Notes 60.2 (2003) 469-470
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Women Performing Music: The Emergence of American Women as Classical Instrumentalists and Conductors. By Beth Abelson Macleod. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001. [ix, 205 p. ISBN 0-7864-0904-5. $28.50.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.
Beth Ableson Macleod's experience as a music student in the 1960s and 1970s taught her, among other things, that "gender defined one's involvement and success as a musician" (p. 1). Reflecting upon that experience a few years later, she became interested in the cultural context within which certain American women pursued careers as performing musicians a hundred years earlier. She examined reviews in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American newspapers and music periodicals for evidence of some of the gender-based attitudes she had faced and their effect on the lives of the exceptional women who had succeeded as professional musicians in spite of them. Women Performing Music documents her research, illustrating some of the challenges facing women musicians of that era and highlighting the careers of a select few.
Capturing the spirit of the age through liberal use of quotations from contemporary reviewers, Macleod begins her narrative by analyzing ways in which gender-based expectations influenced women's ability to choose careers as instrumental musicians or conductors. Nineteenth- century women frequently pursued a musical education in order to perform in the home, but were expected to choose instruments like the guitar, the lute, the harp, or a keyboard instrument that emitted soft, delicate, soprano sounds and allowed them to appear attractive and graceful while playing. The piano was the first instrument to be accepted as appropriate for solo concert performance by women, followed by the violin and cello, but the perception that women might not be strong enough to perform as soloists, particularly in the case of more "masculine" composers like Beethoven or Grieg, prevailed.
Both male and female musicians of the period were expected to study and perform in Europe for several years before they could be taken seriously in the United States. The few women who followed this course tended to be child prodigies whose middle-class families chose to support their musical gifts, often at great personal and financial expense. A strong-willed mother or grandmother attempting to fulfill her own dreams through the young virtuoso frequently accompanied the girl and handled the practical aspects of life while she concentrated on her studies. Macleod asserts that most of the girls flourished in Europe despite the difficulties of travel, authoritarian teachers, language barriers, and anti-American biases, but by the turn of the century, the tide had turned and reviewers increasingly expressed concern that a European education was dangerous to a woman's health and morals. Women returning from Europe with the requisite credentials—laudatory reviews as well as instruction from a respected teacher—faced additional challenges in building a career in the United States.
Macleod devotes a chapter each to three unusually prominent musicians whose careers spanned the period under investigation: pianist Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler (1863-1927), pianist and conductor Ethel Leginska (1886-1970), and conductor Antonia Brico (1902-1989). Each woman managed the conflicting demands of career and personal life differently, reflecting to some extent the gendered expectations typical of the period in which she lived. These engaging and informative biographies contribute to the available information about these women and illustrate the themes Macleod outlines in the earlier chapters.
Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler, a child prodigy whose desire for a career as a concert pianist helped her overcome health problems and lack of encouragement from parents, doctors, and teachers, was born in 1863 in Bielitz, Silesia, and moved with her parents to the United States in 1867. She began studying piano at the age of seven and traveled to Vienna in the company of her mother and grandmother to study with Theodor Leschetizky at the age of fourteen. After five years of study abroad, she returned to the United States and confronted the difficulties of establishing her career. Excellent reviews, support from the Knabe piano company, and a lifelong...