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Musical Women in England, 1870-1914: "Encroaching on All Man's Privileges." & Women Performing Music: The Emergence of American Women as Instrumentalists and Conductors. (Reviews).

Musical Women in England, 1870-1914: "Encroaching on All Man's Privileges." By Paula Gillett (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. ix plus 310 pp. $49.95).

Women Performing Music: The Emergence of American Women as Instrumentalists and Conductors. By Beth Abelson Macleod (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, 2001. ix plus 205 pp. $28.50).

Several recent studies note that gender roles and the idea of "separate spheres" were as powerful in the Victorian music world as in wider society. For example, Dave Russell writes in Popular Music in England, 1940-1914: A Social History (1987), "In some senses, the sexual divide was greater than the class divide in Victorian and Edwardian popular music." (8) Similarly, in The Music Profession in Britain Since die Eighteenth Century: A Social History (1985), Cyril Ehrich notes "Prejudice [by male performers] against women players was pervasive" because women were beginning to compete for jobs in "the exclusive, biologically determined, province of the male." (156-7) Yet few subsequent articles, books, or dissertations have examined this issue, leaving significant questions unanswered. How and why did women become professional musicians? Was this related to broader debates about gender, the "new woman," and sexuality, and if so, what does it tell us about those debates?

These questions are addressed by Women Performing Music by Beth Abelson Macleod and Musical Women in England 1870-1914 by Paula Gillett, thus making them significant additions to the literature on women's history, musicology, Victorian studies and gender studies. They discuss this gender divide in American and British music respectively, how it was depicted and enforced, and what factors promoted change. Both extensively use primary source periodicals and contemporary fiction to assess public attitudes towards women musicians, placing the issue within the context of larger discussions of attitudes towards music, gender roles, sexuality, class, and the burgeoning women's movement.

Gillett's work is more theoretical, proposing that late Victorian women often used existing gender ideology to become prominent in the music world. As an extension of "women's place," philanthropy allowed women such as Emma Cons to become patrons; she explained that her work to bring concerts to the Royal Victoria Hall was to "give good music to the people and raise their taste for the same." (55) Women also profited from such philanthropic endeavors, allowing poor girls whose talents otherwise would have gone unrecognized to become professional musicians. For example, despite Marie Hall's acknowledged talent, at fourteen she declined a Royal Academy of Music scholarship because of poverty and her father's insistence that she was needed at home to perform in the streets to support the family. He reluctantly allowed her to study in London with a professional teacher only after benefactors agreed to pay her expenses and give the family a weekly stipend to compensate for the loss of her earnings. Subsequently, H all went on to become England's first woman violinist-celebrity.

When Hall began her professional career, attitudes about women violinists were changing. As Gillett notes, the early nineteenth century public found female violin playing "inappropriate, improper, and aesthetically jarring." (78) Violins were compared to the feminine body, "most fittingly performed on by a worshipful 'master'." (87) Moreover, male virtuoso violinists played with great expression and body movement, which was considered inappropriate for women. Further, violins had a long literary association with sin, death, and the devil, making them dangerous for the weaker sex. But despite these perceptions, women violinists were accepted at the end of the nineteenth century for several interconnected reasons. Increased demands for popular concerts required more musicians, in part supplied by the increasing number of girls who were receiving a better education. Gillett sees this as part of the broader women's movement that "called into question much received wisdom concerning the totality of restrictions on girls' and women's roles in society." (98) Class also played a role; pianos became so commonplace by the 1890s that periodicals such as The Young Woman recommended that the "thousands of nice girls who are lost in the crowd of our surplus female population" take up the violin in order to "stand out and shine" in social gatherings. (100) But some also feared that female musicians

would imitate the "New Women" of the era by denouncing marriage, and taking up smoking, club life, and public speaking. This was reflected in contemporary fiction that frequently portrayed marriages destroyed due to female dedication to the violin, or men falling victim to the music of the cynical woman violinist. In either case, these works show that female violinists still faced considerable prejudice, in spite of their talent--or perhaps because of it. Gillett juxtaposes this with ambiguous attitudes towards female singers. Despite praise of divas' voices, some critics decried them as "sirens," seeing the public's praise as innate ly corrupting to susceptible women who in turn would corrupt men, thereby threatening social stability.

Such attitudes were changing by the early twentieth century, and Gillett's concluding chapter examines the progress made by women musicians and the continuing prejudices against them. While the majority of English conservatory students were women, social prejudice meant that only the very best had an opportunity to flourish as solo pianists, violinists, or singers on the concert stage. Since female musicians were paid less than men, they were more desirable for playing at smaller-scale enterprises, such as tearooms, department stores, and cinemas. Women also found greater opportunities in music teaching, piano tuning, conducting, composing and playing the organ. Yet given the opposition they faced, it is not surprising that many became active in the women's movement. MacLeod's preface shows that such prejudices still existed in the late twentieth century. Currently a fine arts librarian at the Central Michigan University Libraries, she was a music student in the 1960s and 1970s who was told she "played like a woman" and that women were "physiologically incapable of being good organists." (1) Such comments ultimately led her to research attitudes American women musicians faced in the nineteenth century when male domination was being challenged. Her conclusions are strikingly similar to those of Gillett, beginning with the difficulties women faced if they chose to play a "masculine" instrument in public, and especially instruments that marred their femininity through facial or body movements. Women violinists were grudgingly accepted, but only after a new ideology emerged that equated the violin's emotional sound with the sentimentality of woman. Yet this did not mean that women entered all areas of professional performance; as was the case in England, American women were discouraged from joining brass bands, playing larger wind and brass instruments, or becoming school music teachers or band leaders.

