Historical surveys of women in music have traditionally focussed on accounts of exceptional women as performers and composers. They are associated with the sizable literature on music as a traditional component of women's socialization and education. As a contemporary category of enquiry, the study of women in music is directly related to women's history, itself one of several scholarly research areas associated with the systematic study of gender. In this context, gender is treated as a socially constructed concept based on perceived differences between the sexes and a primary way of signifying relationships of power.
This article focusses on the collective experience of women within Western and non-Western musical traditions. For details of the lives and works of women musicians, see the articles on individual women.
See alsoFeminism; Gay and lesbian music; Gender; Musicology, §II, 11; and Sex, sexuality.
II. Western classical traditions in Europe and the USA
III. World music
JUDITH TICK (I–II, bibliography with MARGARET ERICSON), ELLEN KOSKOFF (III)
Western classical music is an art that has unfolded within the hierarchies of gender that mark our civilization as a whole. On the social structure of patriarchy rests the premise of the woman musician as a category in itself. The category has served as a way of both denigrating women, and valuing them and highlighting their accomplishments. The benefit of focussing on gender as the primary historical variable is to produce a history where little existed before. The danger is that women's achievements are compared primarily with those of other women and unduly segregated from mainstream narratives.
The category of women in music has provenance in both women's history and in Western music. W.C. Printz's Historische Beschreibung der edelen Sing- und Kling-Kunst (1690), the first major German history of music, uses two virtually synonymous terms for women – ‘Frauenmusicantinnen’ and ‘Weiber Musicantinnen’ – to index figures from antiquity and the Old Testament (e.g. Sappho, Corinna, Lamia, Miriam). These examples served as sources of legitimacy for women's creativity for centuries. Their names appear not only in music dictionaries, but also within the more general literature known in women's history as the ‘catalogue’ tradition – the many books, essays and treatises from antiquity to the present where authors have written collectively about notable (and notorious) women, to express generalized views of the female sex and its achievements. A reference to Sappho, for example, appears in Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus (c1359) and in Christine de Pisan's Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (1405). In a French translation of Boccaccio (Des cleres et nobles femmes, c1470), Sappho is depicted with a harp, psaltery and organ, providing a rare illustration of a historical female musician. Miriam is celebrated in Bathsua Makin's Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen in Religion, Manners, Arts, and Tongues (1673).
In the 1700s, names of contemporary female musicians slowly made their way into music lexicography and history. Here professional opera singers far outnumbered women in any other category. Their visibility stands in sharp contrast to the haphazard historical treatment of female composers, few of whom appear in 18th-century musical dictionaries. Important precedents were set by the singular entry for Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre in Titon du Tillet's Le Parnasse François (1732) and by the addition of five more women in Walther's Musicalisches Lexicon (1732). Burney listed hosts of singers and two composers (Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi). Calling ‘Jacquette’ de la Guerre ‘a female musician’, Hawkins also indexed categories for ‘singers, female’ and ‘women singing’, to comment on prohibitions in church and public performance. At the end of the century, more composers – around a dozen or so – appear in Gerber's Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler (1790–92).
Subsequent patterns of inclusion for female musicians varied greatly in the 19th century. The four-volume revised edition (1812–14) of Gerber's dictionary doubled the number of entries, and more than 50 female composers are included in Fétis's Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique (1835–44, 2/1860–65). Fetis's singular attention to repertory coincides with the emergence of a sufficiently large number of female composers to form a distinct critical category. In Germany, the term ‘Damenmusik’ (‘women's music’) is found as early as August 1811 in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung: it was used pejoratively to indicate a dilettante. In this case the anonymous critic admitted he approached a piano sonata by a female composer with ‘a feeling of dread’, only to find himself pleasantly surprised by (yet another) exception to the rule of ‘Damenmusik’. Far more charitable assessments grace the first known article on female composers, where its author, Maurice Bourges (J1847), linked his topic to the lively disputes over ‘l'emancipation de la femme’.
