Is Parity Time Here for the Classical Violin?

Jun 22, 2014

To paraphrase my previous post, if you think women have it bad in classical music, take a look at supposedly contemporary arts like film, literature, rock, jazz, blues, and country. Blogging for the New Yorker, Alex Ross noted that I “might also have pointed out that misogyny is excruciatingly commonplace in mainstream pop culture.” Alex adds that classical music

“... can point with some pride toward increasing gender parity in the makeup of orchestras, toward considerable progress in the representation of female composers, and—caveats aside—toward the historic empowerment of the diva.”   

Alex’s post is excellent and worth reading in full, but let me use that highlighted sentence to segue to my “Part 2,” which, I said, would look at a classical field that seems to have reached parity. What I had in mind was the violin.

In classical violin playing, women now have as good a chance of reaching the top as men do. And no instrument ranks above the violin in professional status: superstar violinists get some of the best fees in the business, and their instrument has not only a huge solo repertory but also leading roles in core ensemble types, like the orchestra, string quartet, piano trio, and piano quartet.

But, you might ask, has the field really achieved parity? And if so, what can we learn from it? As Kai Ryssdal might say, let’s do the numbers.


THEN: We Had Male

Women violin soloists certainly did not have an equal shot at the top in the 18th, 19th, or first half of the 20th centuries.  In 1878, the British pedagogue Georg Dubourg wrote, “The common objection is that [for women to play the violin] is ungraceful - a more solid objection, perhaps, is that they do not naturally possess the physical grasp, so essential to the requirements of playing.” And in 1901, a male author in Etude Magazine (hat/tip Cora Cooper) wrote:

“Where the higher art of violin-playing is concerned, the average gifted woman labors under certain great disadvantages which too often prove fatal, insurmountable barriers to success. How many are blessed with the physical strength which is necessary to carry them through the long hard years of musical servitude? The limit of their physical endurance is not often commensurate with the demands of their art; and just when the greatest effort is required of them—when their highest musical and instrumental possibilities are dependent upon a continuance, if not an increase, of energy and vitality—they fail to put forth the requisite strength, and stop far short of their aspirations."

To be fair, some statements were more enlightened, like the one Brahms made in 1885 about violinist Marie Soldat: “Isn’t she terrific? Can’t she take on 10 men?” Another came from Brahms’s leading advocate among Viennese music critics, Eduard Hanslick, who in 1897 wrote “If you ask me, concern that a woman can’t hold her own is totally invalid.”

I’m quoting Hanslick from the excellent, encyclopedic, and thoroughly entertaining 2013 book by University of Iowa historian David Schoenbaum, The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument. He shows that some intrepid women did achieve “the highest art” as violinists and at least some recognition (Tully Potter also nicely surveys them). But at the peaks of fame, men greatly outnumbered women. Men took not only the limelight but also the lucre - Schoenbaum shows that female violin soloists were paid less than comparable men.

Schoenbaum informs us that in 1910 women made up only 16% of the violinists in the Royal College of Music’s professional directory and that a celebrated 1916 book, Famous Violinist of To-Day and Yesterday, gives only 12% of its pages to women. I notice similar imbalances in much later books. The series The Way They Play, published between 1975 and 1985, has an 8:1 ratio of male to female interviewees, and Zdenko Silvela’s 2001 A New History of Violin Playing has entries for dozens of men from modern times but only three women (Ginette Neveu, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Kyung-Wha Chung).

And just last year, BBC Music Magazine polled 100 current violinists about the players who had most influenced them; the “golden age” of the violin apparently seems a man’s world to those polled, since their final list of “20 most influential violinists included only one woman, Neveu. She was killed in a 1949 place crash at age 30; here’s a sample of what the world of music lost:

As for women (other than harpists) in the top orchestras of a century ago, you can count them with your fingers. The Royal Concertgebouw hired a women string player in 1897; Schoenbaum notes that the Queen’s Hall Orchestra hired six in 1913. In the US, according to a University of Iowa doctoral dissertation by cellist Amy Phelps, the Cleveland Orchestra hired four in 1924, and the San Francisco Symphony and Minneapolis Symphony each hired five in 1925. But these women were exceptional, and the prejudice they faced is driven home by another male quoted by Cooper from Etude in 1901:

Imagine a refined, delicately-constituted young woman enduring the actual hardships which fall to the lot of every individual orchestral member of the Metropolitan Opera! Let any woman who imagines herself capable of performing such work as these men perform acquaint herself with what is required.... She will be quickly disillusioned…. In a word, the orchestra is decidedly not woman’s sphere.”

