Women’s Issues

I do not like, and never will, the association of men and women in orchestras and other instrumental combinations . . . As a member of the orchestra once said to me, “If she is attractive I can’t play with her and if she is not I won’t.”

Sir Thomas Beecham

Sir Henry Wood, conductor of the London Queen’s Hall Orchestra, and a near-contemporary of Sir Thomas, claimed to be the first conductor to admit women into a professional orchestra. In a 1913 letter to the Times of London, the famed British composer Ethel Smyth (named Dame Ethel in 1922), whose compositions included the suffragette anthem “The March of the Women,” complimented Wood, while decrying the ingrained sexism that characterized the music world at the time:

Sir, Will you allow me to point out the significance of a new departure inaugurated, after years of striving, by Sir Henry Wood–namely, the inclusion of women in a first-class orchestra. To begin with, the mere fact of belonging to certain bands enables a player to ask a good fee for lessons, and as it is mainly by teaching that orchestral musicians earn a livelihood, it is easy to gauge the importance to women of admission within the pale–a privilege till now restricted, for some mysterious reason, to harpists. But another point seems, to me, more interesting. Hitherto, after leaving the musical college, in which perhaps she led the band or played a wind instrument, a girl found herself cut off from all connection with music, except through teaching. The effect of this isolation on the music soul can be imagined. An orchestral player will grumble at the grind of rehearsals and so on, but meanwhile he is immersed in the stream, taking new ideas, acquiring new technique, and equipping himself automatically for the exercise of any special gift he may happen to possess. . . . People often ask, where are the great women composers? I wonder how many great male composers there would be if men had been completely shut out from the workaday world of art, deprived of the bracing, the concentration, the comradeship: the inestimable training and stimulus of professional life. It may be that time must elapse before we see the fruits of the movement of which Sir Henry’s splendid achievement is a symptom; but judging by the portents in science, literature and other branches of art, see them we shall someday. I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

Ethel Smyth, Mus. Doc.

… the complete text is available in “More Than Meets The Ear