the music of J.s. Bach.

    • Chester Draws says

      Caligula: concert classical music may be dying. Very expensive and difficult for out of towners to access.

      I’m not convinced that album classical is dead. The top performers do very nicely indeed. Better than most pop stars, because much more reliable. (Most pop artists earn basically nothing, remember, so that classical is a hard crust isn’t any different.)

      And I know for sure that there is huge money in composing for films. Morricone is not poor. John Williams is genuinely rich.

  7. Eric Huff says

    When I was in music school in the late 80s, I remember a feminist professor who insisted on using examples by women composers in her courses. Some were really awful, some were excellent. For me, there is only good and bad music. There are women who compose good music I like hearing. I don’t like bad music and I don’t like hearing any no matter who wrote it. The insistence on “diversity,” is going to create more bad music we’ll have to hear. That’s truly a shame.

  8. Richter Adams says

    Crowdfund concerts in advance. Use Kickstarter. Follow the money. Make Twitter user speak with their wallets.

  9. Kurt says

    As Prager so elequently says, the left ruins everything it touches.

    • That’s so right. The many lives saved by the socialist NHS in the UK would be better dead, surely. And when can we privatise the military and the police? Oh, of course, they’re exempt from criticism.

  10. Michael Jefferis says

    I’d be happy if orchestras would just play more of the excellent music by male composers who rarely get a hearing. Classical programming is generally very conservative, whether on the concert stage or on the FM waves.

    As for the kind of quality that keeps a piece in circulation long enough to become a classic, it’s hard to achieve. Many male-written pieces didn’t make it, and at least as high a percentage of women- and minority-written music (probably higher) won’t make it to classic status either.

    True, there is some superb formal orchestral music being written today. There is also a lot of contemporary stuff, regardless of who wrote it, that doesn’t bear a second hearing.

  11. Mike van Lammeren says

    Was Giacomo Puccini a white man? Or George Gershwin? Few would have considered them to be white in their day. And how many on that list were Catholic? Do you think they would have qualified for membership in the Royal Yacht Club? The classification of a composer by sex and ethnicity says nothing about the quality of the music, and applying some ever-shifting modern concept of “white” accentuates this silliness.

  12. Alec Hoix says

    – You had this activist followed by thousands on Twitter killed?
    – No. We just watched, and precisely because of PR concern. Please.
    – How come? What about PR ? That looks like it all was a routine. Spectacular, deadly, but manageable! Your team was not there?
    – In deed we were. ER room was manned and ready. But no diverse-black-latino-femi-trans-semi-male-LGBTXYZ physician to be seen until next week. We share one with other hospitals in the district. She wouldn’t have had it any other way, you know.

  13. Matthew Dwyer says

    What does “white” mean? There’s as much diversity within the category “white” as there are amongst races of different colors. Are we to assume we can lump Mexicans, Far East Indians, and Afghanis into the category: “brown people”?
    Nobody says in India or kenya, “you know what we need?–more historically impoverished and enslaved Irish representation. Our society is implicitly biased; We need more bagpipe.”

  14. Joe Halstead says

    The easy answer, if you want to put something like a musical arrangement on the web (on ANY platform) is to simply put it up there and offer an email link in the profile, and THAT IS IT.

    Professionals of all stripes need to stop opening themselves up to the Realm of the Stupid- that goes for any industry experts, top athletes, accomplished artists, etc.

    And for God’s sake…… stop apologizing to SJWs. You will never receive genuine forgiveness, you will never be right, you will never do anything that’s good enough, when it comes to appeasing SocJus.

    Having said that, maybe compositions submitted for consideration need to be temporarily stripped of the author’s identity for the consideration process.

  15. K.M. says

    I get the impression of an incredible amount of impatience coming from these “equity” type programs: it’s not enough that these fields be accessible to prospective composers, but they must also have rich histories of “diverse” composers? Like you discussed, historically composing was an activity for rich, white men. The programs are attempting to dredge up minor entries from history in order to somehow rewrite the past. There’s absolutely no issue if future prominent composers happen to be female, non-white, etc. But insisting that they were “there all along” is just willful revisionism.

    “ICareIfYouListen’s policy of refusing coverage of all-white male concert programs also sounds good on its face”

    No, I would say that sounds pretty terrible right out of the gate. If groups wish to take these sort of bizarrely discriminatory focuses that’s their own business, but it certainly doesn’t sound like anything I would consider “good” or wish to take part in. I can’t see how such superficial qualities make any difference, positive or negative, on the quality of their music.

    “I won’t presume to speak for anyone, but it strikes me as incredibly patronizing to suggest that they now require affirmative action to hear their works performed. ”

    I quite agree. It really just sends the message that the most important thing about these composers is their sex, not their work, which is utterly demeaning.

  16. Scarpa says

    A fine article, but the burning question: why isn’t Scriabin on the list of great white men?

    • dirk says

      For being a sovjet composer? When I was young, each and everything from the East, thus communist, was suspect, it took a long time before that changed.

      • dirk says

        With all his influence on the sovjet composers and his many disciples, and not in person of course, because he died just before the reds took over in Leningrad.

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