I didn’t make that up (and we’ll get back to the Met Orchestra). Etude’s commentator didn’t discuss female string quartets, but Schoenbaum does, noting the classic joke, “How do you become a millionaire by playing quartets? Start out as a billionaire!” Several leading women violinists did start quartets nonetheless, including Soldat, Vilémina Neruda, Geraldine Morgan, Isolde Menges, and Erica Morini. But all the major quartets that left large bodies of recordings in the pre-digital era had male first violinists. I welcome correction, but the trend is overwhelming: Men dominated the classical violin profession as late as the 1970s.


NOW: It's Parity Time


Today, any plausible list of the foremost violinists would include at least as many women as men. The numbers:

VIOLIN SOLOISTS: Having said what I did about plausible lists, I need to point you to one.  Since I couldn't find anything ready-made, I came up with my own list. I included every violinist under the age of 45 with enough of a solo career to have been heard of by me, who almost never leaves Iowa and knows violinists mostly by recordings or reputations. I managed to come up with 90, and - drumroll - 48 are women, 42 are men. That is 53.3% female - statistically, a coin-toss. Since women make up 52% of the adult population, it is enough to suggest that woman soloists now have as good a chance at a career as men. You can probably come up with a better list (consider mine a wiki and feel free to let me know what you’d change - as two of you have done, thanks!). But I’d guess that your list will be similar in its gender balance.

As Kai would say, cue the happy music!

One could argue that my list is just names and doesn’t “weight” the violinists by their artistic stature and recognition. So here’s a stand-in for that: Gramophone recently posted a list of ten violin concertos to start your collection with, recommending a best recording from recent years. Of the ten recordings, seven are by women:

- the Beethoven and Alban Berg Concertos played by Isabelle Faust (a multiple Gramophone Award winner)

- the Brahms Violin Concerto and Bruch First played by Julia Fischer (whose Mozart and Tchaikovksy recordings are also outstanding),


- the Shostakovich First played by Lisa Batiashvili

-the second concertos of Bartók and Prokofiev played by Patricia Kopatchinskaja.


One could question any given selection, of course but a revised list probably wouldn’t increase male representation.

Midori Goto, born in Japan in 1971, one of the women who has reached the pinnacle of today's violin profession. (She also does serious educational outreach work, as in this picture.)

It might even reduce it. Check out some favorites of mine that aren't on Gramophone's list, such as  Midori’s Mendelssohn Concerto, recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic, or Faust’s Bartok Concertos, Rachel Barton Pine's Mozart, or Hilary Hahn's Brahms Concerto - or HahnLisa Batiashvili, Amandine Beyer, Monica Huggett, Rut Ingolfsdottir, Janine Jansen,  Anne Akiko Meyers, Viktoria Mullova, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Rachel Podger in various Bach violin concertos. Better, listen to all ten play Bach for evidence that women don’t all play alike, and don't in any audible way play “like women."

STRING QUARTETS: I mentioned that the dominant recorded string quartets had male first violinists. By contrast, today many of the best-known quartets have a woman playing first fiddle. Here are 25 I know of: the Aizuri, Amar, Arcanto, Attaca, Belcea, Casals, Cavani, Cecilia, Chiara, Corigliano, Cypress, Daedalus, Dante, Delray, Del Sol, Enso, Gesualdo, Lark, Kepler, Klenke, Pavel Haas, Pacifica, and Ying String Quartets. Someday I may get real numbers but for now, I’ll predict that they won’t undermine the case that women have achieved parity.

ORCHESTRAL VIOLINISTS: To make sure we’re comparing apples to apples, I’ll look only at the best American and European orchestras, operationally defined as the top 16 chosen when Gramophone magazine polled 100 experts from around the world to come up with a list of the world’s best orchestras.

