Modernity opened the door to new possibilities for women in music, as they benefited from the economic and social changes of the 19th and 20th centuries. After 1800, women musicians, many influenced by an emerging feminist movement, made access to a complete musical education a major priority. By 1900, they attempted to reverse centuries of subordination in many aspects of musical activity: violinists challenged their exclusion from orchestras; composers demanded admittance to competitions like the Prix de Rome. Recognizing how little the celebrations of ‘the eternal feminine’ and aesthetic androgyny translated into tolerance for female musicians, intellectuals challenged the Romantic ideology of sexual difference. The 20th century contained an array of ‘firsts’ marking incremental changes in all these areas, some resulting from individual achievement, others through collective action or legal reforms. Women slowly stepped on to new podiums, won major awards, graduated from the leading universities and conservatories with advanced degrees, and, in the last decades of the 20th century, argued vigorously for equality of opportunity and over issues of identity. However, not even in 2000 were all these issues resolved.
Old habits died hard. The mentality of separatist intellectual inferiority marked the Histoire de la musique by Sophie de Champgrand de Bawr, who, as the first woman to publish a music history, wrote it for the Encyclopédie des dames (1823) and asked indulgence ‘sur l'ouvrage qu'une femme a écrit pour des femmes’. And music à la mode prevailed in magazines like the Ladies Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance (1832–70) and Godey's Lady's Book (1830–77). Newer goals of equality fired the reforming spirits of composers such as Nina D'Aubigny von Engelbrunner, and later Johanna Kinkel and Luise Adolpha Le Beau, as well as the earliest German feminists. In 1878, when Luise Buchner (in Die Frau) condemned ornamental education, Le Beau wrote:
Just do not limit, then, the training of girls. Rather, teach them the same things that are taught to boys. Grow accustomed to a system that has this same fundamental condition for every education, and then see what [girls] can do after acquiring technical skills and intellectual independence, rather than entrench yourselves against female capabilities by limiting the education of women!
The establishment of secular conservatories marked a crucial turning-point. Not only did it end church-dominated music education, but conservatories offered young women public formal schooling, albeit in one subject, even before some nation-states established any kind of public primary or secondary education for girls. Most conservatories admitted women, only to offer them lesser educations. At the Leipzig Conservatory, boys took a three-year course in theory, girls a two-year course, ‘especially organized for their requirements’. The Paris Conservatoire ran women's classes in solfège and keyboard harmony, barring women from classes in written harmony and composition until the 1870s. Rather than composers, conductors, or conservatory professors, girls were expected to become performers – typically singers, pianists or harpists – or teachers in private studios, or accomplished ladies at home. On 18 December 1881 an official at the Berlin Königliche Hochschule für Musik asked the director, Joachim, to rescind the right of women to participate in orchestra classes and performances (Reich, 1993):
It is bad enough that women are meddling in every possible place where they don’t belong; they have already taken over in almost every area of music. … Their need for artistic knowledge will be well enough served if we permitted them to attend final rehearsals before performances, since they shall not be studying conducting, composing, nor instrumentation.
Yet as the climate for women's education improved, barriers fell. The American composer Clara Rogers could not study composition at Leipzig in the 1860s; in 1877 Ethel Smyth was able to enrol. In the USA, where private rather than publicly funded conservatories were the rule, Jeannette Thurber founded the influential National Conservatory in New York (1885), admitting black as well as white students and letting her female student violinists play in the orchestra. By the early 1900s, in many conservatories female outnumbered male students, often to the consternation of men. After accepting the composer Rebecca Clarke as his first female pupil in 1907, Stanford grumbled in his memoirs (1908) that British institutions had been overrun by women. But few matched the men-under-siege mentality of the critic Emile Vuillermoz, who in an article entitled ‘The Pink Peril’ for Musica (1912) warned that women were on the march: ‘the Conservatoire, where they already hold the majority, will end by becoming their personal property’. In the USA, the tradition of music as a female accomplishment ensured high rates of participation at women's liberal arts colleges. Even there, however, curriculum policy sometimes reflected stereotypes. When Ernst Krenek was engaged to teach music at Vassar College in 1939, he was specifically barred from teaching the 12-note system to his female students, whom the chair of the department described as ‘cultivated amateurs’ for whom work of a ‘highly advanced nature’ would not be appropriate.
