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



Dolly Broadhurst
See A Musical Biography by John Rowe Parker

Georgina Oldmixon
In a male-dominated profession, singer-actress Georgina Oldmixon was Philadelphia's best-known female performer. Having begun her career in London's Haymarket Theatre in 1783 and married a violinist, a decade later she was part of Reinagel and Wignell's company, and appeared in both plays and concerts. She was among featured artists in a concert of February 7, 1804, in the Philharmonic Society's Hall. (More at A Musical Biography by John Rowe Parker)

Sophia Hewitt Ostinelli
Sophia Henrietta Emma Hewitt was a musician, pianist and organist. She was married to violinist, Paul A. Louis Ostinelli. More at Women Music Educators in the United States: A History by Sondra Wieland Howe & A Musical Biography by John Rowe Parker

Mary Ann Pownall
Taming of the Shrew (1780)
Mary Ann Pownall
The leading singing actress on the American stage before 1800 was Mary Ann Wrighton Pownall (nee Mary Matthews, 1751-1796). Famous as an opera and concert singer in England, after coming to America in 1792 she performed in cities along the Atlantic Coast as a member of the Old American Theater Company. Her concert repertory included her own compositions, which exhibited the flowing melodies and strophic form typical of English popular song as well as more operatic ornamentation and dramatic climaxes. She also appeared in New York, and settled in Charleston where she died during a yellow fever epidemic in 1796. (Ref. Women and Music A History; Wikipedia)

Elizabeth von Hagen
Elizabeth Joanetta Catherine von Hagen (1750-1909/10) was born in Amsterdam. She was a music educator and was known as a composer and arranger of theatrical music. (Ref. Wikipedia)

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.