To earn a position in one of these orchestras, a violinist has to play on a level comparable to a solo artist - the competition is that intense and the standards that high. So how are women violinists faring? The answer depends on which side of the Atlantic you look at. In the top 13 American orchestras in 2008, women held a slight majority in the violin sections at 52% (we know that from the dissertation of Phelps). Today, the majority has increased, at least if you restrict the count to Gramophone’s “World’s Best." In the US that includes the “Big Five” (the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia Orchestra) plus the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and MET Orchestra (the Metropolitan Opera's orchestra).  Whether you look at the Big Five or all Eight, in 2014 the violin sections have a solid female majority at 58%   - 148 women, 107 men. (By the way, remember Etude’s mention of the Metropolitan Orchestra? Right now half its violinists are female - and there’s universal agreement that it plays better than it ever did in the past.)

Meanwhile, in the top eight European orchestras on Gramophone’s list, the violin sections show the opposite ratio: 61% of the violinists are guys.

Tallying this is complicated, since these European orchestras have more violinists on average than the American ones (about 23% more), which raises the total number of males counted. But I’ll ignore that and add the two continents together. I come up with 307 men and 274 women violinists in the top 16 orchestras  - that is to say, 53% male and 47% female, which is not perfect but statistically close. And if you move past the top 16 to less-famous orchestras, it gets closer. (A caveat: Men still disproportionately hold the positions known as "concertmaster" in the US - the four top violinists in the orchestra - because seniority is central to how that position is filled. But with time, the genders are balancing out here too. In fact, now one of the Vienna Philharmonic's concertmasters is Bulgarian violinist Albena Danailova, who was confirmed in that role in 2011. How remarkable is it to have a woman in that post? Read on. But first...) My conclusion:


If you want to find a high-level artistic profession in which women and men are equals, forget film directing, guitar heroes, and country-music festivals; look instead to today's classical violin scene.



Some professions center on gender-specific attributes - think defensive tackles vs. supermodels, or for that matter basso profundos vs. coloratura sopranos. It's obvious why the former professions are all male and the latter all female. But the opposite is true of classical instrumental playing. The violinists I mentioned above bristle at any suggestion that they play the classics in a “female” way different from males, and in fact no critic could accurately guess which recording of Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms is by a woman and which by a man. (One can usually tell which generation a violinist is from, and perhaps their teacher’s “school,” but their gender? Impossible. As we'll see.)

In a craft that makes no gender-specific demands, parity should be the norm. But in many such artistic professions, parity is in fact highly unusual (as I demonstrated in Post 1,titled "How Exceptional IS Classical's Woman Problem?"). So it’s worth taking time to consider how the violin field attained parity. I’ll begin my considerations by examining why American violin sections have higher percentages of women than European orchestras.

“Wassup Europe?”: Two explanations.  I see two main reasons:

- Legacy: How soon the doors opened. If you want to guess the gender balance of an orchestra’s violin section in 2014, you will do better than chance if you simply know how many years it’s been since the orchestra accepted its first woman (not including the harpists - I’ll get to that). That’s partly because orchestral musicians usually have decades of tenure, so even when the gender barriers fall it takes a while for women to even have openings to try out for.

I won’t bore you with the overall statistics, because it’s so obvious, but the clearest comparison is of the Royal Concertgebouw, the only European major orchestra with a majority-female violin section - 2:1, like an American orchestra - to the Vienna Philharmonic, which has only five women violinists, the fewest of any of the majors. The Concertgebouw accepted its first female string player in 1897, while the Vienna Philharmonic hired its first only six years ago, in 2008. Vienna was the last major orchestra to admit women, 15 years after the previous holdout, the Berlin Philharmonic. The Viennese gave in only in 1997, when the National Organization of Women threatened boycotts and demonstrations of the orchestra's planned US tour. Just before embarking, the VPO held a last-minute vote, and the younger players' "for" votes overwhelmed the retired players' "against" votes, according to the woman admitted, harpist Anna Lelkes. (By the way, Gramophone's critics ranked the Concertgebouw the finest orchestra in the world; yes, those Viennese fiddlers are glorious, but not more than the Dutch ones.)

- Blind Auditions - Legacy is part of the story, but not all. Another practice that increased the number of women in American orchestras was blind auditions. US orchestras started using them in the 1970s after two African-American musicians brought charges against the New York Philharmonic in 1969 for racial discrimination. The orchestra and Leonard Bernstein took them seriously, and one result was “blinding.” In such auditions, a screen keeps the judges from seeing the applicant who’s playing, which means that gender is as hidden as race. Orchestras also try to hide non-visual cues to gender -  the player enters on a thick carpet or barefoot to hide the sounds made by shoes, and are often advised not to wear fragrances.