In the early and middle decades of the 19th century, as the various ‘ornamental’ arts detached themselves from one another, specialization became the rule. The governess who had previously taught French, music and embroidery slowly succumbed to the demand for expertise. As a result, the music profession experienced a surge of growth as a whole. Statistics for England and Wales between 1794 and 1951 show that between 1841 and 1891 the number of people employed as musicians and music teachers increased more than sixfold. Women jumped into this escalating market as fast as possible. Whereas in 1841 around 13·7% of the musicians and music teachers in England were female, by 1891 the figure was around 50%, and in 1921 it climbed to 76%. In the USA the number of women in music and music teaching increased eightfold between 1870 and 1910, and the proportion of women in music rose from 36% to 60%, before tapering off to 41% in 1940. Most women worked on the lower rungs of the teaching profession; few were employed in conservatories until the mid-1900s. At the Paris Conservatoire between 1797 and 1859, out of around 345 teachers only 26 women had positions (in singing, keyboard, keyboard harmony and solfège). In The Hague, where the Koninklijke Muzijkschool did not employ women, the composer Gertrude van den Bergh formed a women's chorus and taught women in her home as well. In Paris, Nadia Boulanger sustained her celebrated career as one of the great 20th-century composition teachers at her home studio.
In the 19th century music teaching loomed large, partly because little else was available. Once women left the conservatories they were stranded, excluded from professional orchestras, from conducting posts, from positions in universities and from the professional musical life of the Church (Fuller, 1992). Occupational segregation was one temporary solution, as late 19th-century female musicians formed all-women chamber groups and ‘lady orchestras’ in order to work. In 1887 Marie Soldat-Roeger (a pupil of Joachim) formed perhaps the earliest such group, the Soldat Quartet in Berlin. Among the earliest women's orchestras were those founded in Vienna and Berlin, both of which toured internationally. About 30 different women's orchestras flourished in the USA between 1925 and 1940. The practice was widespread: the Dutch composer Elisabeth Kuyper founded four women's symphony orchestras first in Europe, then in the USA. In 1937 the Cuban composer Ernestina Lecuona Casado helped found the Orquesta Feminina de Concierto. A few such groups exist today, some formed in the 1970s, defining their mission as the championing of music composed by women. Among the most prominent are the Women's PO (formerly Bay Area Women's PO; founded 1982), directed for many years by JoAnn Falletta and now by Apo Hsu, and the European Women's Orchestra, founded by Odaline de la Martinez in 1990.
What most female instrumentalists wanted, however, was an end to exclusion and a chance to compete. In the early 1900s, women in France organized to press for admission to theatre orchestras. Eugène Ysaÿe employed female string players for his orchestra in Brussels and was emulated in London by Henry Wood, who had four female violinists and two female viola players in his New Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1912. In the USA, the World War II era accelerated change; the shortage of available men forced most major American orchestras to employ their first female players by 1945, with the exception of the New York PO, which took them only in 1966. Data from the American Symphony Orchestra League confirm the acceleration of this upward trend. Between 1947 and 1982, female employment in the major American symphony orchestras increased from 8% to around 26%. In 1996, 46% of the musicians in American orchestras were female, although most were clustered in less important institutions.
This growth reflects changes in the status of women in Western societies more than changes in musical culture. In the USA, both the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the inauguration of gender-blind orchestra auditions had an impact. In Britain, a law dealing with gender discrimination changed the makeup of London orchestras. On the other hand, Austro-German resistance was more deeply entrenched. Only in 1982 did the Berlin PO employ its first female player, causing a great public stir. In 1997 protests against the policies of the Vienna PO led the orchestra to admit its only female player to membership status (although it remains no closer to a gender-blind admissions policy). In that year, statistics compiled about the Vienna PO and five other major orchestras in German-speaking countries (the Vienna SO, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Dresden PO, the Berlin PO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus) showed only a minimal representation of women (Buzzarté, 1997). In 1998 the Czech PO rescinded its men-only policy.
Like all-women's instrumental ensembles, all-female professional societies were formed in reaction to discrimination. In Britain, barred from the Royal Society of Musicians (founded 1838), women founded the Royal Society of Female Musicians in 1839. In 1865, the two societies merged. The pattern repeated itself in the 20th century when, in 1905, the newly founded Society of British Composers included no woman among its 48 members. In 1911 the Society of Women Musicians was founded in London, with Liza Lehmann as its first president (it disbanded in 1972). In 1925 Amy Beach was elected president of the Society of American Women Composers, a group that lasted only a few years. Few other such organizations were formed in the middle decades of the century.
