Torn Between Cultures: A Life of Kathi Meyer-Baer.
Kathi Meyer-Baer (1892-1977) was a Jewish-German musicologist and librarian. She was a productive scholar, publishing five books and numerous articles from 1917 to 1975 on topics as wide-ranging as choral music, aesthetics, musical incunabula, and the basse danse. Like many scholars in her generation, she immigrated to the United States via France during the Second World War, and was one of the seventeen musicians and music scholars helped by the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars. Yet, unlike the others aided by the committee, such as Alfred Einstein and Edward Lowinsky, she never found a permanent academic position-perhaps because she was the only woman-and knowledge of her life and works seems to have vanished from the records. Although important enough for inclusion in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, these entries are cursory and outdated. What David Josephson has uncovered in this in-depth biographical monograph is a narrative that tells us not only about Meyer-Baer's life and career, but also is an engaging case study of musical emigres, German and American musicological institutions, and academic miscommunications.
Josephson focuses primarily on Meyer-Baer's life, rather than her works, dividing the book chronologically and geographically: the first section, entitled "Germany," details her education and the beginning of her career; "France," the slimmest section, focuses on the Baer family's two years in France; the third and largest section, "America," delves into her life in the U.S.A., her search for an academic position, and her continued research. Josephson relies on archival material from three main sources: the Baer Family Collection in Santa Maria de Xalostoc, Mexico; the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University; and the Paul Hirsch Collection at the British Library in London. The items cited by Josephson are primarily letters, from which he quotes extensively, letting Meyer-Baer and her colleagues, especially Paul Hirsch and Sophie Drinker, speak for themselves.
As Josephson notes, Meyer-Baer's gender did influence her career, especially at the beginning: Professor Hermann Kretschmar blocked her dissertation at Berlin University in 1915, claiming that "to accept her dissertation would be to give a female student an unfair advantage in wartime over her male counterparts" (p. 8). In order to complete her doctorate, Meyer-Baer transferred to Leipzig University, a move sponsored by Hugo Reimann, where she spent just a single day taking exams. After her struggle to submit her dissertation, it is not surprising that she faced the same resistance a few years later, when her Habilitation application, necessary' to qualify for a university job, was rejected. In the meantime, Meyer-Baer strung together a few lectures and began publishing articles.
After a chance introduction at an after-concert party, she came in touch with Jewish-German businessman Paul Hirsch (1881-1951) and visited his impressive private music collection. Shortly thereafter, he offered her a position as librarian, thus beginning "the most stimulating decade of her professional life" (p. 24). Josephson suggests that it was "no accident" (p. 294) that Meyer-Baer found employment with a Jewish patron, given the anti-Semitic climate of 1920s Berlin. Meyer-Baer enjoyed her time at the library and immediately began working toward the publication of a multivolume catalog of the library's holdings, no small task with some twenty thousand items, and a series of facsimiles of its rare scores and treatises, which started to come out in print in 1922. Although her formal employment at the library ended with Hirsch's departure from Germany in 1936, he and Meyer-Baer continued their association, the last volume of the library holdings publication series appearing in 1945. (Hirsch was forced to sell the collection the following year.)
This moment of professional transition was exacerbated by the increasingly tense situation in German politics, as well as changes in Meyer-Baer's personal life. As Josephson describes it, an additional "four events now changed the course of Kathi's life" (p. 294): marriage to Kurt Baer in 1934, the birth of their son George in 1936, and their subsequent emigration from Germany, first to France in 1938, and then to the United States in 1940. After arriving in the U.S., Meyer-Baer still struggled to find employment, with a position at a women's college perhaps being her only option: Betty Drury of the Emergency Committee suggested that Meyer-Baer would be ideal for a school such as Mount Holyoke College (p. 151) and Josephson even hypothesizes that Meyer-Baer held a grudge against Alfred Einstein, perhaps envious of his position at Smith College (pp. 161,233).
