Thursday, March 08, 2012

Lack of Mentors? Thoughts about Thoughts about International Women's Day

I was pleased to see an acknowledgement of International Women's Day in the musical blogosphere. In his take on why "there are so few female composers" Tim Rutherford-Johnson provides a list of mostly living 20th and 21st-century composers who have written avant-garde music (that has been recorded). His idea that the lack of teachers and mentors is responsible for the dearth of female composers (there isn't a dearth, by the way) misses the mark.

Nadia Boulanger was, by all accounts, the most important composition teacher of the 20th century. She was also an excellent composer, but she stopped writing after the death of her sister Lili, who was, even as a very young person, one of the finest composers of the 20th century, of either gender. One of the reasons I think Nadia Boulanger devoted herself to teaching rather than to composition was that she felt that, perhaps, she could help develop other composers develop the way she helped Lili develop. Many of her students were women (you can find an incomplete list of her students here.) In addition to her composition students there are a large number of analysis students on the list. A great part of teaching composition is teaching analysis.

From where I sit in the 21st century I can clearly see an early-20th-century trend involving the rise of women as artistic and literary figures as well as important figures in the sciences. (Madame Curie and Rosalind Franklin are two examples that come to mind). And then somewhere in the middle of the century, perhaps around the time of McCarthyism and the prominence of Virgil Thomson as a music critic (click here for google search for the term Virgil Thomson and Misogyny, though most of the material that comes up is from Google Books) women were forced back to the margins of creative culture.

Marion Bauer is an example of a first rate composer who fell victim to Thomson's mysogyny. He deemed her too conservative to be considered an equal to the 20th century composers he admired. I imagine that he found her to be intimidating (she was a far better composer than he was), and that he used his power of influence to try to take her down.

A couple of female-friendly decades followed Thomson's death (friendly to women who were composers and women who did other creative things), and though we don't yet have an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, at least as of 2009 women are legally entitled to get equal pay for equal work.

I fear the the neo (or pseudo) McCarthyites that have invaded the second decade of the 21st century are trying their darnedest to marginalize women once again. With the marginalization of women as composers, even retrospectively, (and even inadvertently) comes the marginalization of the contributions of women to the greater culture.

My short answer for what a 21st-century female composer needs to succeed? The big ones are talent, technique, time, and a support system. It needs to be a financial support system as well as an artistic one, and it needs to provide opportunities for a composer who is a women to be able to hear her music performed. And she needs to hear it performed more than once. She needs to have critical feedback from people who know what they are listening to, and she needs to have her music evaluated in the same way that her male counterparts have their music evaluated. She needs to learn first hand, and in proper acoustics, what works and what doesn't.

Teachers and mentors she has. It is opportunity that helps her grow as a composer.


Anonymous said...


Nadia Boulanger was NOT a composer of any consequence. Boulanger's influence, at bottom, was restricted to teaching her gifted students a certain approach to composition as a craft, and clarifying for them how to apply it to their own peculiar musical bents.

Will there ever emerge a truly great female composer?

Highly doubtful.

If musical gift could be quantified, then the sum total of the musical gifts of all the composers that were Boulanger's students -- not so much as one of whom would qualify as a genius in the sense that word is applied to immortals such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner -- that sum would not equal one tenth the musical gift possessed by Wagner, and the influence on music of the total output of that entire group would not equal one tenth Wagner's influence.

Elaine Fine said...

This response is very disturbing, but it does qualify the main point of my post.

As long as people with your mindset act as "gatekeepers" your prediction might come to pass. I hope not. Your quantification (abstract and imaginary) of talent is your opinion alone.

By the way, listen to Nadia Boulanger's two pieces for cello and piano. They are terrific pieces. I wish she had continued composing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The anonymous respondent is the Pelleastrian - he has posted similar nonsense in postings on my blog. He's very comfortable posting about how there's never been a truly great woman composer, although he seems not to have heard the greats.

Lisa Hirsch said...

My real contribution might be to note that the 1950s were a time of general repression of women. Those in the workforce during the war were forced out of their jobs; it was extremely difficult to get hired or taken seriously, etc.

Susan Scheid said...

Having one's music performed more than once is so critical, and how right of you to note it, among so many other important points.

I have just responded to a piece on International Women's Day on New Music Box, and now, if you'll forgive me, would like to say the same here: I recently heard a marvelous piece called Dollhouse by a young composer named Molly Joyce. (If you wish to hear it, this wonderful piece is in the sidebar on my blog.) She wrote it while in a dark time about her chosen vocation as a composer. The resultant work is stunning. Today, I am celebrating her.

Anonymous said...

The notion that music has ovaries or testicles, X and/or Y chormosones is nonsense, and the notion that there are not enough female composers yet too many male composers is also nonsense. At the top of the classical canon are a certain small number of composers. For historical reasons having little to do with the United States and its current politics, these were mostly men. Mostly but not all. Ditto with writers, playwrights, poets and more. To rectify this perceived imbalance by some sort of "should be" quota system or one day for "international" observation of women is patronizing. My wife came home last night, stunned by so much attention to the day, because in our home every day is Woman's Day; unsurprisingly every day is also Man's Day. The quality of a product is all this is about, and there is room for more women in the panoply of composers, just as there is room for more men. But it remains a matter of taste, not gender. I went to Scheid's site to hear the recommended "Dollhouse" and found it boring and pompous, so not every recommendation and not everyone will unite behind gender issues as regards composition. Composition is just composition. Some composers, even the "greats," had to be re-discovered after decades of being ignored. Welcome to the real world in which some of Bach's manuscripts were probably burnt to keep a room warm. This is not about gender, but about appealing sounds in appealing forms speaking across time. One's taste is not another's, and the classical music world is difficult enough without adding gender politics to it. Or so thinks one chap who just goes about his day and adores his wife.

