Women and Music: A History, edited by Karin Pendle

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374208

Women and MusicWomen and Music: A History, edited by Karin Pendle. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-253-34321-6.

Reading Karin Pendle's welcome new textbook, Women and Music: A History, I couldn't help reflecting on my own undergraduate education, now some twenty years in the past. Although I knew many women in music, they and their forebears were completely absent from the curriculum—certainly from the second edition of A History of Western Music by Donald J. Grout (W. W. Norton, 1973). As a monumental distillation of scholarship, "Grout"—as the book is familiarly known—carried a kind of Biblical authority. Yet like any historical survey, it reflected the opinion of its day. Therefore Grout not only conjured up a musical universe solely inhabited by males, but it also highlighted cultural achievements that seemed mysteriously distant (I recall the nineteenth century arriving together with a very late spring) and reassuringly highbrow (living in the era of rock, we music majors needed to affirm that we studied "good music"). Since then, scholars have broadened their studies immensely, investigating many areas untouched by Grout. But their work has only begun to filter into classroom texts.

The most recent edition of Grout, as revised by Claude V. Palisca (4th edition, 1988), provides a context for evaluating the significance of Women and Music: A History. Although Palisca's version of Grout sports a much more appealing format than the text of my day, it upholds most of the same values. For one thing, the balance continues to favor early music. (Out of Grout-Palisca's nine-hundred-some pages, only fifteen cover music since World War II.) For another, the focus remains solely on Western art music, albeit with a slightly greater reach into North America and at least acknowledgment in the preface that "popular music and jazz . . . have been artful" (neither is covered, however). And finally, male sovereignty over the whole domain of Western music-making remains intact, despite claims that the book has been brought "into currency" (p. ix) and that it has been revised "in light of recent scholarship" (on the dustjacket). Grout-Palisca even manages to ignore the few generally acknowledged women composers who would have fit comfortably into its great-person approach. It includes no Barbara Strozzi, no Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, no Ruth Crawford Seeger—even no Hildegard of Bingen. Clara Wieck Schumann is at least mentioned—in passing as a composer but mostly as a piano virtuoso and the inspiration for some of her husband's Lieder.

Thus Karin Pendle's Women and Music: A History brings us to the brink of a new era, directly challenging the long hegemony of Grout-Palisca. It makes change possible on one of the most fundamental of all levels—the undergraduate curriculum. Courses about women in music will now be infinitely easier to organize, and concerned instructors can bring gender balance to music-history surveys without having to assemble cumbersome packets of supplementary materials. In a purely practical sense, then, the book marks a milestone. It grew out of the work of The College Music Society's Committee on the Status of Women, bringing CMS activism directly into the classroom.

Yet beyond the symbolic and practical value of Women and Music: A History, how successful is the book, how is it shaped, and what can a prospective user gain from it? Reflecting both our era of specialization and its roots in a professional organization, the book is the product not of one author but several, consisting of fifteen chapters that add up to "a survey of women's activities in music performance, composition, teaching, and patronage from the times of the ancient Greeks to the present, with an emphasis on art music in Europe and the Americas" (p. ix). It is designed to be used in conjunction with James R. Briscoe's Historical Anthology of Music by Women, a volume of scores with accompanying tapes, also issued by Indiana University Press (scores, 1987; tapes, 1991). Yet its coverage reaches beyond concert music, which is Briscoe's sole focus.

Pendle's Women and Music essentially falls into three main sections. The first and longest part covers Western culture through the nineteenth century, moving chronologically from Ancient Greece and Rome (written by Ann N. Michelini) to Western Europe, with a chapter for each major historical period (written by J. Michele Edwards, Pendle, Barbara Garvey Jackson, Nancy B. Reich, and Marcia J. Citron). The next section encompasses nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America (Adrienne Fried Block, assisted by Nancy Stewart), and then moves on to cover twentieth-century concert music in several different locations: Britain (Catherine Roma), North America (J. Michele Edwards, with contributions by Leslie Lassetter), and Europe, Australia, and New Zealand (Robert Zierolf). Finally, there are chapters on American popular music (S. Kay Hoke), blues and jazz (Michael J. Budds), non-Western musics (L. JaFran Jones), patrons (Linda Whitesitt), and feminist aesthetics (Renée Cox).

