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  • "The Pulse of Life Today"Borrowing in Johanna Beyer's String Quartet No. 2
  • Rachel Lumsden (bio)

In May 1936 and May 1937 Johanna Magdalena Beyer attended two concerts in midtown Manhattan that would include the largest number of performances of her works to occur during her lifetime. A profoundly important venue for composers during the Depression, the WPA-affiliated Composers' Forum Concerts showcased new pieces by contemporary composers, as well as a postconcert discussion session during which audience members asked the featured composers questions about their music. During Beyer's postconcert discussions, some audience members questioned her compositional intentions, a few of them even launching vitriolic attacks against her works. In response to criticisms that her music was too dissonant and cacophonous, Beyer staunchly retorted, "I think that this modern life is so noisy, so intricate, and so complicated that one just can't explain it anymore with one simple tone and melody. One must simply go on and bang like the rest of the world."1

The last two decades have seen a steady increase of scholarship on Beyer (1888–1944) as scholars have continued to unearth new information about the enigmatic musician who was closely associated with a number [End Page 303] of prominent ultramodern composers in the 1930s (including Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford, and Henry Cowell). Amy C. Beal's recent monograph provides crucial biographical information on Beyer and reveals the myriad difficulties that this experimental female composer faced during the lean years of the Depression.2 Born in Germany in 1888, Beyer seems to have been a private music teacher before she immigrated permanently to New York City in late 1923.3 In the late 1920s she received a diploma in solfège and a teaching certificate from Mannes School of Music, and during the 1930s she studied composition with Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford, and Henry Cowell. Beyer struggled to forge a career as a musician, and as a single woman she fought to support herself during the Depression: she primarily worked as a private music teacher in the New York metro area and even completed a pedagogical manuscript entitled "Piano Book: Classic-Romantic-Modern" (ca. 1934-35).4 During her harsh and tumultuous lifetime, Beyer continued to compose—completing more than forty-five works during the 1930s alone—even though her music remained almost entirely unpublished and unperformed. Sadly, she eventually contracted ALS and died of the disease in a charity hospice in upstate New York in 1944.

Beyer's biography is a rich subject, one that has been illuminated by the valuable scholarly contributions of Beal, Melissa de Graaf, John Kennedy, and Larry Polanksy.5 In addition to her fascinating life, Beyer's compositions also represent vibrant and distinctive contributions to American modernism. However, Beyer's music has not yet received the in-depth theoretical and analytic attention it deserves. This article presents the first detailed study of one of Beyer's compositions, Beyer's String Quartet No. 2 (1936), a work that offers important insights into Beyer's compositional style and the way that her music both intersects with and departs from her ultramodern contemporaries. But Beyer's second quartet is particularly significant because it also provides an opportunity to explore broader issues of musical borrowing. Musical borrowing has a long and varied compositional history, appearing in countless works by myriad composers, ranging from Renaissance recompositions and parody masses to John Zorn's explorations of quotation and collage. Scholarship on musical borrowing has been similarly diverse, including groundbreaking studies of individual composers (such as J. Peter Burk-holder's work on Charles Ives), as well as larger genres or stylistic eras (such as Lewis Lockwood's work on parody in the sixteenth century). Yet within this rich and seemingly heterogeneous assemblage of research a clear lacuna persists: borrowing in music by women composers remains virtually unexplored terrain.6

This article examines borrowing in Beyer's String Quartet No. 2, which features many prominent statements from Papageno's aria "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. Beyer's borrowing is [End Page 304] noteworthy for a number of different reasons. First, Beyer's ultramodern friends and teachers did not...


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