In the activist years of the 1970s and 80s, however, women's music organizations re-emerged on the cultural horizon: at least 13 were founded between 1975 and 1990. In 1975 Nancy Van de Vate founded the (International) League of Women Composers, in response to the impact of International Women's Year in 1975; this was followed in 1976 by American Women Composers, Inc. In 1978 two German organizations, the Frau und Musik-Internationaler Arbeitskreis, and Musikfrauen e.v. Berlin, supported primarily by musicologists and conductors, were founded, with additional archival goals. The 1980s saw the foundation of the Association of Canadian Women Composers (1980–88), Frauenmusik-Forum in Switzerland (1982), the Stichting Vrouw en Muziek (Foundation for Women in Music) in the Netherlands (1987) and the re-emergence of British Women in Music (1988), as well as other organizations founded in Denmark, Spain and Japan. The Finnish association Nainen ja Musiikki ry (Woman and Music) began in 1995. In the same year, a merger of two American organizations – the International League of Women Composers and American Women Composers, Inc. – with the International Congress on Women in Music (1982) produced the International Alliance of Women in Music (IAWM); the IAWM acts as a clearing-house for many individual national societies and internet research websites (it helped to support demonstrations against the admissions policy of the Vienna PO in New York in 1998).
The idea of festivals and thematic concerts devoted to music exclusively by women, as a way to get works heard and performed, emerged in the late 19th century. Concerts and events for the Women's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 set important precedents in the USA. Many annual festivals in the late 20th century continue this tradition. Of note is the Donne in Musica festival founded by Patricia Adkins Chiti in 1982, in collaboration with the Unione Donne Italiane, the oldest and most militant feminist organization in Italy. Important Women in Music festivals were held in Bonn and Cologne in 1980. The International Congress of Women in Music began its Annual Festivals in New York in 1981. The Frau Musica Nova conference in Cologne in 1998 brought together composers from Asia, Europe and the USA.
Continuities as much as change shaped career patterns for female performers since 1800. Singers stood at the apex of international success, among them Angelica Catalani, Henriette Sontag, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, Maria Malibran, Pauline Viardot and Jenny Lind. So great was the adulation of the 19th-century singer that writers like George Sand, George Eliot and Willa Cather made her the symbol of the ‘femme libre’ – the emancipated woman – whose voice represented power, freedom and a moral authority that transcended convention. Exemplifying this spirit was the soprano Mary Garden, who wrote: ‘I believed in myself and I never permitted anything or anybody to destroy that belief. My eye never wavered from the goal, and my whole life went into the operas I sang. I wanted liberty and I went my own way’.
In the 20th century singers continued to reign supreme. Among the many great internationally renowned artists, a few became cultural icons, including Maria Callas, Marian Anderson, Elena Gerhardt, Kirsten Flagstad, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Amelita Galli-Curci, Rosa Ponselle, Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Kiri Te Kanawa and Jessye Norman. Furthermore, the association between professional singers and social power spread beyond opera to popular styles. Black American singers such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday have been models of empowerment in contemporary black American literature.
Options for performing careers widened slowly but surely throughout this period, as virtuoso women in areas other than singing became increasingly common in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the catalogue of virtuoso women by Marie Lipsius (writing as La Mara), pianists rivalled singers. In the 19th century the outstanding artists were Clara Schumann, Marie Pleyel, Teresa Carreño and Annette Esipova. In the USA notable figures in the late 19th century include Julie Rivé-King (the first American-born woman to achieve a concert career) and Fanny Bloomfield Zeisler. By 1920 American woman pianists had ‘come to stay’, according to Harriet Brower (1918). Still, around 20 years later their professional vulnerability was commented on by Olga Samaroff: ‘men pianists and women pianists were as rigorously separated in the managerial mind as the congregation of a Quaker meeting … and women received lower fees than a man with the same degree of success and reputation’ (1939). Other notable keyboard performers included the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and the pianists Myra Hess, Guiomar Novaes, Annie Fischer, Clara Haskil, Marguerite Long, Rosalyn Tureck, Alicia de Larrocha and Moura Lympany; the younger generation includes Martha Argerich and Mitsuko Uchida. Outstanding pianist-composers working in jazz include Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland.