A lot changed in the world in the 1960s-80s, including the rise of “second-wave feminism,” so how could researchers separate out the contribution of blind auditions to increased female participation? As it happens, a brilliant and elegantly designed study published in 2000 by two economists - Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Cecilia Elena Rouse of Princeton - did just this.

Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University
Credit Harvard University
Cecilia Rouse of Princeton, where she is: Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; Katzman and Ernst Professor in the Economics of Education; Professor of Economics and Public Affairs; and Founding Director of the Education Research Section.
Credit Princeton University


Goldin and Rouse looked at confidential data from eight major US orchestras, and concluded:

The screen increases - by 50 percent - the probability that a woman will be advanced from certain preliminary rounds and increases several fold the likelihood that a women will be selected in the final round.  

The blind auditioning process has its own problems and some critics, and many European orchestras - including the Berlin Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra - do not use them. But this study suggests that it explains part of the differing gender balances across continents. One major European orchestra that does use them now is the Vienna Philharmonic, and it started doing so precisely to help redress its legacy of exclusion of women. Blind auditions demonstrate how much expectation distorts what we hear: bias made supposedly impartial expert judges think they were hearing women musicians play less well, but the research shows that this was not because of what they were actually hearing.

- Auditioning More Applicants - Fifty percent is, when you think about it, a stunningly large effect. But Goldin and Rouse find other influences. American orchestras started auditioning more musicians for each opening, which gave more women a chance to try out - especially in violin sections, since these typically employ 30-40 players, compared to wind or brass sections that have only a handful of players. That means more turnover from violinists leaving or retiring, and thus many more openings for which both genders can apply.

- Declining Sexism - Also, Goldin and Rouse note a decline in sexist attitudes among those making the final hiring decisions - people who used to say that women’s playing was too “feminine” for, say, the manly-manly music of Beethoven’s heroic works.

- More Women Going for Major Careers - Finally, Goldin and Rouse find that a significant piece of the puzzle is that more women started pursuing major professional careers. This trend took place in many fields and involved many variables. For example, Schoenbaum and Potter both note that marriage and maternity often meant “retirement” for women violinists with significant solo careers. Maternity was actually used as an argument against admitting women by older Vienna Philharmonic players as late as 1996. (Footnote: it's pleasing to note that the Vienna Philharmonic's first female concertmaster is on maternity leave.)

In any event, the increasing participation of women in professional life must explain part of this post’s basic point about the rise of women in the classical violin.

Now, if more women are going for major careers, that ought to affect all orchestral instruments equally, right? Yet that is not what we see. The actual representation brings us to another important element of the story of women and the violin - that instrument choices are still “gender-stereotyped.”

Another Element: Women Choose the Violin Often Compared to Other Instruments

Behind every classical instrumentalist is a child who worked very hard from an early age to master the craft. How early? The great violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter has argued that the violin’s technique is so exacting that after you turn six it’s too late to become a classical professional. And as it happens, girls of that age tend to choose different instruments than boys do.

This "gendering" is quite measurable:
- at America’s top conservatory, Juilliard, in the second half of the 20th century, women were  2-3 times more likely to focus on strings and winds than on brass instruments, and this ratio did not change over those 50 years;
- the harp has been considered a feminine instrument for a century; in 1945, Time reported that 99% of America’s 4,000 harpists were women, and even now, in my 16 leading orchestras, only two have male harpists (San Francisco and London).
- the double-bass has long been a guy thing: out of the 155 double-bassists employed by my 16 orchestras, only seven are women.

If you think this kind of stereotyping is passing into history, a recent study in the UK found that children still tend to choose gender-stereotyped instruments. The researchers report that “girls predominated in harp, flute, voice, fife/piccolo, clarinet, oboe and violin, and boys in electric guitar, bass guitar, tuba, kit drums, tabla and trombone.”

Electric guitar? Sure enough, not even one woman made Rolling Stone’s list of  100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Yet isn’t it obvious that women have all that’s needed biologically to become guitar heroes? Similarly, there is no biological barrier to women who want to play the double-bass or horn or tuba. Indeed, the first woman member of the New York Philharmonic was double-bassist Orin O’Brien - who was hired by Leonard Bernstein in 1966, and is still there! But she remains the only woman in that section.

