Degendering "maestro"

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Masterful essay by the Music Director of Symphony Nova Scotia.

"Maestro, Maestra, or Holly?"

We asked our Music Director Holly Mathieson how she prefers to be referred to on the podium!

Her reply may surprise you — or not:

The earliest record we have of the Italian term Maestro in connection to music is from 1724 (maestro di cappella, which translates as Master of the Chapel, similar to the German Kapellmeister). By the end of that century, there is evidence of it being used more generally in Italy as a single word, referring to a master or great teacher of music, or a composer. Etymologically, it shares its roots with the Latin magister, the offshoots of which include the musical term Maestoso, which instructs us to play majestically or in a stately manner, as well as more common language descendants such as magisterial and magistrate, words which connect to ideas of qualified authority.

The Italian language has very easily identifiable masculine and feminine endings to nouns (and other figures of speech): -o for men, -a for women, -i for the plural. So, the term is very much a masculine one in literal terms, and it doesn’t take much effort to see why: 18th-century Italy (or elsewhere for that matter) was certainly not a period we would expect to find women in celebrated positions of intellectual or academic office, or being celebrated for their authority. So, the term is masculine quite simply because it really did apply only to men in a very practical sense, and therefore in its historical form and usage there was no female equivalent.

In the last 20 years or so, the term “maestra” has gained popular usage as a term derived from the male-gendered original, but many native Italian speakers in the music world see it as an invented word, and consider it more correct (and, arguably, respectful) to call female conductors by the original masculine term, without changing the ending.

(By the way, this isn’t the only word in the gendered languages to have needed adaptation as women enter the professional sphere: the German word for conductor – Dirigent – now has a common feminine ending available when needed: Dirigentin.)

That covers the etymological history of the word. However, I think the cultural history of “maestro” is even more fascinating, and certainly has a far greater bearing on my thoughts about its modern usage. Along with words like masterful, masterpiece, and genius – all three of which are also inherently gendered, etymologically – the concept of the maestro was also inseparable from certain racial and class profiles, not least because through the centuries of its usage, it denoted values and opportunities afforded only to wealthy, abled males from dominant (European) cultures.

In the 20th century, beyond a demographic truism, the term came to be synonymous with the sort of toxic hierarchical and tyrannical behaviour that was fetishized in the popular image of conductors like Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan. On the surface, it makes for a slightly outlandish “demanding genius” caricature, on which many very ordinary conductors were (and are) happy to trade. But beneath the marketing hype, it also led to gross abuses of power, predatory sexual behaviour, and a pervasive culture of bullying and autocracy. Unfortunately, it still plays out in the often-unhealthy relationship between orchestras and conductors, and the incredibly outdated pay-scale differential between superstar conductors and the players they work with.

So, in case you hadn’t already guessed, I don’t take it as a compliment!

In fact, my fervent hope is that we are seeing the end of the “maestro” era, and that the term will disappear with it. It has come to represent a set of values that are not helpful to us a group of artists wanting to make something meaningful together, and I also don’t think it does our audiences any good if we perpetuate the fetishization of these words and concepts. I don’t want you to come and hear a concert to bear witness to a “maestro” or “masterpiece”. I want you to come to be an integral part of a group activity, in which we make something, critique it freely and honestly, enjoy it, get bored by it, make friends during it, explore ideas through it, and build a community alongside it. As a result, I tend not to talk about how great a piece of music is, or how much I think you’ll enjoy it – you’re more than welcome to think a piece we play is good, bad, or anything in between. It’s not my job to convince you one way or the other. But what I do try to do is present things that I hope people will engage with and think about.

A final thought for you. When I first moved to the U.K., I managed to get a job as the Music Librarian at the Philharmonia Orchestra – Karajan and Otto Klemperer’s old band, and one of the really iconic recording orchestras. In spite of their pedigree, they work with a huge variety of conductors from around the world, some superstars and others barely heard of. I soon noticed that there was no apparent correlation between the Philharmonia Orchestra’s manager using the word “maestro” and a conductor’s ability or esteem among the players. In fact, quite the opposite. So, I asked him one day what his rule was. He replied “If I’m too uncomfortable around them to use their actual name, I call them Maestro.”

Et tu, professor / profestrix?


