Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ladies of Note ~ 20th Century (1901-2000)

Affected not only by changes in the structure of American musical life but by the upheavals of two World Wars and the cataclysm of the Depression, American women continued to turn to music as a hospitable profession during the first half of the 20th century. The most significant generalizations that can be made about this period concern the degree of professional segregation within music, the continued importance of singing as a solo career in all musical styles and the small role women played as solo instrumentalists and composers. All these aspects of women’s role in American musical life are colored by the striking social changes that took place between the beginning of the century, when life was still governed by Victorian morality, and the end of World War II, by which time there was a considerable degree of equality for women in American society.

Between 1940 and 1950 the number of women in music and music teaching again declined, but their proportion increased. It may be that men moved into more lucrative professions in the technical or business sectors of the labor force, thereby lessening the competition, but the changes in the nature of music education may also have affected the numbers of women in music professions. With the shift from private instruction to institutions of higher education, music training became more formalized, as in other professions, with advanced degree attainments and salaried jobs becoming the rule rather than the exception; musicians began to lose their freelance status. As a result, the characterization of music as “women’s work” diminished to some extent during this period.

Occupational segregation (exemplified in the formation of all-female instrumental ensembles) was a product of the conflict between supply and demand. Discrimination against female instrumentalists was pervasive, and there was little work for the increasing numbers of female conservatory graduates. All-female groups, a phenomenon prefigured in the 1890s, were a component of musical life between 1925 and 1945. About 30 women’s orchestras flourished between the wars in such cities as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and pioneer conductors such as Antonia Brico, Ebba Sundstrom and Ethel Leginska (who was also a pianist) relied heavily upon these groups for work. In 1938 Frédérique Petrides, a conductor and the founder of the journal Women in Music, claimed that there were 522 women playing in the eight major women’s orchestras.

The policy governing the engaging of players in the “mixed” orchestras (as sex-integrated ensembles were then known) changed slowly, mostly in response to the social and economic consequences of World War II. College marching bands became integrated as young men were drafted. German musicians lost the cachet that they had had since the middle of the 19th century. By 1945 most of the major orchestras (as classified by the ASOL), including those of Boston and Chicago, had hired their first female players; the percentage of women increased from two to eight between 1942 and 1948, affecting very few individuals but setting important precedents. 

Ethel Leginska
To start a women’s orchestra required social and economic assertiveness, and in thatrespect the phenomenon reflects  the liberalizing effects of organized feminism, which succeeded in 1920 in passing the constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The flapper was one kind of “new woman”; Ethel Leginska exemplified another. Even before the 1920s, she championed practical dress for female musicians as the “privilege of a uniform,” allowing “the personal self to be put out of the way as much as possible” in order to assure “comfort and freedom.” The all-female groups in popular music and jazz, less bound by the formal traditions of classical music, relied more overtly on glamour. Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra was one of the best-known groups of the 1930s, and other, more jazz-oriented ensembles included Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular group in the 1940s.

Helen Traubel in a 1945
publicity photograph for
Columbia Records
As in the 19th century, the most important female figures in classical, jazz and popular music were virtuoso singers. In opera, where women did not compete with men for roles or jobs, the issue was not one of sex and status but of a colonial preference for European artists. Again World War II marked a turning-point, with nationalism and a shortage of European musicians increasing the demand for American singers. Helen Traubel and Rosa Ponselle were propelled to international fame. For black women, problems of racial discrimination began to be resolved only after the war. In 1946 the New York City Opera became the first major opera company to employ black singers as principals. Around the same time, the concert artist Marian Anderson established herself as the best-known black singer in American musical history and one of the world’s leading contraltos in the 20th century. Making her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, Anderson was the first black artist of either sex to appear in one of its productions.

In other forms of musical theater, too, where there had to be a girl for the boy to meet, the numbers of women and men performers were more or less equal. Among the most popular before 1950 were Fanny Brice, Jeanette MacDonald, Gertrude Lawrence and Judy Garland. Female vocalists faced more direct competition in popular music and jazz but were nevertheless able to carve out an artistic sphere in which their achievements were recognized as equal, though their commercial success as a group after 1940 was not. One bright period was the 1920s, which was illuminated by the artistry of such classic blues singers as Ma Rainey (the “Mother” of the blues), Bessie Smith (its “Empress” and the highest-paid black artist of the decade), Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters. Swing brought about the demise of classic blues, and the folklorists’ preoccupation with country blues in the 1940s assured its obscurity until the 1970s. However, women equaled men in popularity if not in numbers as band singers in the late 1930s and 40s and were an integral part of the golden age of American popular singing. The kind of commercial success that Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan achieved after the 1950s eluded Billie Holiday, who nevertheless became one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th history.

Mary Lou Williams
With respect to solo instrumental careers, some of the gains made in classical music at the turn of the 20th century were not sustained. Few virtuosos matched the international prominence of such celebrities as Carreño or Powell; some of the best-known were the violinist Erica Morini, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and the pianists Olga Samaroff, Ruth Slenczynska and Rosalyn Tureck. The record of women instrumentalists in jazz is obscure. Research on the subject of jazz women has documented a hidden history in the 19th century of African American, female brass bands and in the 20th century a number of pianists, leaders of small ensembles and swing and bop trumpet and saxophone players. The best-known is undoubtedly Mary Lou Williams, who emerged as a leading pianist and composer in the 1930s, and later mentored and performed with many jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell during the birth of bebop in the 1940s.

(Ref. www.musiconline.com)

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