Despite the increase in numbers of women composing music in the 19th century, mainstream recognition in dictionaries and histories on the whole slowed rather than accelerated. Grove included only 29 female composers in his first Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1879–89). Within music history, female composers vanished from narratives of stylistic periods represented by great men. Ambros, for example, mentioned only one female composer (Caccini) in his Geschichte der Musik (1862–8). In his widely known Illustrierte Musikgeschichte (1880–85), translated into several languages and known in England and the USA as History of Music (1882–6), Emil Naumann wrote that ‘all creative work in music is well-known as being the exclusive work of men’. Such discrepancies and pronouncements point up the historical contingencies that affect the process of recognition.
Between 1870 and 1910 cultural feminism produced for the first time a literature to challenge the limits of such music history. The topic of ‘women in music’ was explored in various formats, among them dictionaries (Michaelis, C1888, is the earliest), celebratory essays about ‘women's work in music’, and polemics, where authors rebutted theories of biological determinism with sociological critiques of the effect of class and gender on musical creativity. Two important articles were associated explicitly with feminism. In the USA, the Association for the Advancement of Women sponsored Fanny Ritter's Woman as a Musician (1876), a work indebted to Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). In Germany, Jessel's monograph Warum giebt es so wenige Componistinnen! was published in 1898 by the Frankfurt branch of the Allgemeine Deutsche Frauenverein.
Musicological scholarship between 1900 and 1940 witnessed an important new emphasis on a collective approach to women's history. Two pioneering generations of female musicologists, among them Marie Bobillier (publishing as Michel Brenet), Yvonne Rokseth and Kathi Meyer, produced studies of women's musical institutions such as the convent and the female choir, marshalling evidence from literature and iconography to support the social vitality of women's roles. Influenced by Meyer's work, Sophie Drinker expanded her research (F1948) beyond a particular institution or era, thus pioneering the historiography of women and music as a topic in its own right. However, the implications of such work had little impact on mainstream musicology until the end of the century.
In the 1970s the revival of feminism produced an explosion of activity in revisionist history and a new discipline initially named ‘women's studies’. Here much of the new scholarship has been advanced by female historians, who after 1970 received professional training in musicology in greater numbers than ever before in the USA. By 1980 academic courses in ‘women in music’ began to be taught in American universities; their subsequent proliferation in the USA and European countries, in addition to general interest, created a demand for scores and sound recordings. In the 1970s some recording companies, such as Leonarda (founded by Marnie Hall, 1977), began to specialize in historical and contemporary work by women. Furore Verlag, founded in 1986, was the first publishing house to concentrate on printing music by, and books about, women composers. In the 1980s some exceptional recordings of this new repertory, pioneered by outstanding performer-advocate soloists and ensembles, moved into the mainstream: the success of the group Sequentia (founded by Benjamin Bagby and Barbara Thornton), known particularly for their recordings of music by Hildegard of Bingen, is a case in point.
By 1990 women's history in music had developed within three interlocking categories – repertory, social process and ideology. In respect of the essential enterprise of investigating a neglected repertory, much music by women composers is still unexcavated. The comprehensive New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (1994) contains over 900 entries. A second research trajectory has concentrated on social process, that is to say, the impact of gender on the diverse ways music is transmitted through a culture. This research focusses on restoring historical ‘agency’ to women and investigating the degree of their access to sophisticated modes of cultural production, notably within separatist institutions. One example is the current boom in research on convents. Other scholars have synthesized interdisciplinary evidence from diverse fields, such as archaeology, iconography and literary sources, to reconstruct unwritten traditions and performing practices where women played important roles. By implication such methods temper the exclusivity of notation-based style analysis and theory. Even now, however, the history of music as an accomplishment for the privileged (i.e. the highly educated, middle- or upper-class) woman has yet to be comprehensively described. Here one confronts ideology at every turn, that is, the prescriptive literature of musical socialization, education, aesthetics and theory. All these are influenced by the duality of gender and its social construction of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. In this area Rieger (F1981), Citron and Solie (both F1993) have made pioneering contributions. Ideology links women's history with the history of sexual difference, research areas that overlap but are not identical. Here McClary (F1990) has led the way.
The process of integrating women's history into mainstream narrative texts, and into the methodology of historiography itself, remains a profoundly important challenge. Nevertheless, the study of gender in music from various perspectives and through diverse approaches is now more widely countenanced.