Women struggle to succeed in classical music unless they “go along with the old idea that sex sells”, Dame Jenni Murray has suggested, as she laments the sexist world of orchestras.
The Woman’s Hour presenter claimed female musicians such as violinist Nicola Benedetti and trumpet player Alison Balsom have been accepted because they are marketed in a particular way.
Others, who have not allowed themselves to sign up to the notion of “sex sells”, have been left struggling, she said, as women fall victim to a barrage of sexist comments and abuse.
Dame Jenni, who will soon conduct the BBC Philharmonic orchestra as part of a Woman’s Hour special, claimed even women who have “made it” in classical music have been subjected to a “pretty tough time”.
“The women who seem to be most welcome are the ones who are prepared to go along with the old idea that sex sells,” she told this week’s Radio Times magazine.
“Look at the way the violinist Nicola Benedetti and trumpeter Alison Balsom are marketed.”
Last year, an interview with Benedetti in a tabloid newspaper discussed the likelihood of her “posing for the lads’ mags”, before asserting she looked “fit as a fiddle”.
Balsom, who has been nicknamed the “trumpet crumpet” by some publications, has previously admitted “orchestral brass players can be very macho, with an intimidating group mentality”, but said she had grown more confident as she gained musical experience.
A spokesman for Benedetti said she did not wish to comment on the issue, while Balsom was unavailable for comment.
Dame Jenni, who confessed she could “set the cause of women and music back years” after attempting to conduct with little training, said the world of orchestras remained blighted by sexism.
Claiming it is “still more common” for women to play violin, woodwind and harp than instruments considered more “masculine”, she detailed a catalogue of abuse suffered by her acquaintances.
One, she said, “was told by male members of her orchestra that hour of wrapping her lips around the mouthpiece must improve her talent in other departments”.
Another, working in 1959, was told she was “taking men’s work and should be at home looking after the kids”.
“Even those women who made it have had a pretty tough time,” said Dame Jenni. “Sir Thomas Beecham once told a female cellist, ‘You have between your legs the most sensitive instrument known to man and all you can do is sit there and scratch it.’
“Maggie Cotton, who joined the City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1959, had long been told her choice of percussion meant she was “the wrong sex playing the wrong instrument”.
“A conductor, during rehearsal, as she picked up her cymbals, asked whether they were the largest pair she had. As her colleagues tittered she picked up a bigger pair and was told, ‘Hold them up. I want you to be known as the woman with the largest pair in the Midlands!’”
Dame Jenni will be conducting the Overture to Bizet’s Carmen on Friday June 21 as part of a Radio 4 programme to mark women in music, after being given a one-hour lesson by conductor Jessica Cottis.
“I shall, I hope, terrify the players into submission with the power of my baton and by peering at them over the top of my specs,” she said.
Speaking of the current situation, the broadcaster also referred to the BBC Proms, which has a female conductor for its Last Night for the first time this year.
“The BBC is not entirely blameless in this matter,” she told the magazine. “For the first time this year, the Last Night of the Proms – that wonderful night in the classical music calendar – will be conducted by a woman, the American genius Marin Alsop. It only took 119 years to get there.”