Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ladies of Note ~ 19th Century (1801-1900)

Women’s music-making up to 1850 was mainly secular and centered on the home. Generally regarded as a feminine “accomplishment,” music was considered in the 18th century an ornament or social skill; in the 19th century it became a component of a lady’s education. Women typically learned keyboard instruments, harp and guitar, and were taught how to sing, but they were generally not trained as professionals, since society viewed public performance as immodest. Research into the role of women in music in this period has relied heavily on a vast prescriptive literature of etiquette manuals and educational tracts that discuss the proper place of music in a young lady’s life; classic examples of such books include John Bennett’s Letters to a Young Lady (1798) and Lydia Sigourney’s Letters to Young Ladies (1844).

Eleanor Custis
It is significant that the first conservatory in the United States was a seminary for women, the Music Vale Academy, founded in 1835. In the most general sense, music became a “feminine” field. Women were not traditionally educated for professional music activities, but their amateur presence was so strong that in the social circles in which music played an important part, music became very largely the province of women. 

Among the female counterparts to such well-known gentlemen amateurs in the late 18th century as Francis Hopkinson and Benjamin Franklin were Martha Jefferson (and her two daughters Martha and Maria) and  Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis (George Washington’s stepdaughter) who's estate included 8 volumes of piano music. Most of her compositions were purchased between 1789 and 1797 when she was 10-17 years of age. These were the years she lived with George and Martha Washington in New York and Philadelphia, where she studied keyboard playing and singing. In the late 1790s Eleanor won the reputation of being one of the most beautiful and accomplished women in the United States.

During the same period, the best-known professional female musicians were mostly, but not all, English singers who came to the United States to start second careers. The most important of these before 1800 was Mary Ann Pownall, known in England as Mrs. Wrighton, who was a composer as well as a performer. John Rowe Parker’s A Musical Biography (1824) contains sketches of several others, among them Dolly Broadhurst, Georgina Oldmixon and Sophia Hewitt Ostinelli, who was the daughter of James Hewitt, organist of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society 1820–30. Another early keyboard player and composer was Elizabeth von Hagen, whom O.G.T. Sonneck called “in a way the most interesting member” of a well-known family of professional musicians (Early Concert Life in America, 1907, p.231).

As for composition, very few women had works published in the United States before 1825. Bibliographies of secular music in print list about 70 pieces by women, most of them songs by English composers and a number of others published anonymously by “ladies” from various cities (e.g., The U.S. Marine March by “a Lady of Charleston” and the Titus March by “a Lady of Baltimore”). More American female composers began to have works published in the 1840s (e.g., Marion Dix Sullivan and Augusta Browne), but the English presence in American song remained strong until the end of the 1860s. Among the most popular English female composers in the 1830s and 40s were Caroline Norton and Harriet Browne; in the 1850s and 60s, Charlotte Barnard (who wrote under the penname Claribel) and Virginia Gabriel were equally well known, their major American counterparts being Faustina Hasse Hodges and Susan (Mrs. E.A.) Parkhurst.


During the second half of the 19th century, music was less often perceived simply as a social accomplishment for women—a view that had produced what the critic James Huneker deprecatingly described as the “piano girl,” the unmusical but socially adaptable dilettante. The unprecedented success of Music Study in Germany (1880, 2/1896/R), Amy Fay’s account of her time with the leading pianists of Germany, signaled the era of the “new girl,” one who was serious in her study and potentially a professional musician. The energies that had fueled “accomplishment” were redirected into a number of different channels, one of which was music teaching.

Women also organized music clubs, the most important of which was the National Federation of Music Clubs, founded by Florence Sutro in 1898. With more funding for conservatories and women’s colleges, higher education became more accessible to women; professional opportunities also increased significantly for women in the second half of the 19th century. In popular music “singing families” such as The Hutchinson Family and The Bakers, which typically included women, offered an alternative to the minstrel troupes which were all-male (as well as all-white) until after the Civil War. 

The burgeoning musical theater of the 1860s and 70s demanded women as actresses, singers and dancers in spectacles, ballets and musical plays; two performers of note were the dancers Marie Bonfanti and Lydia Thompson.

Jenny Lind
One barrier to the achievements of American women in music had been the slow growth of an audience for opera, but the increase in the number of opera companies, choral groups and oratorio societies and the custom of using operatic singers at band concerts gave rise to the first generation of American-born singers; the spectacular American debut and tour (1850–52) of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind also encouraged American prima donnas.

Outstanding among these were Adelaide Phillipps (a protégée of Lind), Lillian Nordica, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (one of the first black women on the concert stage), Emma Thursby, Emma Abbott and Clara Louise Kellogg, who was the first American singer to achieve fame in Europe as well as in the United States. Although fewer in number, women began to be accepted on the concert stage as virtuoso instrumentalists in the second half of the 19th century. Camilla Urso and Maud Powell were celebrated violinists of international repute and outspoken champions of equal opportunities for female musicians, and the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño was soon succeeded by Fannie Zeisler and Julie Rivé-King

Women’s chamber music and orchestral ensembles included such groups as the Fadette Ladies’ Orchestra of Boston (1888), the Eichberg Ladies’ String Quartet and the Women’s String Orchestra of New York (1896).

Amy Marcy Beach
The 1890s saw some radical changes in the role of women in music. The debate over the innate creative potential of women had already begun in 1880 with George P. Upton’s fierce articulation of biological determinism in his book Woman in Music. In the 1890s the battle continued, but the question of the female composer—could she or should she compose in the “higher forms” of symphonic or chamber music?—was answered by the achievements of a pioneering generation of composers who became prominent between 1880 and 1900. Amy Marcy Beach, who was the first female composer to have a symphony performed in the United States (1893, Boston), was active well into the 1920s


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