Macleod also demonstrates that gendered attitudes also influenced women's performance and conducting. Nineteenth-century male soloists were highly theatrical in their appearance and exaggerated body movements on stage, but audiences thought a flamboyant style was inconsistent with feminine respectability and femininity. Successful women performers thus had to have a demure appearance and restrict their body movements on stage to conform to idealized concepts of womanhood. Audiences also found it difficult to accept women conductors, since they held unacceptable positions of dominance over male musicians. Despite these handicaps, increasing numbers of American girls and women were pursuing professional music careers with prolonged study in Europe with acknowledged masters. Yet even though these women were duly chaperoned by mothers or other female relatives, critics increasingly attacked European training as a danger to American womanhood. In the words of John Freund, editor of Musical America, women who studi ed in Europe would risk losing the chance to "become the gentle, loving wife of some good American, and the mother of children, and so fulfill woman's noblest destiny." (44)

Despite such warnings, many young women finished their musical training in Europe, and having played concerts in cities abroad, they returned to the United States where they began touring the country. The demand for performers was high, as numerous large cities and small towns across the country built concert halls and opera houses, creating new opportunities for women who were "more sought-after than American men for [band and orchestra] solo positions, partly in the belief that a woman's presence would lend a decorative element to a stage full of soberly clad men, but also out of concern that a featured virtuoso should be somewhat exotic." (56-7) Nevertheless, women soloists were invariably paid lower fees than men.

Through in-depth examination of the lives and careers of Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler, Ethel Leginska, and Antonia Brico, Macleod illustrates the struggles faced by highly-talented women musicians in this period. All three were born in Europe--Poland in 1863, England in 1886, and the Netherlands in 1902, respectively--but their American careers reflect the changing attitudes towards women performers. Pianist Bloomfield-Zeisler continued her career after marriage with the encouragement of her husband, a prominent Chicago attorney. For over thirty years, she toured Europe and America as a celebrated pianist, taught students, managed her household, and raised three children. But because she believed she had to fulfill expectations as a wife and mother as well as a concert pianist, she suffered from bouts of ill-health and depression. Ethel Leginska also continued to perform as a concert pianist after her marriage and giving birth to a son, but her marriage broke down shortly afterwards, and she hinted that the caus e was society's insistence that professional women give up their careers and become wives and mothers. When Leginska began conducting, she wore a tuxedo and kept her back to the audience in an effort to de-emphasize her gender and focus the audience's attention on the performance, but in light of her personal life, critics saw her instead as the personification of feminism and the "new woman." Leginska was instrumental in the establishment of the Boston Women's Symphony and Women's Symphony of Chicago in the late 1920s, but was unable to obtain a permanent position as conductor of a major orchestra. By the l930s, when "society was far more judgmental about the idea of broader public roles for women than it had been in the 1910s and l920s," (120) Leginska found fewer opportunities as a conductor or performer even though American symphony orchestras were proliferating. Thus, for the last thirty years of her life, she turned to teaching, and her death in 1970 went virtually unnoticed.

Antonia Brico was just coming to maturity in the l920s, and unlike Bloomfield-Zeisler and Leginska, she focused on conducting, becoming the first American to graduate from the Master School of Conducting at the Berlin Academy of Music. Returning to the United States in the early l930s, she conducted a variety of concerts, many of them aimed at a wider popular audience. Perhaps because of the increased scrutiny of women musicians by critics in the 1930s, Brico always denied that she was a feminist. Yet during the Depression, she formed a women's orchestra to provide employment and training for other female musicians and to provide low-cost entertainment to the public. Yet like Leginska, Brico was unable to obtain a permanent appointment at any major symphony orchestra, and was repeatedly passed over by the Denver Symphony orchestra. She too turned to teaching to support herself and had faded into relative obscurity when one of her former pupils, folksinger Judy Collins, produced a Oscar-nominated documentary f ilm about her entitled Antonia: Portrait of the Woman (1974), which led to a brief revival of interest in Brico's career.

Macleod ends with a brief chapter on the state of women's position in music in the late twentieth century, showing that while women have made significant headway, gendered ideology is still inherent in the music profession. For example, JoAnn Falletta, conductor and music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic since 1998, still has to be concerned about the critical response to her clothing; in 1990 one San Francisco reporter speculated on the "psychosexual message" of Falletta's tuxedo. (147) As was the case with Bloomfield-Zeisler and Leginska nearly a century ago, Falletta and her peers continue to deal with the potential conflicts among marriage, family life and hectic far-flung touring schedules.

These two well-researched works are a welcome addition to the growing literature on late Victorian Britain and America, and more particularly on the overlooked relationship among gender ideology, music, culture and society. Scholars in these fields will find these works valuable for their arguments, analysis of primary sources, and extensive bibliographies.
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Author:Hunt, Tamara L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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