Integrating Music by Women into the Music History Sequence

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Without question, specialized university courses on women composers have served and continue to serve vital purposes. Most importantly, they introduce a corpus of excellent music to advanced students, many of whom will become teachers and may share their new awareness. Furthermore, specialized courses challenge, among advanced students, threadbare habits of thought about the relative roles of women in the profession, providing a new perspective important for any humane progress in the art. At the same time, I believe that college teachers of music history are compelled to integrate women's compositions into survey courses taken by all majors, into our stalwart sequence of music literature and history.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead has written:

Throughout history the more complex activities have been defined and redefined, now as male, now as female, sometimes drawing equally on the gifts of both sexes. When an activity to which each could have contributed . . . is limited to one sex, a rich differentiated quality is lost from the activity itself.1

Thus the first reason for including compositions by women in undergraduate music history is their inherent value as fresh, interesting artworks that allow just such a "rich differentiated quality." But furthermore, the presence of women's compositions permits essential role models of women composers. Such models are too frequently absent from the professional formulation of young women musicians, who therefore may be discouraged from pursuing composition. As psychologist Grace Rubin-Rabson has expressed the problem:

Women appear to be so impressed by the dismal picture history has so far given of their contribution to the arts that they picture creativity as an enduring characteristic of the male role. So long as they retain this picture of themselves, it is likely that relatively few will . . . put forth the effort essential to sustained creativity.2

Only by impressing a wide spectrum of future professionals and lay enthusiasts with the image of successful women composers can the old and truly vicious cycle be broken.

May I suggest two poems and compositions by eight women for inclusion in the music history sequence. Through the kind permission of the publishers listed in Appendix A, I am able to cite complete movements or entire short compositions, chosen as apt examples not only because they are excellent and worthy of musicians' attention, but also because they meet these important criteria for music history teaching: 1) they are drawn from a wide scope of style periods, 2) they are stylistically accessible to students and thus hold their attention, 3) they represent important genres and are on the "leading edge" of musical thought, 4) they are available on recordings or readily performed in class, and 5) their composers' lives highlight important questions of period and society. These selections certainly could be joined or replaced by other composers and works: Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Louise Farrenc, Lili Boulanger, and a host of contemporary women whom I dare not start mentioning. While one might argue that certain of these just mentioned do not meet such utilitarian criteria as "on the leading edge," one would nonetheless encourage their inclusion as interest suggests. In presenting these examples of music, time does not permit a study in depth of the composers or their musical style. For these, additional readings and a list of recordings are suggested in the appendices, as are bibliographic data for each example. Rather, may I point out only in utilitarian terms those features which have recommended the examples to my teaching and which might work for others.

We may begin with a composition without extant notes, the lyric poem "To a Bride" by the ancient Greek poetess Sappho of Lesbo (fl. 590 B.C.). In introducing the Classical Greek contribution to the West, one may refer to this ardent poem, explaining that it probably would have been chanted to the accompaniment of a lyre. The happy integration of sung poetry into its wider society is further illustrated in "Wedding Song," where a choral refrain by the group alternates with the soloist's verses.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), a composer of chant, was one of the most influential women in medieval Germany. Abbess, visionary, miracle-worker, and treatise writer of great scope, she was proposed for canonization by Pope Gregory IX (1227-41). Although the process was left incomplete, popular nomenclature refers to her as "Saint Hildegard." Gustave Reese places her in the company of Hermannus Contractus and Abelard as a main contributor to the late, "Silver Age" of chant. Reese finds in Hildegard's songs the "mix of liturgical and folk elements" which links the late sequence and antiphon to the secular Minnelied.3 The beautiful antiphon "O rubor sanguinis," in its text and its music, bespeaks that powerful combination of mysticism and blood-consciousness which many trace throughout German art. Too, her frequently cited Kyrie seems particularly innovative in its structure of two recurring units and its strong, F-major tonal sense. In music history surveys, Hildegard deserves discussion in the unit on later medieval accretions to the liturgy.

The Countess of Dia (her Christian name only perhaps was Beatritz) flourished in the twelfth century and is represented by four extant poems and a single musical setting. According to Meg Bogin in her exemplary study The Women Troubadours, she was a noble woman of the houses of Vienne and Burgundy and was married to a lord of Dia, near Orange in Provence.4 "A chantar" is most enlightening, as it expresses the woman's side of courtly love. Its canzo (Bar) form, AAB, is typical of the Troubadour song, yet its structure is unusually concise owing to a recurring motive which is most prominent at cadences.

From Renaissance Burgundy comes the basses danses "Beault and "La Franchoise nouvelle," of about 1475. Both appeared in the basse danse book of Marie of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold and mother of Philip the Fair, and herself ruler of powerful Burgundy from 1477-1482. Whether or not she composed these settings of basse danse themes is not known, but her role as one of the most influential patrons of Renaissance music ought to be cited. As the leading dance form of the fifteenth century, the basse danse often occurs in history surveys. These two illustrate two different usages, "La Franchoise," a non-repeating bass line, and "Beaulté," a repeating bass ground, over which ornamental upper voices were freely composed or were improvised for dancing. Of note too are the typical passages of fauxbourdon in "La Franchoise nouvelle."

