Theories of how gender may influence music have developed
Men would not have insisted that creativity is a male prerogative unless men were afraid that women’s creations would be taken seriously. 1 While sex is a biological given, gender and sexuality are culturally and socially constructed. It is important to distinguish between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as theories of sex, gender and sexual difference constitute the theoretical background to feminist study. Feminist study is not simply the promotion of women as superior to men, or even the appeal to be treated on strictly equal terms, but an appeal for inclusivity and mutual understanding.
Feminist study explores the interrelations between gender and other categories of Western socio-cultural differentiation, for example ethnicity, race, sexual orientation. The arts were traditionally perceived as ‘feminine’ areas of interest. Therefore, it was seen, there were and are no socially constructed barriers to prevent women becoming musicians. The conclusion was that women are essentially incapable of being artists of the highest degree. Music education for females in childhood or adolescence was deemed acceptable, as it conforms to the gender-appropriate behaviour for their sex:
Girls partake in stereotypically feminine activities because these activities are consistent with their female gender identity. “2. But when the position of a musician rises to a professional level, it takes on greater social and cultural significance, and also becomes a ‘masculine’ activity. In actual reality, professional musicians are primarily male and the gender-stereotyped behaviour which accompanies the act is masculine, that is in terms of ego, competition, leadership, self-confidence. Music and the musical canon are, traditionally, male dominated, therefore women are disadvantaged from the start.
The professional world of music has always been viewed as masculine… [this is] entrenched firmly in the conscious and unconscious mind of the musical establishment… [and thus] places a woman attempting a career as a composer in a disadvantaged position”3. Women musicians, composers especially, suffer from what has been termed ‘anxiety of authorship’. They have no prominent positive role models from whom they can take inspiration or connect to, nothing with which they can fuel their self-confidence, vital to the fulfilment of their compositional ambitions.
This inability for self promotion is one repercussion of the particular gendered characteristics that women are brought up and unconsciously adopt. This is not of course restricted just to women: “Men too have to override the stereotypical concepts of masculine and feminine behaviour [in many situations]”. 4 But the actuality is worse for women as their gender-stereotypical characteristics are such things as low self-esteem, high anxiety and low social acceptance. Women’s culturally-approved passivity as a sign of their mental health oriented a large section of the culture to perceptual cognition of men as artistic creators and arbiters of musical analytical values”. 5 These dominant stereotypes need to be deconstructed. Gisela Ecker warned of a possible situation that may have arisen had musicological thought continued to accept the status quo: … women artists will be forced either to bang on the doors of ‘Art’ for admittance or establish secluded spheres of women-only art, if they are not to be silenced altogether. Hence the need for a feminist theory of music. In the essay which follows, I aim to examine two key areas of work, namely Susan McClary and Marcia Citron’s independent work regarding the formation of a musical canon and their ideas regarding sonata form and tonality. I will supplement this study by including elements from recent feminist debate about essentialism and social constructions of gender. I will conclude by looking at the ways in which feminist musicology has influenced the field of music theory and analysis. In music… t is still very important to continue analysing the various reasons for exclusion from composing or from directing. 7 One aspect of feminist musicology is to research and uncover women composers, particularly from the last century, documenting them to form some kind of “compensatory history”. The aim is to attain a fair reassessment of “women’s historical and contemporary contribution to music”, for the following, valid, reason: The relationship of music history to include women is vital, not only for our understanding of women from the past but also for future women composers.
The convenient absence of women as a force to be reckoned with is fundamental to the continuation of the present male-dominated musical canon. When women become visible, when the validity of their experience is asserted, patriarchal values in society are [rightly] threatened. It is vital to the fragile self-esteem of womanhood that they should feel the sense of confidence, the sense of liberation, which men totally take for granted when they encounter their own past and find themselves central”8. Feminist musicology carries political implications, with which many women composers do not wish to be associated.
Some composers simply do not wish to be associated with the feminist debate for fear of being politically categorised as ‘female’ and not recognised simply for the merits of their work. Most women do not want to be characterised by particular marks of their gender or symbols of feminism in their music; rather they wish for their music to be judged fairly as music, to take their place in the established musical tradition. They do not wish to “create works that insist upon the fact that they were created by women and by implication break with the classical male-dominated tradition”9.
