Women Composers: Reminiscence and History

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40375087

The current wave of interest in matters relating to women has sparked a series of projects about women in the arts. Women and Creativity, Women in Music, and other panel presentations have proliferated. For the most part these are still in the inchoate phase of assertions that women can indeed be creative, and those of us who have never doubted it must greet them with the ambivalence they warrant. More important, courses (even curriculums) in "Women's Studies" are springing up in college catalogues. These are, for practical reasons, most often foisted initially upon the most convenient candidates for teaching them, generally women of commitment to the arts, history, or women's rights, but seldom to all three, and, more to the point, seldom with genuine credentials in two. Since the subject is new, this is inevitable. Assignments to teach such courses have resulted in a scramble for materials, a preliminary focus on political history, and interestingly a kind of cooperation and exchange unusual in academic life.1 But because of the haste in preparation, the vital but nonpolitical contributions of women, past and present, have tended to be scanted or ignored. There seems to be some danger of perpetuating a narrow political focus in Women's Studies, for these courses comprise the chief substance of the small but growing group of graduate students concentrating in Women's Studies, who will surely be the bulwark of such offerings in the future.

On the other side of the street, students in the arts are beginning a series of projects of their own. The music students face special problems, for music departments have traditionally welcomed women in both voice and music education, and, to a lesser extent, in piano. (Studies show, however, that higher ranks and salaries, along with administrative positions, show a drastic drop-off of female incumbents.) Performers of other instruments, as well as scholars in theory and musicology, have found less difficulty in the universities than in the profession. The orchestral picture, for example, has been quite bleak, and unless an orchestra had a very low budget or enjoyed a singularly enlightened directorship, the chance for women in orchestral careers through 1970 was poor. (When Fritz Reiner came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1953, he fired all women in the orchestra—including two first desk players—sight unseen.) And although women have been able to train as scholars, such prestigious organizations as the American Musicological Society persisted until recently in the double standard: only women were listed as nominees for secretary and only men for president. (Currently, the AMS has a woman president, Prof. Janet Knapp.)

Women composers are in a special category. Like many women in a field where little research has been done, I must rely on my own memories for examples. I was refused as a composition student at the Oberlin Conservatory in 1944 and was forced to switch to piano or forfeit my scholarship. This disinclination to allow women to think of composing in serious terms is crucial; composition classes were looked upon with favor a generation ago, but only as a suitable supportive activity, and the occasional woman of determination had to search for a willing teacher. I was finally welcomed by the composer-teacher Irwin Fischer of the American Conservatory of Music (Chicago), now Dean of the Faculty of that institution; and eventually I earned both bachelor and master's degrees in composition there. Other teachers at the same school would not accept women, but Fischer's acceptance was not an unconsidered one; he had dedicated his Ariadne Abandoned (1938) "to the cause of women in music"—something of a heroic stance at that time.

But after earning the degrees in composition I found that performance and publication of my music were inseparably linked with my sex: all works that I submitted with my right name were rejected (all but one unopened—and that with a letter saying that my work was "deserving of performance" yet not offering to perform it); conversely, the two that I submitted with male pseudonym were accepted. When I gave up the subterfuge on principle, I virtually relinquished any chance for significant activity as a composer until the late 1960s, when attitudes began to change. But I was fortunate in developing a genuine enthusiasm for historical studies, so the switch was not painful.

For the most part the subject of women composers has brought forth searches, on the one hand by women music students looking for women composers to list in research themes, and, on the other hand, by women performers (or teachers in women's colleges), for women composers' works suitable for performance. (But to be included in an "all woman composers" program must also remain a matter of ambivalence.)

Thus two groups deal with musical creativity of women in two different ways: the generalist in Women's Studies claims the potential of women as a basic tenet but does not document it; the musician looks for the documentation but does not ramify it. The history of the creative life of women falls between: neither group is directly concerned with historical perspective within this aspect of their interests.

Actually, a general survey of the creative life of women in Western history is of considerable interest. It is my aim, here to present such a survey, brief and general enough to be of value for both groups, to give information about musical accomplishments to those dealing with general materials on women, and to offer historical substance to those investigating the music. (I will not deal with the music itself.)

