- The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word by Marian Wilson Kimber
With The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word, Marian Wilson Kimber offers a compelling addition to the growing field of voice studies, a field that has recently made significant inroads among music scholars. Hers is not a theoretically astute study of voice in the vein of Brian Kane's Sound Unseen: Acoustic Sound in Theory and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2014) or Nina Sun Eidsheim's Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice (Duke University Press, 2015), for example; rather, Wilson Kimber's work is in many ways less about the voice itself and more about the voice's absence. In other words, melodrama, the musical genre at the center of Wilson Kimber's book, is today almost entirely forgotten and silenced, and its once prominent role in women's lives is now largely overlooked. Melodrama's virtual extinction figures for Wilson Kimber as a fitting analogy for the decline in empowering musical spaces for women: "My treatment of the intersection of music and poetic recitation by women," she writes in the preface, "is also a feminist critique of American culture's rejection of female artistic endeavors" (xii). This book is thus both an eloquent testament to the power of the spoken word in women's lives and a smart treatment of voice and its role in forging our identities.
The book itself is beautifully designed, and the material is thoughtfully organized. Each of the ten chapters is readable, stands well enough on its own, and is an ideal balance of length and depth for students in both undergraduate and graduate courses. Because poetic recitation does not always include music or, as is often the case, because surviving music has been lost or untethered from its original poetry, Wilson Kimber must work throughout the book to center the discussion around the aurality of the genre rather than strictly its musicality. Periodically, then, certain chapters hold a clearer focus on the musical aspects of elocution than others. For example, in chapter 1, "The Odyssey of a Nice Girl: Elocution and Women's Cultural Aspirations," Wilson Kimber concludes that the eventual mockery and cultural backlash toward elocutionary performance in the early twentieth century signaled the end of a brief moment when women had a singular and prominent platform in America to find their voice. The following chapter, appropriately entitled "Making Elocution Musical," forthrightly reframes the elocution movement in musical terms rather than simply as a spoken word genre. This back-and-forth can be expected of the remaining chapters as well. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 consider the musical contexts of various elocutionary performances, especially melodrama; chapters 6, 7, and 8 shift focus back to elocution proper. The final two chapters offer a marriage of the spoken and musical elements of elocution, but for the most part the somewhat limping arrangement of the book's chapters is indicative of the careful moves Wilson Kimber must make to keep the book's focus on aurality rather than simply recitation.
One of the more successful moments in the book for me came in chapter 5, "Grecian Urns in Iowa Towns: Delsarte and The Music Man." This chapter most directly reflects Wilson Kimber's physical connection to Iowa, where she lives and teaches. Chapter 5 illuminates some key issues musical theater scholars have with The Music Man, namely, how Harold Hill's introduction of music-making [End Page 253] into River City, Iowa, builds community around the townsmen, while the women—after Hill introduces them to the rigid poses of Delsarte—gradually lose importance and, indeed, find their once-prominent voices reduced to rubbish and nonsense chirping (as in the musical number "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little"). Wilson Kimber draws a connection between the loss of women's voices in the musical, an emblem of their former independence and a primary measure of power in the community, with the rise of Delsarte performance stylizations during the late...