Selected readings



  1. Laura Morland said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 3:39 pm

    So… Holly?

    A "masterful" essay indeed!

    I wonder whether abolishing the use of the term "Maestro" would truly help to eliminate the "gross abuses of power, predatory sexual behaviour, and the pervasive culture of bullying and autocracy" in the classical music world. Yet words hold power….

  2. David Morris said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 3:57 pm

    Presumably we will also refer collectively to maestrx (pronounced 'maestrix'????).

    One of my choirs is conducted by a woman who sometimes signs her emails 'Maestra M' (her given name's initial) and at least one singer addresses her as 'Maestra'. Another was conducted by a woman until last year. She always used and was addressed by her given name and it would have felt extremely odd to use 'Maestra'.

  3. David Morris said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 4:00 pm

    Possibly she signs collective emails 'Maestra M' and individual emails '(given name)'.

  4. Jamie said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 4:57 pm

    I feel there are similar problems of (abuse of) power relations in the use of “chef” as a title in kitchens (even though it is not inherently gendered)

  5. Paul Clapham said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 5:11 pm

    I'm not surprised by "Dirigentin". After all, "Stripperin" is the German term for a female stripper.

  6. jhh said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 6:23 pm

    In my community, "actor" has become preferred to "actress."

    "Aviatrix"? Sounds amazed that women could actually fly. "Senatrix"? Never heard it used.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 7:07 pm

    The noun "diva" is by contrast feminine in gender in the language from which English borrowed it and is primarily/prototypically applied to females in English. Yet just like "maestro" it might be said to evoke the same "toxic hierarchical and tyrannical behaviour" that is apparently endemic in the classical-music world. Y'all ought to relax and listen to jazz instead, maybe.

    In a non-musical context, my wonderful (now-deceased) high school Latin teacher would always start class by saying "Salvete, discipuli," to which we would respond "Salve, Magistra." Decades later my older daughter did the same routine except the kids said "Salve, Magister" because their teacher was male. Magister = Maestro; Magistra = Maestra, right?

  8. Coby said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 7:36 pm

    Maestoso comes from maestà (majesty) and from Latin maiestas, only distantly related to magister. It certainly doesn't come from maestro. So much for Ms. Mathieson's linguistic competence.
    Maestra is standard Italian (and Spanish); it usually means (female) teacher, but it can also mean a female "master" of something.

  9. Terry Hunt said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 8:29 pm

    @ Coby – I read the passage as meaning that "the offshoots . . . which include the musical term Maestoso" came from the roots that Maestro and magister share, not that Maestoso was one of the offshoots of magister.

    If Maestoso comes from maestà and maiestas, and if those are as you say (distantly) related to magister, then Maestoso must indeed share its roots with those of magister.

    I hasten to add that I have no linguistic competence in this area, I am merely analysing the logic of the statements, which appear to me to show no contradiction between Holly Mathieson's assertions and yours.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 9:12 pm

    -in is almost fully productive in German; nothing feels invented or artificial about words like Dirigentin even if you haven't encountered them before.

    -er is gendered in German. Every computer is a he.

  11. Chips Mackinolty said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 10:55 pm

    Back in the 70s there was a similar debate among feminists as to the term "history", and posed the notion of "herstory" (which my computer autocorrect spelt out as two words: "her story"!).

    C'est la vie!

  12. Steve Jones said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 2:21 am

    Norman Lebrecht, The Maestro Myth, is a classic on the autocrats of yore. I discussed a more recent instance here:

    For orchestral musos “Maestro” is often a sarcastic form of address—see under Viola jokes and maestro-baiting, reviewing Stephen Cottrell's fine ethnography:

  13. John Swindle said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 3:48 am

    Years ago I circulated a petition among members of the Honolulu Symphony Chorus and Honolulu Symphony Orchestra urging the new US President (Clinton, I think) to appoint the orchestra's assistant director, Scott Speck, as Choirmaster General on the strength of the performance he had just taken us through. (No, the US doesn't have a Choirmaster General.)

    Someone showed the petition to a symphony board member who was backstage. He signed it and said he'd always been a fan of the maestrino. It was clearly a compliment but seemed condescending.

  14. Mike Anderson said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 7:32 am

    Word voodoo aside ("Yet words hold power…"), "degendering" sounds like it might be painful. Perhaps honorifics such as "sensei", "comrade", or "citizen" might be more appropriate.