Many hypotheses have been forwarded about why instruments are so “gendered” - an unpublished draft of this post considered their pros and cons. I’ll stay out of it for now (meanwhile, let me link to Phelps's Iowa thesis for an extended discussion). It’s not critical to my point, in any case, which is that


The rise of women violinists results from an intersection between: 1) reduced barriers to entry for women violinists, 2) increased likelihood of having a full-time professional career and 3) a strong interest among women in this particular instrument.

By the way, this "gendering" may complicate an interesting explanation that Schoenbaum offers for the rise of women in the violin profession - namely, that the violin has lost cultural status, so men no longer seek to dominate it. Famous violinists of the past like Heifetz were the cultural equivalent of rock gods, whereas in 2007 Joshua Bell played incognito in a subway station and nobody noticed his presence. The all-male list of rock-guitar heroes fits Schoenbaum's thesis. Still, this decline in cultural status also applies to other classical instruments that men still dominate. So while loss of status may be part of the explanation for the rise of women in the violin world, gender stereotyping is more of a factor.

Part 3: "Taragate" Revisited

I waded into this topic in response to a notorious case of fat-shaming: the superb Irish mezzo Tara Erraught being dissed because she supposedly didn’t look the way certain male music critics wanted her to. I can’t ignore that issue with respect to the violin. The good news is that we no longer filter out half of humanity’s violinistic genius because of gender; but the less-good news is that we do filter out some genius over ideals of physical appearance. As Jessica Duchen writes, “It has become much harder for soloists... to be noticed unless they look as good as they sound.” That is a loss to the artists who don’t get the careers, and also to the rest of us. As Duchen puts it, “if indifferent artists who are supremely photogenic are snaffling the opportunities – and keeping out potentially great ones who are not – audiences are being duped.”

Duchen adds that this affects “young women most of all.” I couldn’t find research on that but I find it convincing. In any event, NPR’s Anastasia Tsoulcias, in an excellent post reflecting on these debates, gets to the core issue when she says, “I hold out hope that the lion's share of reflection is directed toward how much we collectively make a woman's body the ultimate arbiter of her worth.”

To be sure, we can’t expect classical music to redress all the world’s injustices - the “beauty premium” distorts many labor markets. And of course, sometimes a supreme violinist coincidentally also looks like what the fashion industry seeks. But when that happens, such violinists resent being judged for their looks. More to the point, statistically many more supreme artists do not look that way. Would the great Neveu get a contract from today’s major media conglomerates (Universal, Warner, etc.)? My guess is that we would be hearing her on an indie classical label - and perhaps that’s part of why such labels often produce the best recordings.  

I’ll go back to my Post 1: classical-music culture is doing better in this regard than most of popular culture. But that’s not good enough. Some of my colleagues would like to take classical music off its exalted pedestal and connect it to our wider culture; that's great when it means performing Sibelius in parking ramps, encouraging less formal conduct at concerts, and recording creative collaborations between Pulitzer-winning composers and Indie rock giants - but not when it means pressuring violinists to appear as so-called “violin babes.”

This is, by the way, another argument for blind auditioning. And here’s another modest proposal: blind CD reviewing. I’d love it if it record-review editors would switch to a system of hiding the identity of the artists on recordings sent to reviewers. As the blind audition research proves, few of us hear a performance as "it is"; our preconceptions about this or that artist tend to shape what we experience. Those preconceptions can include not only artists' reputations but also their appearance, age nationality, and gender. In concert halls these demographics can't be hidden, but in CD reviews it would be relatively easy.



Back to the good news. We devotees savor the genius captured in recordings from earlier times, like Adolf Busch and David Oistrakh (to name two of my special favorites). But Oistrakh regarded Neveu as his superior  - he wrote exactly that to his wife when Neveu beat him in the first Wieniawski Competition in 1935. And then there were all the women who didn’t have the option of developing their talents and careers (their plight is documented especially well by David Schoenbaum). Much though I love the violinists of the golden age, the era would have been even more golden if women had had an equal chance to participate.

Thus the biggest takeaway from considering women and the violin is that gender balance is good not only for artists, but also for the art. The rise of women in the violin is not just something to note, it's something to celebrate and emulate. Tell your kids they can play whatever they want (harp, double-bass, electric guitar or violin) regardless of gender, and you’ll be doing not only them but everyone else a favor. Really - as Kai says, do the numbers!