Women in music, §II: Western classical traditions in Europe and the USA
1. Antiquity to 500 ce.
Music played an integral role in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. It was performed at various public cultural events, such as religious rites, life-cycle rituals, plays, festivals and competitions. In private life, it provided diversion at home; in larger social settings, professional musicians entertained at banquets and symposia. Because music formed an important part of education in ancient Greece, a painting of a school scene was as likely to feature a lyre as it was a scroll. Our understanding of the extent and nature of women's participation in all these areas rests primarily on iconography, supplemented by archaeological evidence and anthropological interpretations.
Women's choruses played a highly visible role in festivals and rituals. One body of evidence comes from the imagery on 5th- and 6th-century bce Athenian vase paintings. Of some 100 surviving vase paintings depicting choruses, nearly 80 show choruses of girls or women. Even in Athens, where women led the most restrictive lives of any in the Greek city-states, they were nevertheless involved in nearly half of the city's 30 annual festivals. Such rituals, where choral dance and music merge, could involve specific poetic forms, among them epithalamia (choral wedding songs) and parthenia (virgins' songs).
Women's choruses also participated in musical festivals and competitions. From Sparta, the only city-state that granted women citizenship, comes an account of one such performance. Barker (G1990) described a 7th-century female chorus, who performed a partheneion by the poet-composer Alcman as part of a Delian festival, where the singers refer unambiguously (although the matter is much discussed) to a rival choir with whom they compete.
Athenian vase paintings also depict women in scenes that regularly include musical instruments – in interiors, where the aulos, kithara and lyre are common elements of the iconography of respectable womanhood, and at banquets and symposia, where the aulos and harp are played by hetairai (courtesans), who were often slaves. These social contexts for music-making by women provoked much comment from the Greek philosophers. Both Plato (in Protagoras) and Aristotle (in the Politics) differentiated respectable domestic female musicians from entertainer-musicians.
The relationship between a woman's public performance and outcast sexual status was to persist for many centuries – a taboo that belied a more complex reality. Some evidence from Hellenistic Greece suggests the possibility that professional women musicians could make an honourable career of performing in theatres and at festivals. In 86 bce one Polygnota, daughter of Socrates of Thebes, was paid 500 drachmas for her kithara-playing and singing at Delphi; and a 2nd–3rd century ce gravestone carries the inscription ‘Eutychousa and Nais, unfortunate; sisters, both musical, both eloquent, both trained to play the harp and the lyre, here the earth covers them gently, O stranger’ (Lefkowitz and Fant, G1982).
From Greek antiquity comes the legendary figure of the poet-singer Sappho of Lesbos, whose remarkable innovation of personal monody made her one of the most famous poets in Western culture. ‘Come, divine lyre, speak to me and find yourself a voice’, Sappho wrote, and a famous vase painting from around 460 bce depicts her holding a barbitos. After Sappho, female poet-musicians appear in the Greek world in every century.
From classical Greece also comes a legacy of beliefs linking musical aesthetics with sexual difference. Plato's comments on ethos and musical style included warnings to men that music could induce effeminacy and equally stern admonishments to women about sexual licentiousness. Hence his recommendation (in the Republic) for antidotes of noble and manly music for men and modest submissive songs for women. Men should also avoid excessive expressions of grief, such as ‘weak and feminine’ musical lamenting (Sultan, G1993).
Old Testament references describe women singing, playing instruments and dancing. Miriam's Victory Song at the Red Sea (which extols the defeat of the Egyptians) is the most influential portion of scripture: ‘Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them, “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea”’ (Exodus xv. 20–21). Of Miriam, so prominent in Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt, Fanny Ritter wrote (F1876): ‘Who can say that her song of triumph was not her own composition?’.
Miriam's Victory Song has been at the centre of the recent explosion of Bible research by the first modern generation of female scholars and theologians. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are fragments that give evidence of a longer song of Miriam. Was Miriam's Victory Song a distinctive women's genre, a drum-dance-song ensemble in which only women were the instrumentalists? Meyers (1993) took this position, supporting it with archaeological evidence of Syro-Palestinian terracotta figurines, typically found at excavation sites from the Second Iron Age (which corresponds roughly to the period of the First Temple and the Monarchic Period, 1000–540 bce). Many female figures hold hand drums, others lyres or double flutes. To Meyers such evidence suggests women's musical participation during a period when biblical references to female musicians diminished.
The participation of women in formal Jewish liturgy was another matter altogether. In the early Rabbinic period (c300–600 ce) Jewish scholars promulgated various prohibitions against kol isha (Hebrew: ‘voice of woman’). A phrase in 1 Samuel – ‘Listening to a woman's voice is sexual enticement’ – supported the separation of sexes during worship and prohibitions against female leadership in liturgy. Because female responses to psalms chanted by male voices were permitted, one finds occasional references to schismatic Jewish cults where both men and women had separate choirs, each led by male and female preceptors. The Jewish Hellenistic philosopher Philo described a service of the therapeutae where hymn- and psalm-chanting occurred between two such antiphonal choirs. Many centuries later, in the German town of Worms, a group of women had their own synagogue, adjoining that of the men. A 13th-century tombstone commemorates ‘the eminent and excellent lady Uranya bat harav Avraham who was the master of the synagogue singers. She also officiated and sang hymns with sweet melodies before the female worshippers. In devout service may her memory be preserved’ (Taitz, H1986).
In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church Fathers intensified the polemics surrounding the moral censure of professional female musicians and the prohibitions from Jewish exegesis on kol isha. Patristic authorities elaborated St Paul's famous dictum ‘mulieres in ecclesies taceant’: ‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be submissive, as the law also says’ (1 Corinthians xiv.34). Cyril of Jerusalem (c315–86) advised nuns to pray ‘so that their lips move, but the ears of others do not hear. … And the married woman should do likewise’. The fear that secular music harboured sexuality and subversion within it looms large in this passage from the Church Father Pseudo-Basil:
You place a lyre ornamented with gold and ivory upon a high pedestal as if were a … devilish idol, and some miserable woman, rather than being taught to place her hands upon the spindle, is taught by you … to stretch them out upon the lyre. Perhaps you pay her wages or perhaps you turn her over to some female pimp, who, after exhausting the licentious potential of her own body, presides over young women as the teacher of similar deeds.
In practice, the early centuries of Christianity heard vox feminae more than these writings suggest. The testimony of the Spanish pilgrim Egeria of around 400 ce authenticates the ‘continuous psalmody’ practised by the ‘monazontes’ (monks) and the ‘parthenae’ (nuns) in antiphonal style at a Jerusalem church. But the writings of the Church Fathers were to remain authoritative sources for social and intellectual control in subsequent centuries. A thousand years later, in De institutione feminae christianae (1523), a book whose popularity nearly matched that of Castiglione's Il libro del cortegiano, Juan Louis Vives lamented the ‘intolerable degree of insolence’ of women who ‘did not read or hear tell of those splendid exhortations of the Fathers of the Church concerning chastity, solitude, silence and feminine adornment and attire’.
Women in music, §II: Western classical traditions in Europe and the USA