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NWSA Journal 13.2 (2001) 161-166

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Book Review

Musical Women in England, 1870-1914: "Encroaching on All Man's Privileges"

Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944

Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944

Musical Women in England, 1870-1914: "Encroaching on All Man's Privileges" by Paula Gillett. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, 319 pp., $49.95 hardcover.

Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944 by Adrienne Fried Block. New York: Oxford University Press, (1998) 2000, 448 pp., $45.00 hardcover, $19.95 paper.

Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music by Judith Tick. New York: Oxford University Press, (1997) 2000, 488 pp., $39.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.

Women musicians who helped transform culture in England and the United States during the early twentieth century were hardly aristocratic. Rather than "extraordinarily privileged, a combination of first-class genes and parents, brilliant tutors, enviable social connections and comfortable roosts from which to observe the sufferings and traumas of . . . depression and war," they represented a wide range of socio-economic classes, were identified early as gifted, and were trained by local teachers or, if fortunate, ones of European lineage or education (Frankel 2000, 6). Nineteenth-century English and American societies considered the art through which these musical women effected cultural change to be feminine by its very nature and often personified music as a woman. Gender and class informed the age.

Three recent scholarly works by a cultural historian and two musicologists illuminate, in abundant detail, the cultural shifts from Victorian to "new" woman in England between 1870 and World War I and in the lives of the two foremost American women composers of the first half of the twentieth century, Amy Beach of Boston and Ruth Crawford of Chicago.

In Musical Women in England, 1870-1914: "Encroaching on All Man's Privileges," cultural historian Paula Gillett contextualizes through literary and musical sources late Victorian women's music making and English society's growing acceptance of a "new musical woman" after the turn of the century.1 In three introductory chapters, the author discusses the conflicted Victorian "female sphere," in which the ideal of "woman's place" in the home and debates over the "five-ounce deficit" clashed with the reality of women's public lives of political and social activism2 ; likewise, the literary image of the leisure-class, amateur, home-defined, female parlor pianist and her working-class, underpaid, unmarried female piano teacher clashed with the reality of the multi-class women's music club movement and the enhanced presence of women across class in [End Page 161] professional music societies, such as the Incorporated Society of Musicians. In addition, the author elaborates on "woman's mission" in late Victorian society--that is, "the dedication of traditional female virtues to society's moral improvement"--and the key role of music in accomplishing that mission, in educating and entertaining the lower classes and in fund-raising on behalf of worthy causes (33-4).

Gillett centers her study on two groups of public performers who signified the new woman of the early twentieth century: violinists, who until the 1870s had been informally banned from performing on the "devil's instrument," at the turn-of-the-century became recognized for their professionalism (77). Singers, whose womanly reputations in earlier times had been tarnished by public stage performance, also gained status when significant numbers of aristocratic women became accepted as singers in opera, and the literary ideal of the woman who sings publicly became a surrogate for aristocratic station (164). The author discerns class issues well and offers explanations for musical women's improved status in early twentieth-century English society. For example, she notes that a group of women benefactors who began to perform onstage...