The Florentine Francesca Caccini joins her father Giulio and Claudio Monteverdi as a pioneer of early Baroque monody and opera. Her opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina, composed in 1625, was the first opera to be exported from Italy, in 1628. The libretto concerns the hero Ruggiero at a most unheroic moment, when he must be delivered from the island of the enchantress Alcina. Our example, the introductory recitative of Neptune and its ritornello, illustrates for students the first turn toward the lyric after the experimental rigors of pure recitative. The ritornello illustrates a parallel enriching in orchestration.

The biography of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (ca. 1666-1729) is illustrative of "le grand siècle" and by far more vivid to students than the biography of Couperin. (For more here, see Edith Borroff's Introduction.) Patronized directly by Louis XIV, this commoner was given the very finest of educations in royal circles. The child prodigy grew up to become a renowned claveciniste and a highly honored composer of opera, cantata, violin chamber music, and harpsichord music. Her vigorous harpsichord Suite in D minor may be substituted readily for the ubiquitous Couperin le Grand, much as her own table of ornaments can help explain performance practices of that literature.

Clara Schumann needs no apologia as pianist or composer, and we welcome Nancy Reich's definitive biography of her. One of the three or four most influential pianists of the nineteenth century, her compositions exhibit deep creativity. In a review of the set "Soirées musicales," from which our Mazurka is drawn, Robert Schumann noted "a wealth of unconventional resources, an ability to entangle the secret, more deeply twisting threads, and then to unravel them."5 As a fine example of the early Romantic character piece, this work of 1835-36 contains chromaticism, unpredictable arabesque melody, and phrase elision that indeed point to musical thought on the "leading edge."

Composer and ethnologist in American folksong Ruth Crawford Seeger participates with Cowell, Ruggles, and others in the American experimental tradition between Ives and Cage. Her String Quartet 1931, movement 3, employs independent dynamic levels, or "contrapuntal dynamics," in each part, which with its intense tone clusters prefigure the 1950s avant-garde and its composition by sonorous event. The composer and theorist George Perle has termed the serialized fourth movement a "remarkable adumbration of . . . total organization," in which each parameter (rhythm, dynamics, melody, and so on) is systematically related to all others.6 Perle recommends Ruth Crawford Seeger as a strongly independent pioneer of American music.

Finally, one may propose a contemporary work, the ballet Alcestis of 1960 by Vivian Fine (born 1913).7 Fine's study with Ruth Crawford Seeger and Roger Sessions yielded a powerful yet personal style, whose chromatic, linear counterpoint can represent in a survey course many leading composers after 1950. The ballet Alcestis (1960) was composed for Martha Graham and is based upon the myth of Admetus, who sacrifices his wife Alcestis to attain immortality. Hercules arrives just in time to rescue her from Thanatos—Death—as depicted in the movement recommended.

Let us hope for and work toward an awareness among our profession of women's achievements as composers of the present and throughout Western history. Such an awareness is not merely modern: it is just, it gives depth perspective, and it is necessary as we educate future musicians.

 

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APPENDIX B
ADDITIONAL READINGS

Ammer, Christine. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. (On Crawford and Fine)

Borroff, Edith. An Introduction of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre. Brooklyn, 1966.

Briscoe, James R. Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming 1986.

Gaume, Mary Matilda. "Ruth Crawford Seeger: Her Life and Works." Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1973.

Litzmann, Berthold. Clara Schumann; An Artist's Life. 2 vols., trans. Grace E. Hadow. London: MacMillan, 1913.

Neuls-Bates, Carol, ed. Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Page, D.L. Sappho and Alcaeus. Oxford, 1959.

Raney, Carolyn. "Francesca Caccini." Music and Letters 48, No. 4 (1967), 350-357.

Reich, Nancy B. Clara Schumann. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Riegger, Wallingford. "The Music of Vivian Fine." American Composers Alliance Bulletin 8, No. 1 (1958).


1Quoted in Judith Rosen, "Why Haven't Women Become Great Composers?" High Fidelity 23, No. 2 (February 1973), 46.

2Grace Rubin-Rabson, "Why Haven't Women Become Great Composers?" High Fidelity 23, No. 2 (February 1973), 47.

3Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York: Norton, 1940, 1968), p. 129.

4Meg Bogin, The Women Troubadours (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 112.

5Quoted in Clara Schumann, Selected Piano Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1979); Introduction by Pamela Susskind, vi.

6George Perle, "Atonality and the Twelve-note System in the United States," The Score (London), No. 27 (July 1960).

7I gratefully acknowledge her permission, by letter, to cite the fourth movement.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018

James R. Briscoe

James R. Briscoe, a musicologist (PhD North Carolina-Chapel Hill) at Butler University, emphasizes teaching the music history of America and modern Europe. He has served on the AMS Council, as CMS Board Member for Musicology, and as President of the AMS-Midwest Chapter. Briscoe published Vitalizing Music History Teaching (CMS/Pendragon 2010), Claude Debussy: A Guide to Research (Garland), Debussy's Preludes for Piano (Schirmer), the Contemporary and Historical Anthologies of Music by Women (Indiana), and Debussy in Performance (Yale). 

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