Beginning the history of women in music with Medieval Europe is instructive, for that was a period of productivity, of professional women—including composers. Evidence is obscure in part, consisting at times of such fragile evidence as the many vernacular terms for women that would have had no purpose were there no women for the terms to be applied to. For example, Provençal had not only a term for trobador, a troubadour, but also a trobairitz, a female troubadour—and the famed Cantigas of Alfonso X (1252-1284) contains illustrations of both.2 Old English had terms for both male and female musician (gligmann and gliewmeden), as well as word forms for specific performers (hearpestre, a female harper; timpestere, a female drum player, etc.)3 Several women troubadours are known to us, including Beatriz de Dia (active about 1160), Marie of France (about forty years later), and Agnes de Navarre-Champagne (fourteenth century); these women were among the great poets of their times. But the remaining works are scant; not many of their lyrics survive, and of what survives the music is often lost.

Other kinds of surviving documents support a claim for the place of women in Medieval musical life. The famed incorporation of minstrels in Paris on September 14, 1321, for example, states at the outset that it deals between city officials and "des Menstreus et Menestrelles, jongleurs et jongleresses, demourant en la ville de Paris."4 The thirty-six names affixed at the end include eight identifiable as women.

Most compelling, however, is the evidence of equality of autonomy of men and women in monastic life. Just as abbots wrote texts on many subjects and often supplied hymns and other lyrics, with music, for their monks, abbesses wrote for their nuns. But although Isabelet la Rousselle and Marcella Chartaine (two who are given in the incorporation of minstrels) remain tantalizingly unknowable to us, some of the monastic women have left permanent monuments to their creative lives: Rhoswitha at least a portion of her plays, Julian of Norwich her mystical Revelations (1373)5 and Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) some scientific treatises and a small body of plainchant. Of these I have heard the Skidmore Singers, under the direction of Peter Flanders, sing the sequence O virga ac diadema, and can attest to its powerful, authentic musical value.

If a small but significant percentage of the known creative people were female in an age when most creative work remained anonymous, it must be assumed that a small but significant percentage of anonymous works must have been composed by women; the exclusively male "anonymous" must yield to integration.

In music the Renaissance was a step backwards for women, who seem always to have remained as jongleresses (and in modern times as tight-rope walkers, acrobats, and circus stars) but who yielded their educational equality when they left the monastery and the castle. The retrenchment was true in general, of course, not just in music. Bari Watkins, working in the Yale University history department, says that the new social structure in Italy "deprived women of power, created a patriarchal culture, and, in general, set women back in their quest for human liberty and autonomy."6 The new modus vivendi and the new philosophy of humanism gave a self-conscious freedom to men, but, in developing the idea of a home, simultaneously developed the dogma that a woman's place was to stay in it. In general, creative channels for women were restricted or closed; and for the sixteenth century it is difficult to document much female creative activity except in England, which retained a good deal of Medieval ambience in spite of the personal (and egocentric) humanism of Henry VIII. Henry liked creative skill in his women, and Anne Boleyn's reputation as musician (she both performed and composed) descended to her daughter, Elizabeth I. That monarch's influence on the concepts of womanhood would make a fascinating study. Nonetheless, the woman became a performer rather than a composer by the end of the sixteenth century.

In Italy and Germany patterns were now set for three centuries of restrictive education for women. In Europe as a whole, creative musicianship for women would depend upon three factors: monastic life, birth into a family of professional musicians active in the apprenticeship system, and nobility of birth (which meant good private tutoring). The first implied a continuing Medieval system, which persisted through the sixteenth century in scattered places and produced a small group of woman composers such as Raphaela Alioti, Prioress of the Convent of San Vito at Ferrara (whose motets were mixed up with Pasquini's)—another Alioti, Victoria, published books of madrigals in 1591 and 1593 (she may have been Raphaela's sister, or she may have been the same woman using a different name for secular publications.) The group born into professional musical families was small in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but would expand into the largest group by the end of the eighteenth. It included Francesca Caccini (1587-c.1640), who worked in the tradition of her famous father Giulio, composer of the Nuove Musiche of 1601. In the seventeenth century both sources produced more assured composers, such as Barbara Strozzi (the adopted daughter of the poet Giulio Strozzi), who published at least six volumes of sacred and secular vocal music between 1644 and 1655, and Isabella Leonarda (c. 1625-1700), Mother Vicar of the Ursulan Convent at Navaro, who published three volumes of motets, one of Vespers, and also twelve sonatas for various instruments, the last in 1693, among a total output of at least twenty volumes. That recognition was given to these women is unquestionable: Leonarda's early motets appeared in Casati's collection of sacri concenti (Venice, 1642), when the composer's age was given as 16, and they remained in the public ear.

But these women were exceptions; exceptions in Germany were even rarer, since opportunity outside the home was even more restricted; the guilds in the German states were male institutions, and the convent was no longer a viable alternative in the Protestant countries.