    And yet, I find the word "Senatrix" simply delightful.

  15. bks said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 7:53 am

    "Maestra" is not allowed, per Scrabble dictionary.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 8:24 am

    « And yet, I find the word "Senatrix" simply delightful »— much as those who delight in colonic irrigation might find the word "Purgatrix" delightful, I suppose … The latter would, however, be sadly disappointed on visiting the "" website, only to find a much more mundane meaning — a Büro und Haushalts Reinigungsservice

  17. V said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 8:25 am

    David Marjanović : "-er is gendered in German. Every computer is a he."

    Kind of funny considering almost all human computers were female.

  18. Jason M said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 10:31 am

    @J. W. Brewer it’s funny that just the other when talking about a visiting professor (a professor and not “profestrix”) we were hosting, I said he was “much nicer in person than all the diva behavior on email would have us believe”. Fwiw, the person in question is completely within current culturally defined parameters of the heteronormative masculine. So right after I said it, I wondered if “diva” had somewhat degendered, given it was the behavior independent of gender expectations.

  19. Robert Coren said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 11:04 am

    As Coby said, maestra is standard Italian, and has been for centuries. In Figaro's fourth-act aria in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, he refers to women collectively as "maestre d'inganni", i.e., "mistresses of deception" (one might be more inclined to say "masters" these days, though).

  20. Robert Coren said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 11:07 am

    A couple of decades ago, the Metropolitan Opera was selling T-shirts in the lobby that displayed "DIVA!" in large characters on the front, and a couple of friends of mine bought me one (which I still have somewhere). I have had a couple of people, seeing me wearing it, suggest that it should really say "Divo", which suggested to me that they were rather missing the point.

  21. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 11:09 am

    I'm not going to go into the politics of the piece, because it's just too depressing, or the linguistics even.

    But she seems to be arguing against expert performance.

    I, for one, do go to concerts to enjoy masterful performances of masterpieces. Or to restaurants. I used to even go to sports events. To enjoy watching experts do things I can't do. It's a completely different proposition of taking part in something, and no less valid.

    Does she realize she's trying to put herself out of a job? And nearly everybody else, because modern economy is based on people getting paid for things other people can't do? Does she realize that competition is baked right into human nature, and you can easily argue that it's actually the fundament of evolution itself? And that features that let you win get promoted?

  22. Robert Coren said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 11:09 am

    I have a recollection that at some time in the latter half of the 20th century (I have no idea if it's still true) the word "maestro" was used in some varieties of Latin American Spanish (maybe just Mexican?) as derogatory slang for a homosexual man (approximately, <ifaggot).

  23. wanda said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 1:07 pm

    Jason, your colleague was trying to insult that guy by attributing feminine characteristics to his behavior.

  24. Jason M said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 1:36 pm

    @wanda yeah, no question that language reflects our cultural misogyny such that a powerful, famous artist who is a woman can be a “diva”, whereas only a man of such stature can be a “maestro” with quite different connotations.

    But I do wonder if there has been in recent years a shift in usage such that “diva” describes a behavior without implying gender-based behavior. From the other perspective, I hear women being called “assholes” these days, which, in my memory, was a term for males. And the epithet deliverers did not seem to be implying the woman in question was mannish, just that she was behaving a certain way. As we lose hardened gendered concepts in general may be pejoratives will shift to describe behavior and not imply that behavior is common to a certain gender? Or maybe it’s just me.

  25. Rodger C said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 2:02 pm

    When I learned Spanish, "computer" was computadora, feminine (probably to agree with máquina). The usual current word seems to be ordenador, masculine.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 20, 2024 @ 3:29 pm

    @Jason M.: Interesting. Impressionistically (but this is certainly not based on any sort of rigorous empirical data collection and notetaking), while I have certainly heard "diva" used to describe males, it has typically (I don't claim exceptionlessly) been used in reference to males who were not perceived as "heteronormatively masculine" or at least were being insinuated not to be. But the referents of words can change, and changes may be unevenly distributed throughout the larger language community.