In this section on the Baers' emigration, Josephson indulges in a short theoretical digression, a discussion of the difference between the terms exile, refugee, emigre, emigrant, and immigrant. In another scholar's hands, this discussion would have dominated the narrative, reducing Meyer-Baer's story to an extended example, but Josephson intelligently uses the terms to better illuminate her situation: the Baers "left Germany as emigrants ... left France as refugees, entered the United States as immigrants, and lived their lives largely as emigres" (p. 93).
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Meyer-Baer's career is her extended collaboration with Sophie Drinker, a "scion of Philadelphia society" (p. 59) and amateur musician. Drinker's involvement with the Montgomery Singers women's choir led to her initial interest in Meyer-Baer's dissertation on female choral singing from pre-Christianity to 1800 ("not a long dissertation" but rather a "path-breaking work on a subject little studied," p. 12). Drinker contacted her in 1934, while Meyer-Baer was still in Germany, to propose an English translation and expansion of the text to create, in Drinker's words, "a real history of women making music" (p. 62).
In the later 1930s, Meyer-Baer began to see this translated publication as a way to move into the American musicological orbit. She wrote additional chapters and answered Drinker's multiple requests, which entailed mailing photocopies of original documents, corresponding with nunneries, and retrieving archival information. Josephson remarks here on the imbalance of power suggested by Drinker's "unsettling ... barrage of requests" of Meyer-Baer, who had, after all, informed Drinker of the worsening situation in Germany (p. 81). To her credit, Sophie and her husband Henry did sponsor Meyer-Baer and Kurt (who would go to the Curtis Institute of Music) for immigration to the U.S.A. with an affidavit of support in 1939. Indeed, they were "vital" (p. 124) in helping Meyer-Baer and Kurt adjust to their new country.
Drinker's aspirations for the book, however, went beyond a history' of singing schools and nuns, as she wanted it to include also a discussion of goddesses and pre-antiquity rites performed in matriarchal societies. She met with numerous classics and anthropology professors with questions and eventually came to see this project as a completely different book from Meyer-Baer's dissertation. It still came as a shock to Meyer-Baer when she learned that Drinker had finished the book on her own in 1944, despite their close work in person in the early 1940s and their new geographical proximity, which should have facilitated their collaboration (Drinker was based in Philadelphia and Meyer-Baer in New York City). Despite a decade of archival work and multiple rewrites, Drinker acknowledged Meyer-Baer's contribution only in passing in the preface. Moreover, Drinker clarified to Meyer-Baer that she "grossly overestimated" her contribution; it "was but a small fraction of the total which I have acquired and an even smaller fraction of what I have used" (pp. 190-91). The women's friendship was obviously over, and Meyer-Baer's son described the publication of Drinker's Music and Women: The Story of Women in Their Relation to Music (New York: Coward-McCann, 1948) as "the greatest professional disappointment in his mother's life" (p. 196).
Despite this series of disappointments and Meyer-Baer's continued lack of a permanent position, she continued to publish prolifically, including her last book Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Death: Studies in Musical Iconology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970); a peer reviewer lauded its interdisciplinary nature, as it "makes contributions to the history of art, music, literature, religion, and philosophy" (p. 284). The inclusion of peer reviews here is interesting. In general, though, the book is perhaps at times too focused on her life and career, the discussion of her research confined to contemporaneous reviews. A deeper analysis of her writings, particularly her dissertation on female choral singing, would have strengthened Josephson's argument that Meyer-Baer was a significant figure in German and American musicology.
Yet, even after acknowledging this omission, this text represents a massive undertaking to reconstruct of the life of MeyerBaer. In all, Josephson convinces the reader that it is not just her publications that make Meyer-Baer noteworthy, but rather the entirety of her life and career. In addition to being the second woman to earn a Ph.D. in musicology, her scholarship on women and contributions to Drinker's Music and Women make her an important figure for feminist musicologists. Likewise, Meyer-Baer's attempts to integrate into American institutions make her biography interesting to scholars of emigres and musical migrations. Lastly, her work and experiences as a mid-century musicologist and librarian provide insight into the history of the disciplines and their workings. Appropriately published in Pendragon's Lives in Music series, this volume is enthusiastically recommended for all music libraries, a windfall for both musicologists and librarians.
Johanna Frances Yunker
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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|Author:||Yunker, Johanna Frances|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2016|
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