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Dr. Sharon Shafer’s Keynote Remarks: “Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling” in Music


shafer_sharon_web.jpgDr. Sharon Guertin Shafer, Trinity professor of music presented this year’s keynote remarks to the Washington, D.C., Alumnae Chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota, an international music organization for women. Her remarks, “Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling: From Domestic Music to Pulitzer Prize Compositions,” celebrates the many pathbreaking contributions of women to the rich history of music.

“Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling: From Domestic Music to Pulitzer Prize Compositions”

In some of the music courses that I teach at Trinity in Washington, D.C., we examine the expectations and the restrictions experienced by women in society through the centuries. For one of the classes, students write narratives in the first person and lead class discussions on the composers they selected. This is an example from one of the papers:

I was born in Miami, Florida, on April 30, 1939. I will begin by talking about how my music career got started. I began playing the piano before I could even walk. I officially started to study piano at age five. A few years later, I added the study of trumpet and violin. At the age of ten, I started doing a little composing and jotting down musical ideas. No one would have guessed at that time that I would become the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for music composition. But I’m getting ahead of my story. That didn’t happen until 1983, and I had to go through a lot of living and training before that!

Some of the students thought that the information about the Pulitzer Prize was a fantasy added by the author to make her narrative more exciting. This provoked lively discussion and a review of some of the readings assigned throughout the course. I will give some examples of the resources we use to provide an historical context and understanding of the roles that women have played as professional musicians and composers and how this speech came to be titled “Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling: From Domestic Music to Pulitzer Prize Compositions.”

I began working on this project while participating in a year-long Symposium on Eighteenth Century Women held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. In 1990, I was invited to give a paper and performance at the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for 18th Century Studies. The title was “The Eighteenth-Century Woman: Dilettante or Professional Musician?” A few years later, the topic was expanded into a lecture-recital titled “Women’s Lives in Music” for a meeting of The National Association for Women in Catholic higher Education, and then it was presented as a model class at the National Conference of the Association of American Colleges in 1994. Continuing work on the project has been presented as part of a symposium on Attending to Early Modern Women, held at The University of Maryland, and at a national Women’s Studies Association Conference held in Washington, DC. Needless to say, the topic still fascinates me and my research continues in multiple, diverse ways.

In the introduction to A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present, Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser describe a method of organization that looks at place and function in order to write a history that includes women by definition. This methodology is helpful as we examine some of the primary sources describing women’s experiences. For example, in the eighteenth century Corona Schrőter announced the 1786 publication of a collection of songs by writing:

I have had to overcome much hesitation before I seriously made the decision to publish a collection of short poems that I have provided with melodies. A certain feeling toward propriety and morality is stamped upon our sex, which does not allow us to appear alone in public, nor without an escort. Thus how can I present this, my musical work, to the public with anything other than timidity? The work of any lady . . . can indeed arouse a degree of pity in the eyes of some experts. (Bowers and Tick 230)

This passage, translated and quoted by Marcia Citron in chapter nine of Women Making Music, illustrates Schrőter’s understanding and acceptance of society’s behavioral expectations for women.

Another example may be found in the life experiences of Maria Anna Mozart. “Nannerl,” as she was called, was six years older than her famous brother, Wolfgang, and outlived him by many years. Born in 1751, she began keyboard lessons with her father at a young age and was presented in concert tours along with her brother. In her music history text book, The Development of Western Music, K. Marie Stolba points out that by the age of 18, Nannerl was only allowed to perform at home rather than in public. She married, raised two children and five stepchildren, and taught keyboard lessons after she was widowed. She was also known to have composed music during this domestic period, and, in fact, her brother encouraged this activity although her music has not been preserved (380).