Other instruments, particularly the violin, soon found their champions as well in the 19th century. Wilma Neruda, Camilla Urso and Maud Powell set important precedents. In the 20th century, celebrated violinists include Erica Morini, Ginette Neveu, Gioconda De Vito and Ida Haendel, and, more recently, Anne Sophie Mutter, Viktoria Mullova, Kyung-Wha Chung and Midori. Notable cellists include Beatrice Harrison, Guilhermina Suggia, May Mulke, Zara Nelsova and Jacqueline du Pré. Some sex-typing of instruments such as timpani, horn and saxophone still prevails. Here, the virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie is an outstanding exception. In the male-dominated field of jazz, horn player Melba Liston and the soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom are worthy of mention. Around 350 participants attended the first International Women's Brass Conference held in St Louis in 1993.
Given the problems with orchestral employment, relatively few women have been able to make careers as symphonic conductors. Marie Wurm, Antonia Brico, Ebba Sundstrom and Ethel Leginska relied heavily on women's orchestras for work. The American Symphony Orchestra League reported in 1997 that only 27 out of 425 member orchestras were conducted by women (c7%). In every country there is a history of one or another individual female musician being ‘the first’ to conduct some major symphony orchestra or appear on the podium of an opera house. The career of Nadia Boulanger in the first half of the 20th century, and that of Iona Brown in the second half, contain many such moments. Leading figures in the 20th century made more prominent careers in the choral world, among them Alice Parker, Margaret Hillis and Jane Glover, and in opera Eve Queler and Sarah Caldwell. What paths will be taken by Anne Harrigan, Simone Young, Sian Edwards, Marin Alsop and Gisele Ben-Dor in the current generation, remains to be seen.
Among all areas of professional music-making, perhaps composition is marked by the deepest sense of emotional divide between past and present. In the 19th century, class propriety and attitudes towards the roles of women in public stigmatized professional careers for some privileged women. Reich (J1993) pointed to the widening gulf between amateurs and professionals, with two tracks shaped by class mores: one for the professional woman from the artist-musician class and the other for the aristocratic or bourgeois lady, whose parlour domain reflected the ‘cult of domesticity’. Here the careers of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn demonstrate its effects. Schumann was one of the great concert pianists of the century, in the public limelight for almost all her life. A prodigious talent, Mendelssohn was encouraged to learn music but discouraged by both brother and father from publishing her work. Instead, she adopted the 18th-century solution of turning a private salon into a professional milieu. While the compositions of both women have been revived with great success, each expressed her ambivalence about composing, echoing the prevailing 19th-century theories about female inferiority.
Through revivals and re-evaluation within women's history, the work of other 19th- and early 20th-century female composers is being heard once more. Among the most prominent are Amy Beach and Ethel Smyth. Many await further evaluation, such as Emilie Meyer, Augusta Holmès, Ingeborg von Bronsart, Agathe Backer Grøndahl and Rebecca Clarke. Florence Price was the first black American woman to compose symphonic music. In one way or another, all these women surmounted the confines of ‘women's work in music’, which, throughout the early 1900s, relegated female composers to the ‘smaller forms’ such as songs and piano pieces, and placed the ‘higher forms’ of symphonic composition out of their ‘sphere’. The extent to which each composer felt burdened by gender ideology varied considerably, but none of them was indifferent or unaffected, particularly in the reception of their music. Smyth stands alone in her pioneering feminist writings about women in music.
Along with the revival of individual composers, women's history and feminist criticism are shaping new perspectives for 19th-century genres previously stigmatized by their associations with women's work, particularly in demeaned salon traditions. Salon piano music, the French romance, the English art song, the American parlour song: all these have been the subject of recent research. Perhaps Loïsa Puget will find new advocates in the future, as have already Cécile Chaminade and Maude Valérie White.
In the first half of the 20th century, female composers lived in a period of transition between old mores and new freedoms. On the one hand, modernist rhetoric about sexual difference perpetuated ‘virility’ as the musical antidote to Romantic excess, and attitudes towards music composed by women were often patronizing. On the other hand, a more general social and political emancipation for women stabilized a sense of creative possibility that had not really existed earlier. Some important figures are the impressionist Lili Boulanger and the modernist Ruth Crawford Seeger. In England, Elisabeth Lutyens espoused serialism when few men had adopted this approach. Neo-classical sympathies mark the music of Germaine Tailleferre and Louise Talma, while a more dissonant post-tonal idiom characterizes music by Elizabeth Maconchy, Grażyna Bacewicz and Miriam Gideon.