    For both "maestro" and "diva," I wouldn't assume that the gender-marking from the final vowels that is obvious in Italian is particularly obvious to, or consciously understood by, the typical Anglophone who does not frequent linguistics blogs. That may make it easier for them to be used in less gendered ways – i.e. the reason "maestro" is perceived by Anglophones as prototypically male may just have to do with historical gender roles in the classical-music biz, not with any particularly strong implications arising from -o versus -a word endings. So if the roles change as the culture changes, the Anglophone usage of the word may change in tandem, without the -o creating an impediment to that.

  27. Chau said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 12:01 am

    Whenever I came back to read the comments of this thread, which are very enjoyable, and saw the title of O.P., Degendering "maestro", somehow my mind kept reading Degenerating "maestro". I learn from this post that, indeed, the original meaning of maestro has degenerated.

  28. cliff arroyo said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 11:11 am

    I don't think there's anything wrong with 'maestra' but on the other hand I think maestro for a woman conductor is also perfectly fine.

    Interestingly enough (and I'm too lazy to look up why….) the female voice types in classical music all end in -o (soprano, alto, contralto, mezzo-soprano and it's abbreviation mezzo).

    I think 'diva' used of men is just an extension of similar use of 'prima donna' (with a similar meaning) where the original meaning (leading lady in opera) gets extended to personality type (unpredictable, unreasonably demanding and unstable emotionally).

  29. Ronan Maye said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 9:22 pm

    I wonder if this is the beginning of a new norm. I believe in Scandinavian countries (where egalitarianism is a central cultural value: Law of Jante), school children call their teachers by their first names. I wonder what Scandinavian orchestras do, but I'm guessing they also probably call conductors by their first names.

  30. Chris Button said,

    January 22, 2024 @ 7:37 pm

    I had thought that grammatical gender (as a way of sorting lexical items into two or more categories) and biological gender (i.e. sex) were not really related, but that they just became conflated over time? So while these discussions make sense from today's perspective, they end up looking somewhat nonsensical from a historical perspective (not to dismiss the validity of the discussion here though). Perhaps someone knowledgeable on the matter can help me out here?

  31. Julian said,

    January 22, 2024 @ 8:17 pm

    Greek is quite comfortable with using morphologically masculine role or profession nouns with the feminine form of 'the' to refer to female occupants of the role.
    'o yatros' – 'the [male] doctor'
    'i yatros' – the [female] doctor
    Maybe the inflected 'the' is regarded as enough to disambiguate. But that would also apply in French, German and Italian, which don't go down the same path so happily. So maybe there's a cultural thing going on too

  32. Rodger C said,

    January 23, 2024 @ 1:58 pm

    Julian" Ancient Greek too has a whole category of "epicene" nouns that are declined as o-stems but can be either gender.

  33. Peter said,

    January 26, 2024 @ 11:00 am

    My wife and I were kindly invited to an opera at the rather upmarket Glyndebourne Opera. At the final curtain call the man in front of us shouted 'Bravo' when the principal male singer took his bow, 'Brava' to the female lead, and 'Brave' when they reprised the bow together. Maybe that's commonplace at opera, but we couldn't help smiling afterwards as we queued for coffee the (different) man in front of us ordered two cappucini.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    January 27, 2024 @ 4:55 pm

    I am afraid that the word poseurs comes unbidden to mind, Peter …

  35. ajay said,

    January 30, 2024 @ 10:27 am

    the female voice types in classical music all end in -o (soprano, alto, contralto, mezzo-soprano and it's abbreviation mezzo).

    That is interesting – is it because there is an invisible "cantante" (singer) before it, and that's a masculine noun?

    In the last 20 years or so, the term “maestra” has gained popular usage as a term derived from the male-gendered original, but many native Italian speakers in the music world see it as an invented word

    This seems, per Coby, to be completely invented. What native Italian speaker would think that "maestra" was an invented word?

  36. KevinM said,

    January 30, 2024 @ 1:53 pm

    It is true of course that the stereotypical "maestro" conductor (Szell, Mravinsky) is a tyrant. Nevertheless, I always took maestro in this context to connote mastery of the craft and art of music. Viewed in that way, it is like calling someone a "master carpenter" as opposed to the master of a servant. Interesting issue, btw, whether it is more feminist to adopt/create a feminine form of a title, or simply to extend the masculine form to both sexes, as is increasingly the case for "actor."

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