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She is a woman and a composer - so what?

Recently Kees Vlaardingerbroek, programmer of the NTRZaterdagMatinee published a plea against what he calls 'identity politics' in music. 'Bach was not a woman and not Western. So what? reads the headline. In the subtitle, we read: 'If a composer is not a woman or Western, it no longer fits into the classical canon.' Quite boldly put, because in any concert brochure you will find almost exclusively music by white (often dead), men. Perhaps the headline-maker of de Volkskrant A peep out of the corner here?

Surely this does not seem to be the case. Further on, Vlaardingerbroek writes: 'A forced replacement of the great masters by female contemporaries or composers with non-European roots leads irrevocably to audience destruction, and thus to empty theatres and eventually even closure.' How now? Has anyone ever claimed to want to replace grand masters with their female colleagues? Not to my knowledge. I myself have also been fighting for years for more visibility of female composers. Who, as far as I am concerned, deserve a place besides, not instead of their male colleagues.


Consequently, an - international - Twitter storm immediately erupted. To some, Vlaardingerbroek is seen as the bearded devil who wants to maintain white privilege at all costs. To others, he is the hero who answers the whining about the disadvantage of women and minority groups.

Well, the truth lies, as it usually does, in the middle.

After all, it is precisely Vlaardingerbroek who is giving women composers ample space in his broadcasting series this season. So it cannot be said that he would neglect them. On the other hand, I know of no musicologist or feminist who would want to replace Bach with his contemporary Anna Bon di Venezia, as Vlaardingerbroek argues. It is only about the obviousness with which women are still 'forgotten' in concert practice.

Quality m/f

Vlaardingerbroek does, however, touch on an essential point that I have been resisting all my musicological life. A woman's music should not be programmed because she comes from a woman, but to her quality. And that's where we get on a slippery slope. How often do I hear: 'We really don't play music NOT because it belongs to a woman, we simply go for quality.' As if men never once deliver a mediocre piece and women never produce a masterpiece.

Conversely, as a feminist, I get angry reactions when I criticise a woman's composition. "You belong to women, don't you?" it sounds reproachful. As if I should close my critical ear as soon as there are notes by a woman on the music stand. In short: the struggle for emancipation of all kinds of minority groups continues unabated, also in classical music.

Meanwhile, on 18 May in Vlaardingerbroeks own NTRSaturdayMatinee many 'female notes' to be heard. - In the ratio 4/5 in favour of the ladies! The only man on the programme is Sander Germanus, whose Im Vortex will have its world premiere. In addition, pieces by Unsuk Chin, Rebecca Saunders, Carola Bauckholt and Rozalie Hirs.

Like Germanus, Hirs composed a piece commissioned by Vlaardingerbroek himself, lightclouds. Which of the two new compositions is the better one you can judge for yourself on 18 May, at the Great Hall of the Concertgebouw or during the live broadcast on Radio4.

To end in Vlaardingerbroek's own terminology: Hirs is a woman and a composer. So what?

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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