France was a special case, for although women were not members of the académies, those august institutions by no means included every facet of the arts: the Académie de Musique was the Opéra, and instrumental composers did not belong to it. French ideas of education were expansive, even permissive, in the seventeenth century, and that century produced some remarkable women in France—women such as Mme. de Lafayette (credited with having written the first novel), Mme. Xaintonges (a librettist who worked with Desmarets), and of course Mme. de Sevigné (often placed at the pinnacle of the art of correspondence). And in Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (c. 1668-1729), France produced a composer worthy to refute any canard on women's lesser creativity.7 She was from a family of musicians, but she also was educated with the King's bastards, the children of the Royal Mistress, who were recognized, raised as dukes, and given the best possible education. Louis XIV supported music well, and he knew how to support composers with both his money and his attention (he seems to have given Elisabeth the best kind of support). La Guerre's music has left a substantial legacy of published works in forms as various as opera and cantata, violin sonatas, and harpsichord pieces, although much of her fame rested on recitals that featured improvisations. Louis also supported the Italian woman composer Antonia Bemba, who came to Paris in 1690 and, with a pension from the French crown, devoted herself to a productive career. Other women composers, such as Julie Pinel, Mlles. Guesdon de Presles and Guenin, came from musical dynasties and most probably were educated in apprenticeship.

These women were the fruit of a remarkable (and unhappily brief) period in France when girls were not excluded from the concepts of education of some depth. Perhaps even more vital, public expectation for women was raised; and the law provided considerable independence for them. Women could own property (La Guerre owned her own hôtel on the Ile-Saint-Louis, and held enough stocks to have been financially hurt in the market crash of 1721), make their own wills, and—interestingly—were called by their maiden names in legal documents.

Under Louis XV, France lost much of what it had gained, and fewer women composers emerged. Those that did joined the group of Italy and Austria, daughters in professional families, whose output was largely related to performing competence—Julie Pinel, of the lutenist family, is an example of these. But France continued to maintain a vital tradition of woman singers, as Italy and Austria, with their love of the castrato voice, did not. Marie Fel was held in great esteem in France, for example, and must have been a remarkable soprano. The French also enjoyed women dancers before the rest of Europe.

But in general the last of the eighteenth century was a period of retrenchment for women, in spite of a few composers of skill. Anna Amalia, Princess of Prussia and sister of Frederick the Great, was a highly competent composer, as was another Anna Amalia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar and mother of Goethe's patron; these women represent the culmination of the equal education for women nobly born—the final era of the privilege of rank concurring with the Enlightenment. But by the end of the century, political turmoil cut off creativity in many areas of European cultural life, just when women were beginning to achieve a return to acceptance. Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), the Viennese composer-pianist who was blind from her early childhood, is representative of the century: a composer of instrumental and vocal music (she composed a funeral cantata for Louis XVI), she found her greatest successes in the popular theatre of Vienna and Prague, where audiences could find political humor lightly veiled (as in her operetta Der Schulkandidat, 1792), or escape from the world (as in her "fairy opera" Rinaldo und Alcina, 1794). Marianne de Martinez (1744-1812) was less typical, continuing in a productive career with less acknowledgment of the political scene; the works of this woman, who had studied with Haydn and Metastasio and who composed oratorios, motets, symphonies, piano concertos, and a number of smaller types, remain unpublished (they are housed at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna).

Again, a period that signified the release of the creative genius of the male inaugurated a greater limitation on the energies of the female. The Romantic Era was another time of heady, self-conscious freedom for men. They imprisoned woman on a pedestal, and they allowed her to perform but not to create. In literature women could publish under pseudonyms; but the composer, being also a performer, had no such alternative. Composition was considered unsuitable to the female sex, save for those exercises which could enhance the performing technique. Yet a growing number of women attempted to enter the male bastion, no doubt encouraged by such literary figures as Georges Sand and George Eliot, who espoused the cause of freedom for women in highly public fashion. These composers tended to be self-taught, and they tended to be restricted to the parlor traditions. Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1897) and the Polish woman Thekla Badarzewska (1838-1861) represent these; their tradition extends through to Carrie Jacobs Bond (1862-1946). But a few refused to be so restricted: the young American girl Amy Marcy Cheney was accepted as a piano student but refused in composition, but she taught herself and continued—after her marriage as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach—to compose and to get performances. Her music by no means deserves the titters that her name evokes. In France, women were more readily accepted as students in composition, but had no greater acceptance on the stage: such names as Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944), Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), and Germaine Tailleferre (born 1892) sum it up. Only a woman like Teresa Carreño (1853-1917), who was a free-wheeling personal as well as musical phenomenon, could compete with the male image of the genius.

