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Book Review


Unsung by Ammer

A History of Women in American Music

Christine Ammer.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1980, 2003. 318 pages.
ISBN-10: 1574670611
ISBN-13: 978-1574670615
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Ultimately depressing, in a way.

A disclaimer: I review the first edition of this work, because that's what my public library has. Ammer has since updated and expanded it, as well she should, to include musicians who have come to prominence since 1980. I've glanced at the book on-line through Amazon, and the smidgeon I've read doesn't substantially alter the general thrust of the book.

This book surveys the activities of women in music from colonial times to the present-day. Just to find all these names, let alone something substantive about them, constitutes a huge research chore. As even a cursory reader of history might gather, women musicians were regarded as either pets or freaks. In fact, a controversy raged among the Puritans as to whether women should sing even in church, especially since there was also a controversy about whether they should speak in church. At least one divine plumped in favor of the first proposition, if not the second. Music was, after all, an expression of the Holy Spirit. Apparently, both men and women partook of that. I admit I was far more interested in women composers than in women performers, especially since some of my favorite women instrumentalists (Sylvia Marlowe, for example) were ignored in favor of the foreign-born, -trained, and -nurtured elsewhere. Yeah, Wanda Landowska and Erica Morini may have settled here and even become citizens. But does anybody really think of them as American musicians? Is Rudolf Serkin an American pianist or Igor Stravinsky an American composer? Was Rosalyn Tureck an English pianist because she lived in England for a while? (Actually, she's a Bach pianist). It's not that I'm more xenophobic than 95% of my country-folk. The thought of these figures as American, however, does strike me as odd and, unfortunately, leaves the false impression that there isn't much talent on the home-team bench.

As I said, author Christine Ammer had a lot to collect and sort. She acquits herself admirably in both. Her groupings of musicians made a lot of sense and clarified what would otherwise been a ferocious hodge-podge. Much of the book, obviously, consists of recitals of women's careers, and gloomy reading it is, too. Obviously, a woman has to perform at a level significantly higher than that of a man. Flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, a standout in American music as both performer and teacher, got her post with the Boston Symphony (she may have been the first woman hired for a permanent, full-time position by any of the first-rank American orchestras) only after a grudging invitation, a year of solid, even obsessive work to play the "perfect" audition, and overcoming the entrenched bias of male judges and colleagues. If this seems like the "bad old days" to you, I have two words: Vienna Philharmonic.

For much of our history, a woman's musical place was in the home. A professional singer or pianist, of whatever gender, was in the first place hired help. A woman doing these things was no better than she should be. Europe was marginally better, because musicians weren't automatically thought of as lowlifes, at least in the large cosmopolitan areas. The adage "They're musical, but they're very nice" typified a fairly broad-minded view of music in respectable American households. So music was little valued – a backdrop to dining and conversation – and surely nobody but foreigners and other demimondaines would even think of making a living at it. On the other hand, one finds a contradictory impulse, particularly around Boston, New York, Philadelphia, to some extent Chicago, and wherever German and Middle European immigrants settled. Dwight's Miscellany advocated a High Romantic, priestly function for music. In this camp, music was seen as a legitimate artistic and intellectual practice, at least. But the two factions jostled uneasily against one another. It was perfectly possible for a family with pretensions to "salons" and "musicales" as a sign of their higher culture to treat abominably the musicians who made it happen. One could reasonably argue that we haven't fully resolved this dichotomy.

As for women composers, they are in a worse position than their male counterparts, even comparing mediocrity to mediocrity. There haven't been that many women writing music until well into the 20th century. Almost all women whose music has come down to us had wealth (Amy Beach) and position (Friederich the Great's sister) or else were supported by the church (Hildegard von Bingen). Those who might have gone on to do more, like Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn, put things aside "for their husbands and family" or they died young. Tillie Olsen's Silences tells of her "writer's block" when she got married. When it miraculously returned after her children had grown and left, she realized that she simply had lacked the time and the space for concentration, since her family's care and feeding fell almost entirely on her. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, a woman artist needed a room of her own (and a maid). Furthermore, most women were barred from formally learning composition, again until recently, and social expectations certainly kept many from even considering such a field. Women conservatory students were routinely looked down upon by the male faculty – dilettantes who wanted to "grace the home," attract husbands, and so on, lacking the grit it took to become a pro.

In some ways, the American woman composer was a more extreme example of the American male composer. There weren't all that many decent 19th-century American male composers either, let alone great ones. Most of the decent ones (Paine and Beach, notable exceptions) trained in Germany. Almost all of them came back writing like good Germans. Some of them began to study in France to, as we know, spectacular effect. This is where a strong American school, as opposed to a one-off like Charles Ives, begins. However, we mustn't forget Vaughan Williams's remark that it takes thousands of bad or middling composers to make a great one. There simply hadn't been all that many serious male American composers, period, and even fewer women. That we got William Billings or Charles Ives or Amy Beach falls into the category of Miracle.

One would hope that those days had disappeared, but it's really not the case. A man as knowledgeable as Aaron Copland could wonder in public – and nobody thought it strange – why there hadn't been any superior women composers, although he knew at least two personally – Louise Talma and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Ammer has appended tables of grants from the NEA and breaks down the figures by gender. In the most favorable year, only 10% of the awards went to women. The next year, the aggregate percentage fell to a little over 6%. We shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back just yet. Of course, arguing over artistic judgment is like trying to catch a greased pig or keeping cooking aromas in your pocket "for later." I simply find it difficult to credit that Louise Talma is less significant than Peter Mennin or David Diamond.

A bunch of my favorite composers who are women don't show up in my edition of the book. This is mainly due to the fact that, like Jennifer Higdon, they've come into notice only in the last 30 years. I did read about Joan Tower, Pauline Oliveiros, and Judith Lang Zaimont, but not about Laura Clayton. On the other hand, she may not have had the break of A-lounge public venues. I saw nothing about Rebecca Clarke either, who – although British-born – spent considerable time in the United States. If Landowska counts as an American musician, why doesn't Clarke?

Still, these are more stupid, pissy complaints than substantial criticism. As far as I'm concerned, Ammer has done a whale of a fine job on an elusive, exasperating subject.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Schwartz.