In the second half of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st, women composing music are less hampered by ideologies of sexual difference. No style, idiom, form, genre or technology is beyond them. Among the many established composers working today are the American-born Nancy Van de Vate living in Austria; Nicola LeFanu and Judith Weir in Britain; Kaija Saariaho in Finland; Betsy Jolas in France; Karin Rehnqvist in Sweden; Thea Musgrave, Joan Tower and Ellen Taafe Zwilich in the USA; and several from Eastern Europe and Russia, who have become increasingly prominent since the end of the Cold War. Among these last are Russian-born Sofiya Gabaydulina and Galina Ustvol'skaya and the Polish-born Marta Ptaszyńska.
Given the importance of vox feminae in women's history, the contributions of female composers to modernist and contemporary vocalism has continuities with the past. Many female composers are working with new approaches to the voice, blurring boundaries between composition and performance. In Romania, such sonic explorations are associated with Myriam Marbé and her pupil Violeta Dinescu, and in Germany with Adriana Hölszky. In the USA, such internationally renowned jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter showed one direction vocal virtuosity might take; in the smaller avant-garde world, Cathy Berberian, Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk showed another.
Within electro-acoustic music, women have made important contributions. Bebe Barron pioneered electronic scores for film. Pauline Oliveros has helped shape the avant garde since the 1960s. Pril Smiley and Alice Shields have been involved with the leading Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center since the 1960s. Ruth Anderson founded an electronic music studio in 1968 at CUNY. In 1970 Françoise Barrière co-founded the Concours Internationaux de Musique, at which Vivian Adelberg Rudow was the first female composer to win a first prize (1986). Other important figures include Annea Lockwood and Lucia Dlugoszewski; and, in the next generation, Laurie Spiegel.
How viable is the category ‘woman composer’ for the current generation? This question raises the issue of identity, to which each woman gives her own answers. The spectrum of responses ranges widely, as one survey has suggested (Barkin, J1980–81). Some women have composed music containing feminist social critique. The wry wit of the innovative performance-artist Laurie Anderson is well known. The British composer Rhian Samuel describes ‘a growing sense of obligation’ among women to ‘take a woman's point of view’ in their compositions; and she, like many others, supports an aesthetic based on the belief in ‘a woman's voice’. Yet other composers consider gender to be an arbitrary factor, aspiring to be heard beyond category.
Such internal issues of identity must be separated from external questions of professional careers in music, which today is both art and commodity in an international corporate marketplace. It seems clear from the growing international literature on the status of women in music professions that marginalization still exists. In the USA, women constituted about 10% of those teaching composition in colleges and universities in 1975–6 (it is important to remember that not all composers on such faculties teach composition). For the period 1954–82, the number of recordings of music composed by women on CRI, a principal label for American 20th-century music, was about 5%. American women have in general received meagre support from the leading foundations granting commissions and prizes. Similar patterns were found to prevail in Britain as well. Nicola LeFanu's survey (1987) gave disturbing statistics for the record of the Arts Council of Great Britain: between about 1973 and 1987, women composers comprised about 15% of the composer pool and yet received only 22 out of 360 commissions, about £7000 out of £160,000 disbursed to composers, and were shut out of touring programmes of contemporary music, in which 186 men were represented. A survey by the Women's PO (San Francisco) of the repertory of 43 American orchestras in 1998–99 season found only 23 works by women out of a total of 2292. In the USA statistical data document both increased access to training and far slower access to employment. Between 1971 and 1986 the percentage of women receiving music doctorates more than doubled (from 16.3% to 36%). In a virtually comparable time frame (1974–1986), the percentage of women employed full-time as post-secondary faculty barely changed (from 21.4% in 1974 to 23.2% in 1986 (Jezer, M1993)). The extent to which such inequities are replicated in other countries has yet to be documented.
The scholarly investigation of ‘women in music’ has many challenges ahead of it. Comprehensive syntheses and overviews of the extraordinary research explosion that occurred after 1970 still remain to be written. Integration of this material into mainstream writing is hardly secure. In 1849 the German feminist Louise Otto-Peters wrote: ‘The history of all times, and of today, especially, teaches that women will be forgotten if they forget to think about themselves’. Writing such history for women in music is still a work in and for progress.
Women in music, §II: Western classical traditions in Europe and the USA