Overall, the scope of this new text is admirable, reflecting not only a broad geographical sweep and a diversity of genres but also a desire to consider the many roles of women in music. In addition, most of the authors make an effort to place women's work within a social context and to explore the private psychological dimensions of those societal pressures. These are crucial goals, for the "invisible woman," to borrow a phrase from the feminist historian Anne Firor Scott, has been central to Western music, working behind the scenes as a patron, promoter, and teacher. Social expectations frequently have circumscribed the dimensions of her involvement in music. Moreover, when women have been conspicuous, they have often been performers rather than composers. Thus women's history must challenge the traditional musical hierarchy in which composers reign supreme and all others occupy a lesser caste. At times Pendle's book meets this challenge—especially in the chapters on early European music and on nineteenth-century America. But elsewhere, even when the authors seem to have good intentions, the post of composer remains sacred. As a result, the "great man" formula basic to traditional historical writing simply switches gender, and some chapters become veritable biographical dictionaries, summarizing the achievements of one female composer after another. Such information can be useful, but when overdone it subverts a truly innovative approach. Thus while Women and Music: A History might present radically different subject matter from that of previous music-history texts, at times it clings to old-fashioned values.

The book has been shaped by a firm editorial hand. Most of the chapters follow a uniform format, aiming to summarize the current state of scholarship on a given topic. History can come alive here as an engaging process rather than a petrified preserve. For example, the opening of J. Michele Edwards's excellent contribution, "Women in Music to ca. 1450," compellingly combines history and historiography, making a discussion of sources central to the story she tells. All the other chapters, with varying degrees of success, sport similar features and conclude with "Suggestions for Further Reading." For the European Renaissance and Baroque periods, a list of available scores also appears. Unfortunately that same component (whether a list of scores or recordings) is missing elsewhere. Given the link to Briscoe's anthology, this is especially lamentable in the sections that move outside the concert tradition.

Some may wonder how this book compares to Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950, edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick (University of Illinois Press, 1986). Put succinctly, the authors in Bowers and Tick write as specialists on specialized topics while those in Pendle take broad strokes and aim for a less sophisticated reader. Therefore the two books are complementary. Bowers and Tick will remain important for classroom use, functioning as a volume of supplementary readings rather than as the only available substitute for a historical survey (which it has done in the past). Yet its relationship to Pendle is not without friction. In a field where the scholarship is so young and the literature so limited, it is curious that individual essays from Bowers and Tick seldom get cited in the footnotes or source lists in Pendle's chapters (the older book is included, however, in her general bibliography). The discussion of Barbara Strozzi within the chapter by Barbara Garvey Jackson, for example, directs the reader to Ellen Rosand's initial article on the composer from the Journal of the American Musicological Society (1978) rather than to her later essay in Bowers and Tick. A related and equally unfortunate slighting of sister studies involves Susan McClary's Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (University of Minnesota Press, 1991), which is found in the footnotes to Renée Cox's chapter on feminist aesthetics but not in her reading list or the book's concluding bibliography. Granted, McClary's book came out the same year as Pendle's. But if available for footnote inclusion, it should have been listed—and, more importantly, discussed—elsewhere as well.

Yet when taken as a whole, Women and Music: A History delivers a great deal, drawing some twenty years of research into an accessible survey for undergraduates. Most important, it takes a critical step toward what strikes me as the ideal text of the future—one that will be integrated in gender as well as race, bringing the invisible women and men of the past into full view.

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Last modified on Monday, 22/10/2018

Carol J. Oja

Carol J. Oja is William Powell Mason Professor of Music at Harvard University. She is also on the faculty of Harvard’s graduate program in American Studies. Oja's Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s won the Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music and an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. Her newest book, Bernstein Meets Broadway: Art, Race, and Progressive Politics During WWII, is to be published by Oxford University Press. Other books include Aaron Copland and his World (co-edited with Judith Tick); Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds (University of Illinois Press); A Celebration of American Music: Words and Music in Honor of H. Wiley Hitchcock (co-edited with Richard Crawford and R. Allen Lott); and American Music Recordings: A Discography of 20th-Century U.S. Composers. Oja has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College, the National Humanities Center, NEH, and the Mellon Faculty Fellows Program at Harvard. She is past-president of the Society for American Music.

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