The generation of women educated before the first World War expanded creative sights, and, although they did not receive the recognition their work deserved, they inserted a wedge into cultural consciousness. They were redoubtable figures; the roster included Mary Grant Carmichael (1851-1935), Ethel Smyth (1858-1944, Dame Ethel from 1922), and Ethel Barnes (1880-1948) in Great Britain; Marcelle Soulage (born in 1894), Simone Plé (born in 1897), and Suzanne Demarquez (1899-1965) in France; Agathe Bacher-Grondahl (1847-1907) in Norway; Dina Appeldorn (1884-1938) and Henrietta Bosmans (1895-1952) in Holland; and Isabella Beaton (1870-1929), Mary Anderson Lucas (1882-1952), and Marion Bauer (1887-1955) in the United States. All of these women worked under a duress which their followers never would feel as strongly as they did, though their successes were still to be tempered by consideration by the professional and non-professional communities first of their sex and only second—if at all—of their status within their art. A sizable number of song composers began to raise the woman lyricist from the lower musical strata of salon and semi-popular (or semi-classical) categories. In such music, considered "gentile" rather than "serious," (itself a machismo hierarchy), women were more easily admitted. But the scorn given to such composers as Carrie Jacobs Bond and Cecile Chaminade was really no more than to their male counterparts such as Oley Speaks and Gabriel Marie.

A decade after the first World War and through the second, women composers included Elizabeth Luytens (1906) in England, Grazyna Bacewicz (1913) in Poland, Elsa Barraine and Henriette Puig Roget (both 1910) in France, and Radie Britain (1903) and Dorothy James (1906) in the United States. Gradually these women found their way into the University scene, where now they are joined by such composers as the Scot Thea Musgrave (1928), the South African Priaulx Ranier (1905), the Italian Teresa Procaccini (c. 1930), and American Dika Newlin (1923), all of importance in shaping the future of music through educative as well as musical professional involvement. The younger generation still faces many of the problems of their elders, but barriers are slowly yielding and their history will be different, at last, in kind as well as extent of acceptance for women in music.

In ragtime and jazz, prejudice against women was virtually absolute (in spite of Lil Hardin), and only the blues singer could be of either sex—a creative channel which a radiant group turned into a largely feminine preserve. To the extent that such performance is improvisatory, these women cannot be sorted out of the creative art. Their most recent successors, still limited in Rock to secondary roles, have managed astounding successes. Most of these are close to the Folk aspect of popular music, but Carole King's album Tapestry (1971), for which she was poet, composer, and performer, in the tradition of the Medieval trobairitz, is the largest selling album in the history of Rock.

Like the semi-popular classification, the genre of the children's song was open to women. The two are inter-related: such songs as "Rock-a-Bye Baby," "O the days of the Kerry dancing," "In the Gloaming," "A-Hunting We Will Go," "Wi' a Hundred Pipers an' a'," "Annie Laurie" are among the common coin of childhood—and although many such songs attain something like Anonymous status, all of those just cited were composed by women.8 Many were incorporated into school music books in the era of the music education movement of the United States influenced by Maria Montessori; and such creative educators as Nettie Ellsworth, Louis Robyn, and Mildred Hill composed songs and pieces of genuine musical as well as didactic value for other educative materials. The last of these can probably lay claim to composition of the most frequently performed song of this century: in Song Stories for the Kindergarten (1892) she presented that tune we all now know as "Happy Birthday to You."9


1Bari Watkins, "Women and History," CHANGE, May 1974, p. 20. Ms. Watkins calls this cooperation a "rebuke to the individualistic and cut-throat professional style of the male historian, . . . a revolution, that is, in academic scholarship."

2The trobairitz is reproduced in my Music in Europe and the United States (Prentice-Hall, 1971), p. 46.

3See Frederick Morgan Padelford, Old English Musical Terms (Bonner Beitrage zur Anglistik, Heft IV), Bonn, 1899.

4Antoine Vidal, La Chapelle St.-Julien-des-Menestriers et les Menestrels à Paris (Paris, 1878), pp. 35-39.

5Julian of Norwich: The Revelations of Divine Love. Trans. James Walsh, S.J. (London, 1961).

6Bari Watkins, "Women and History," p. 20.

7Cf. Edith Borroff, An Introduction to Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1966).

8For all of these composers (and others), see James J. Fuld, The Book of World-Famous Music (New York, 1966).

9Facsimile of the original, titled, "Good-Morning to All," is given in Edith Borroff, Music in Europe and the United States (Prentice-Hall, 1971), p. 561.

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