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NWSA Journal 15.3 (2003) 189-196

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Reclaiming Gender in Modernist Music

Susan Borwick

Gender and the Musical Canon, by Marcia J. Citron. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, (1993) 2000, 307 pp., $17.95 paper.
Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, by Susan McClary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, (1991) 2002, 240 pp., $18.95 paper.
Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, edited by Ruth A. Solie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, 355 pp., $40.00 hardcover.
Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form, by Susan McClary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 219 pp., $16.95 paper.
Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, edited by Susan C. Cook and Judy S. Tsou. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994, 241 pp., $16.95 paper.
Gendering Musical Modernism: The Music of Ruth Crawford, Marion Bauer, and Miriam Gideon, by Ellie M. Hisama. Volume 14 of Studies in Music Theory and Analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 215 pp., $65.00 hardcover.

Since the late 1970s, American feminist musicians have struggled on several levels with the discipline of music theory, which seeks to describe and explain the inner workings of musical compositions as they cohere into a meaningful whole. First, the formalist and reductionist nature of the music-theory tradition has measured women's compositions against stereotypical norms such as sonata form, particularly during the era of "common practice" or the common era—that is, the time when composers fashioned their works on tonal relationships, between 1700 and the early twentieth century—and characteristically has critiqued women's works to be ill-conceived or lacking rather than innovative or distinctive. 1 Second, the music-theory tradition has established a "great men" pecking order for itself. "The Theorist" has tended to be godlike in his pronouncements: witness Schenker or Adorno or Forte, all of whose authoritative voices resonate dissonantly in feminists' ears. Third, the voices of women in music theory have been pianissimo: fewer women teach or focus their scholarship in the area of theory or theory/composition than in any other subdiscipline of music. [End Page 189]

Twenty-five years ago, feminist music analysts began to explore representational issues in music where they occurred in obvious and revealing places, particularly in opera, in which a singer plays the role of a dramatic character on the stage. The operatic tendency to objectify female characters, who sing a final aria as they take their last breath—no easy task, to be sure!—is so common in nineteenth-century opera that a feminist perspective—generally, retelling operatic storylines from the perspective of the heroines—provided direct correlations with more fully evolved literary and art feminist criticism. 2 Feminist analyses of art-song and other music genres that contain representational texts soon followed. Last to be explored was absolute music, which music theory traditionally regards as involving a purely musical syntax consisting of tonal (key) centers; melodic repetition, similarity, or contrast; development of melodic ideas by means of fragmentation and tonal instability; and, above all, the return of the familiar, whether key or melody or both. Belief in such a "purely musical" syntax has been the lens through which traditional music theorists have examined the musical structures of Joseph Haydn, W.A. Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and those who followed them during the common era. This traditional lens has established the norms against which women's compositions have been measured and critiqued negatively.

During the first half of the 1990s, a feminist perspective that societal, specifically gendered, context informs all music began to challenge the traditional view that syntax is capable of being purely musical. Marcia Citron, Susan McClary, and a few other feminist musicians 3 addressed some of the extra-musical connotations of absolute music of the common era, Citron only tangentially as she identified how feminist strategies meaningfully address the inadequacies of the musical canon, in Gender and the Musical Canon. McClary attacked the absolute music theory tradition at its heart—for example, in feminist critiques of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, in Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, and Brahms's Third...


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