In the nineteenth century, we have accounts in the diaries and letters of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel that document the opposition she faced when considering a musical career. Her family made it clear that music making at home was the only acceptable choice for her. In Women in Music, editor Carol Neuls-Bates includes several letters that Fanny received from family members in her early adult years. Writing to her in 1828, her father compared Felix’s musical profession to Fanny’s by saying, “… for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the root of your being and doing” (144). A few months later, on her twenty-third birthday, he admonished her: “You must become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman – I mean the state of a housewife” (146). When Fanny’s mother asked Felix to encourage his sister to publish her music, he refused by saying:

. . . to persuade her to publish anything, I cannot, because this is contrary to my views and to my convictions . . . and from my knowledge of Fanny I should say she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. (148)

In a passage from an 1880 book, Woman in Music, also quoted by Neuls-Bates, George Upton echoed and reinforced these attitudes as he wrote: “. . . it does not seem that woman will ever originate music in its fullest and grandest harmonic forms. She will always be the recipient and interpreter, but there is little hope she will be the creator” (210).

George Upton’s remark also appears in the liner notes written by Ann Feldman for the CD titled Women at an Exposition: Music Composed by Women and Performed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This is an interesting and informative recording representing over five years of research. It features songs, piano works, and chamber music composed by women and performed during the six month long Fair. The concerts included pieces by both women amateurs and professional musicians. Music by Clara Schumann, Cécile Chaminade, Amy Cheney Beach, Liza Lehmann, and Maude Valerie White, among others, was performed. The repertory ranged from the parlor song, considered an acceptable genre for women to compose, to complex piano, violin, and other chamber works. In her liner notes, Feldman remarks on the performance of orchestral works of Cécile Chaminade and Amy Beach by writing: “The woman composer had clearly left the confines of the parlor and had the opportunity to write for and hear her works performed by major symphony orchestras.” This observation reflects a profound shift in assumptions about women’s lives as well as women’s music: The sounds of shattering glass!

Jill Halstead’s book, The Woman Composer: Creativity and the Gendered Politics of Musical Composition, uses a case study approach to focus on the social, domestic, and educational dimensions that affected women in the twentieth century. She explores the lives, experiences, beliefs, and musical contributions of nine British women, discussing the socializing process that affects their creation of large scale works including symphonies. Amy Fay, a gifted pianist and writer who lived from 1844-1928, published an article in 1900 that foresaw this type of compositional accomplishment for women. The following is an excerpt from the essay reprinted in Women in Music:

Women are beginning to realize that they, too, have brains, and even musical ones. They are, at last, studying composition seriously, and will, ere long, feel out a path for themselves, instead of being “mere imitators of men.” For the matter of that, men have been imitators of each other at first. We all know that Mozart began to write like Haydn, and Beethoven began to write like Mozart, before each developed his own originality of style, and as for Wagner, he has furnished inspiration and ideas for all the composers who have succeeded him. Why, then, should we expect of women what men could not do (although Minerva was said to have sprung fully armed from the brain of Jove)? If it has required 50,000 years to produce a male Beethoven, surely one little century ought to be vouchsafed to create a female one! (Neuls-Bates 217-218)

Returning to the student narrative quoted above, it was, of course, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich that the author was identifying as the first female recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music composition. We also celebrate Shulamit Rahn’s award in 1991 for her Symphony, a work that in the following year won first prize in the Kennedy Center Friedheim competition (White 1). In an article published in the October, 1994 International League of Women Composers Journal, an interviewer described Rahn’s attempts to balance domestic and professional music demands. C.B. White wrote:

In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to fit composition into Rahn’s schedule. Predictably, most of her composing happens in the summer, when she doesn’t teach. Nonetheless, like most mothers, she fits her work around the family schedule. “Sometimes I work very late at night and very early in the morning, trying to squeeze in a little time here and there,” she says. (2)

It is easy to imagine Fanny Mendelssohn doing the same thing as Rahn despite her father’s and brother’s admonitions to the contrary. How wonderful it would have been if she could have heard “the sound of shattering glass” represented by the examples of other women composers.

In 1999, Melinda Wagner became the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for music composition. Her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion was recorded by the Westchester Philharmonic on the Bridge label in 2000. There is an interview with the composer on the last track of the CD in which Wagner talks about her earliest musical experiences and expresses a wonderful acceptance of her own compositional ideas from a young age. That’s “the sound of shattering glass!”

Each year, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress awards commissions for ten new musical works. The awards are granted jointly by the Foundation and the performing organizations that will present the new compositions. In 1999, ten men received the commissions. In 2000, five men and five women were announced. The women were Thea Musgrave, Betty Olivero, Joan Tower, Tania León, and Hi Kyung Kim. For Musgrave and Tower, this was their second Koussevitzky commission: the “sound of shattering glass!”