By the way, my father programmed Lili Boulanger, and one piece failed to measure up to others on that program so many years ago. While "Madame" Boulanger said her sister was great, not all agreed. Such is taste. But some Beethoven smaller works are just worth a yawn too, while others are of course historically brilliant. Such is life.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for your comment Anonymous II.

I had lukewarm thoughts about Lili Boulanger too, but when I heard this recording my impression of her changed completely.

I can't listen to this recording of the Pie Jesu without breaking down into tears. This is the recording that also introduced me to Nadia Boulanger's cello pieces. And I love the Theme and Variations for solo piano.

I agree with you that music itself doesn't have gender, but I still feel that composers who are women are judged differently from composers who are men. I say this as a performing musician (every March I play a chamber music concert of music written only by women), and I say this as a composer (when people hear my music they are generally encouraging and tell me that I should keep writing, but I can't help feeling that if I were a man and wrote music of the same quality I would have more commissions and more opportunities).

When I find a piece by a woman that is particularly good (Amanda Maier's Violin Sonata or Marion Bauer's Viola Sonata, for example), I feel really excited.

I feel a special connection with Marion Bauer right now because I spend a good deal of time every day practicing her Viola Sonata. It is, I believe, one of the finest 20th century pieces written for the viola, but it is only known by a relative handful of people and has not even made its way to the general community of violists. Once it does (and it will), I'm sure it will be programmed often on viola recitals.

The Maier Violin Sonata (which we played last year) only existed in a hundred-year-old publication housed in a handful of libraries (the one we used was starting to fall apart), and I feel very proud of having helped the piece (by way of a library scanner in Sweden) make its way into the IMSLP. A new edition of the Piano Quartet is now available, and I'm excited to play it next March.

In order to really appreciate the contribution of women to the ever-expanding canon of classical music you really have to look beyond orchestral music.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a cogent response to my gender "essay." Pardon its length. The issue comes back to quality of work and how large an audience a work -- not a person -- willl attract. Music history is littered with composers who were everyone's favorite and then history forgot for various but good reasons. There are so many male as well as female composers today, one must conclude that not all are worthy. Choosing gender as a measure is not musical, but political. I think time will tell, but that's longer than we all shall live. When one considers the number of composers on the IMSLP list alone, it is many people. Check out some of the Beethoven fugues which are positively puerile. So this argues for the work, not the composer. When a composer turns out a number of good pieces, then comes renown over time. Consider Bizet, who major claim to fame is one fabulous opera. Consider Bach, whose consistency astounds. Consider any composer, and the issue will not be gender, but quality of work. Are there social reasons for this? Sure. But gender alone is no measure. As to a couple of Lili Boulanger's ferw works, I agree with you. Some are stunning. Not enough in this short life to measure up to her sister's estimation, I think. The Bruno Monsaingeon "Madame" is an interesting window into Nadia and her sister. Better than Durufle? Faure? As to being judged, are women really judged differently than men in the field of composition? I think only when gender politics rears its head. Many orchestras now hold blind auditions to be able to focus on the playing, not the package. I appalud that, but then again I prefer many of the old recordings to the new and very sanitized, tricked and note-perfect new recordings. Imagine! A Debussy making a wrong note? Terrific, because it says he was one of us, a human with faults and all. Your championing some of the works which your blog has featured is a good thing, because some women composers as exposed to the light of day by you are worthy. But why? Because of the work. The composers are many times, most often dead. The work lives. A good work lives long. A great work is eternal. And then there are those Beethoven fugues, juvenalia which should be known such that composers today learn that even the greats, nay immortals, have a bad day. But to use gender politics as a way of programming a concert only tears away at the musical content, because the best works -- not the best composers -- should be given voice. Best wishes, and now, Ms. Fine, go compose something more! Please?

Susan Scheid said...

I, too, think Pie Jesu is a beautiful piece. It was recommended to me by a man, BTW. As to new work (like that of Molly Joyce and the five young men whose work I also heard and admired in the same concert), I don't understand the need to come down like a ton of bricks, even if it's not a work to one's taste. What's the point in that? The critical thing, to me, is that there are so many, young men and women both, who are still willing to take on this fraught vocation and give us so many gifts. I don't actually generally pay attention to gender, when it comes to that, but I am heartened that there is room for talented young women, as well as men, and I think it's worth celebrating, as Elaine has done in this post. May that continue. And, Elaine, may you continue on, for you have given much and have much to give.

Anonymous said...

To opine that a work is pompous and boring is not a "ton of bricks." Much worse is regularly stated in music reviews. No review gives kudos for effort, and taste is just that. Taste. People differ, and the notion about International Women's Day asked "what does it take for a woman composer to succeed? Ms. Fine stated that such a woman should have her work reviewed the same as a man's. I am not impressed by much of what student composers of both sexes write today, because I think too many are taught to mimic. As to "boring and pompous:" two words do not make a ton of bricks, nor even one thrown through a window.