Not long ago, in the sweep of human history, Matt Damon suggested that there are degrees of sexual harassment and misconduct and that there should be different consequences, depending on the gravity of the offense. I don’t have his actual words in front of me, but I think it amounted to suggesting, in the first place, that rape was worse than touching or even caressing buttocks, and that our and society’s reactions should differ accordingly. To add my own gloss: for some things, one should be imprisoned; for some, loss of employment s appropriate; for some, disgrace is fitting. I’d also comment that in the case of some long past, minor offenses, the consequences should take account of the culture of the time in which they occurred.
The reaction was swift and furious. Denunciations rose to the level of suggestions that his appearance in an upcoming movie should be excised. The rationale seems to be that because he is a man he is not allowed to express an opinion on matters affecting women. I don’t recall any assertions that all offenses were equally grave, but there may have been an idea that attempting to grade them was irrelevant, since they were all offenses against women.
I think Matt Damon was right, and it was his right to say it. To deny his right to do so because he’s a man strikes me as sexism.
More recently, some people complained to management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra that they are not playing enough music by women and minority composers. They pointed out that in this year’s subscription series only one work composed by a woman is being performed.
The question that occurs to me is, “Who are the composers who deserve to have a place alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Rachmaninoff, and others in the standard repertory?” The only female composers of any stature I’m aware of are Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, and I really doubt that there are others as good or better whose works have been suppressed. Similarly, the only “minority” composers I’ve heard of are the Chevalier de Saint Georges and T.J. Anderson (a black man who was a member of the Harvard Musical Association). It’s not that simple, however. It won’t do simply to say, “There are no female or minority Beethovens.”
For one thing, the BSO performs works by second rank composers. This season, for example, we’re being treated to compositions by Méhul, Adams, and Ligeti. There ought to be room for Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach from time to time. In addition, the orchestra regularly commissions or co-commissions new works. This season, they are giving the American premiere of a new work by Jörg Widmann which they and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra jointly commissioned.
So I think the response is twofold. On the one hand, new works by women and minority composers should be as welcomed by the orchestra as those by white males. There may be proportionally fewer women and minority composers than their numbers in the population at large, but sex and ethnicity should not be limiting factors. On the other hand, the music of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries has all been composed, and it’s almost all by dead white men. For the foreseeable future, that music will be a major part of the repertory of symphony orchestras, and that does not mean the orchestras are being racist or sexist.