From spring 2002 to fall 2007, I was the project director for Sigma Alpha Iota Philanthropies Doctoral Grant. In 2003, I gave a report at Convention celebrating the centennial year of the founding of SAI and the silver anniversary of the Doctoral Grant award. In preparation, I assembled a list of all the winners from 1978-2003. I found two dissertation proposals that relate directly to my topic. In 2000, Michelle Yaiser won the Doctoral Grant to continue work on her dissertation titled “They’re Not Playing Our Song: How Sex Discrimination and Gender Role Stereotypes Affect the Lives and Careers of Women Musicians.” In 1978, Jacqueline Kay Thomas won the first award for her dissertation topic “Twentieth Century American Women Composers: Radie Britain, Dika Newlin, Alice Parker, Elinor Remick Warren, Louise Talma, Julia Smith, and Esther Williamson Ballou. ” This was such a wonderful tribute to these women who had all become distinguished honorary members of Sigma Alpha Iota by the late 1970s.

As part of my report at the 2003 Convention, I included excerpts the following remarks by Helen May, printed in the Summer 1995 issue of Pan Pipes: “It is exciting how subsequent generations have added to the heritage of SAI. We can take pride in the influence the sisterhood has had on its members, schools, community, and the United States . . . Growth has no limits! We are launching the next century of our sisterhood with unlimited potential.”

To conclude, I want to add a poem written by Alice V. Thompson, a Trinity student who enrolled in Women in Music History when I first developed the course:

We are women of music

Who stood bravely before the Middle Ages
And the Renaissance,
Declaring in a most definite way,
That we know who we are.

Who Are We?

We are the past and the present.
We are the Hildegard’s, the Caccini’s and the Strozzi’s
We are the Marianne von Martinez’ and the Clara Schumann’s
Yes, we are the Ethel Smyth’s and the Marian Anderson’s,
The Amy Beach’s, the Nadia Boulanger’s and the Jena Ivey’s
We are the Jesse Norman’s

We are those who dared to be different,
And cared enough to make a difference.

We are the minstrels and the musicians.

For out of our mother’s wombs we have come
Created to be creative.

Who Are We?

We are the educators, the composers, the conductors, the
Singers, dancers and the divas.
We are the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.
We are those who often have been unrecorded and unsung.
We have spoken sometimes from behind the shadows, making music,
Giving light to a dark world.

Who Are We?

We are those who have come from all corners of the earth.
To tell this old world; hear us, know us
Remember us for . . . our herstory

Shall be continued.

Alice V. Thompson

To the list of names mentioned in Alice Thompson’s poem, it is fitting to add the names of the founders of Sigma Alpha Iota music fraternity for women, established in 1903: Elizabeth A. Campbell, Frances Caspari, Minnie M. Davis, Leila H. Farlin, Nora Crave Hunt, Georgina Potts, Mary Storrs. These are women of vision and models of leadership who signaled “the sounds of shattering glass.”

Speech presented to the Washington, D.C., Alumnae Chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota, February 9, 2008.

Works Cited

Anderson, Bonnie S. and Zinsser, Judith P. A History of Their Own: Women in Europe From Prehistory to the Present. 2 Vol. New York: Harper & Row, 1999.

Bowers, Jane and Tick, Judith, ed. Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Feldman, Ann, notes to the CD, Women At an Exposition: Music Composed by Women and Performed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. CD, Koch 3-7240-2-H1, 1991.

Halstead, Jill. The Woman Composer: Creativity and the Gendered Politics of Musical Composition. Brookfield: Ashgate, 1997.

Neuls-Bates, Carol, ed. Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.

Shafer, Sharon Guertin. “A Survey of Eighteenth-Century Women Composers: Dilettantes or Professional Musicians?” in ILWC Journal, March 1992.

Stolba, K. Marie. The Development of Western Music. Boston: McGraw hill, 1998.

Wagner, Melinda. Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion. CD, Bridge 9098, 2000.

White, C. B. “Equilibria: Shulamit Ran Balances.” ILWC Journal, October, 1994.

Fine Arts Program at Trinity

Sigma Alpha Iota

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