Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who Composes, 1

Last month, in comments to my posting Ensembles, Programming, and Pandering, a reader made this comment:
Great post, Lisa. I think we will have reached true equality when all music is judged by its own merit, removed from the niches of "women composer," "gay composer," or even "church composer." I'm sympathetic to the reason why those categories exist, but I think there is a danger in giving too much credibility to the us vs. them mentality, even in the name of advocacy.
That's a noble sentiment, but, I think, ahistorical. The mindset in operation isn't necessarily us versus them at all; I think it's more a mindset of honest self-identification.

I believe it's way too soon to discard categories such as "woman composer" and "gay composer." It's only recently that those categories have even existed. David del Tredici talks here about the number of great American composer who've been gay. He doesn't mention Corigliano and Rorem, but evidently he's got a long list. (Alex Ross had a few comments about related subjects.) You'd have to be crazy to try to discuss Britten, his life, and his work without taking his sexuality into consideration; it colored so much of his life, and brought him a very great muse.

As far as women go, how many women composers can you think of before, say, the 1960s? Crawford, L. Boulanger, Chaminade, Beach, Smyth, Fanny Mendelssohn, C. Schumann, Hildegard, Cozzolani, and....? Martinu had a talented student who died tragically young whose name is escaping me right now, but I've heard her music and it's good.

No one ever thinks twice about discussing Debussy in terms of his being a French composer, or Wagner as a German. If you don't discuss some composers in terms of their being women, you hide the fact that they are few, and that makes it harder to ask useful and interesting questions about why there have been so few women writing music in the western classical tradition.


Dan Johnson said...

Wait, do you mean to say that there are straight composers?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Lol, yes, that's the default. There are even straight women composers.

Mike Walsh said...

Martinu's student was Viteszlava Kapralova.

It's easier to speak of a "French" or "German" composer because the 19th century was a time of heightened nationalism. Combine that with the state replacing the aristocracy as a major support for artists and a composer's nationality becomes a natural and meaningful category.

I think perhaps that the other categories have in common the difficulty of cracking a club that is overwhelmingly white, straight, and male. (And European.)

Elaine Fine said...

If you consult the Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (edited by Julie Anne Sadie and the very prolific Rhian Samuel), there are enough women in there to fill 516 pages of text. Random pages open to composers I have heard like Joan Trimble (born in 1915 and still alive as far as I know), an Irish composer of wonderful songs and piano music, Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) who wrote chamber music and symphonic music in Paris while everyone else was getting rich by writing operas, and Imogen Holst (1907-1984) who in addition to being the daughter of Gustav Holst, wrote 2 operas, 2 ballets, and a lot of instrumental music.

When we begin to recognize these women (and the hundreds of other composers in this volume) as individual musical voices rather than a collection of women, we will have made progress as a musical culture.

The problem I have with grouping composers together by gender or even by sexual orientation is that you are imagining a common cultural similarity among people who have very little in common.

The nationalist "angle" draws on common spoken language and a common cultural heritage (food, dance, music, literature). When you hear English music from the early 20th century, it SOUNDS English. When you hear music written by a woman does it sound female? Can you tell her sexual orientation by her use of phrasing or harmony?

Lisa Hirsch said...

I doubt it, but I also don't know, because I haven't heard anywhere nearly as much music by women as by men.

Five hundred sixteen pages, wow. I ought to get a copy of that.

Lisa Hirsch said...

P. S. "Woman composer" is a useful classification for anyone curious about the conditions under which women do or do not become composers.

Anonymous said...

It would be great if we could drop these identifiers, which don't have anything obvious to do with the music composed by women, or gay men, or African-Americans, etc. But as long as bias continues to impede the careers of members of these groups, we shouldn't pretend that it doesn't--that we've already entered a world in which group memberships don't matter. They do matter, though they shouldn't; by analogy, though I'm not religious, I'll insist on my Jewish identity as long as there's an anti-Semite out there muttering "Jew bastard."

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...


I haven't read the book yet, but if what you say about the relative glossing-over of Nadia Boulanger is true, then I'm shocked. Nadia was the woman on which most of 20th-century music spun -- would the century have been half of what it was without her? She should get her own chapter, and I'm sure Stravinsky, Bernstein, and Copland would agree


Shouldn't we stick to the facts?

Let's face it: Nadia Boulanger was NOT a composer of any consequence.

Her sole influence was to teach her gifted students a certain approach to composition as a craft. And from there clarifying for them how to apply it to their own unique musical talents.

Will there ever emerge a truly great female composer?

Highly doubtful.

Elaine Fine said...

Fanny Hensel is one. Her music is gradually being published now that the family archives have been made available.

Lisa Hirsch said...

UP -

First, I have no idea who you are quoting and responding to. No one named Mark has commented on this posting. (Actually, after a web search, you apparently intended to comment on Elaine Fine's blog, not here.)

Second, I'm surprised you're looking at postings that are more than three years old.

Third, my, but are you displaying an amazing degree of ignorance about both past and current women who compose. I have to assume you haven't heard any of the composers I listed in the blog posting to which this is a comment, not to mention Saariaho, Yi, Crawford, etc.