Gisela Ecker reinforces this position from the point of view of female colleagues, though she also states her own (opposing) view that there is a necessity for “all investigations into art [to be] thoroughly genderised” [italics Ecker’s own]: … one of the most urgent demands expressed by [many of the women artists I have met] is that they wish gender to be treated as irrelevant or at least marginal: for centuries women artists have been confronted with apparently gender-neutral, but what is in fact male, ‘Art’, and their work has been set aside as ‘women’s art’, a status which contained massive stereotypes about women. 0 These “women artists” are concerned, with due cause, that the use of the word ‘woman’ to qualify the word ‘artist’ results in their work being considered as ‘different’, being marginalised way before anything related to its artistic (musical), aesthetic or intrinsic value is even considered. However, it is a fact that the musical profession and canon is so loaded with male or masculine associations that by implication the word ‘composer’ infers ‘written by a male’ and all that comes with this aspect of musical “tradition”11.
This is a difficult, not to mention deeply personal, area to argue with in favour of feminist thought. Yet, it is obvious that changing the worlds in which we are brought up and inhabit requires deep-rooted social and cultural change. This involves understanding and reacting to the ways in which society has downgraded women’s status over time. The perpetual invisibility of women in music is not an unavoidable part of life to be accepted and endured.
It is implicitly vital that women should take action against this notion, rather than ‘sacrificing their talents’ as they are “consumed by patriarchal culture, learning over time that it is easier to be carried along than to fight the overwhelmingly inevitable”12. In terms of essentialism versus social construction, this is not ‘essential’ to women’s nature; rather, women are culturally conditioned to avoid conflict. The pattern of conflict resolution to which women are conditioned makes women less inclined to be strong advocates for their music.
The “feminist stance” is necessary to “instigate the possibilities for a change in attitudes, not just to the prejudiced few but to society as a whole”13, whose notion of the traditional in music is ideologically rooted in the same bed as musicology and music theory (and thus the patriarchal ‘tradition’ of male hegemony) was prior to the appearance of the critical eye of the ‘new musicology’. That is not in any way to claim all problems and issues have been magically resolved by feminism, or that the task is easy.
In what follows, I will set out the distinct ways in which key theorists have approached the need to address the variety of issues that music-related feminist thought has introduced. In her provocative book Feminine Endings14, Susan McClary created an accessible and insightful interdisciplinary examination of sexuality and gender in music of a variety of styles from mainstream classical through modern contemporary music to popular styles, and addresses the associated ‘sexual politics’. Hers is, though powerful, but one perspective on the historiography of music, and a very particular one at that.
In this book, McClary brought feminist concerns into a field accustomed to thinking of art as abstract and universal, insisting not only on the analysis of the representation of women in canonical works and the appreciation of women composers, but also on the gendered nature of the processes of musical signification themselves15. In particular, she investigates the gendered positions of tonality (in “the specific sense of the grammatical and structural syntax of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European musics”16) and sonata form, those more commonly associated with notions of autonomy and ‘absolute music’.
As other theorists such as Ecker and Marcia Citron have, McClary deconstructs the ingrained view that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century forms are “neutrally” gendered or “value free”. This position has important reverberations in relation to the way Western patriarchal society is and was constructed, which in parallel reflects the familiar ‘male-female’ binary opposition that feminists and cultural theorists are so keen to break down. Even formal conventions, customarily viewed as autonomous, are “socially encoded”; form is actually part of the content. 7 To McClary, the received semiotic associations of masculine and feminine in tonality draw on previous associations made with similar themes in the vocal lines of opera, where the music underpins and relates to verbal or visual representation, or in tone poems, where themes take on a particular referential connotation with an image which the composer wishes to convey. The implied ‘codes’ or “publicly shared signs” are then further applied to instrumental music.
In McClary’s words: Music has developed its procedures as a way of enhancing tangible meanings… therefore, the original meaning can remain even when the imposed meanings are removed. 18 The repercussions for a feminist position are that the hierarchical nature of this apparently autonomous music is perceived “in terms of domination and submission, power and subservience, strength and weakness, all of which have become fundamental gender-equivalents of male and female”19. Strong’ and ‘weak’ themes form the “narrative agenda” of sonata form, set out by McClary, in a reading of Teresa de Lauretis, thus: “the masculine protagonist makes contact with but must eventually subjugate (domesticate or purge) the designated [feminine] Other in order for identity to be consolidated, for the sake of satisfactory narrative closure”20. McClary argues that the second subject is innately female, regardless of its content, by nature of its position as second in line.
If we apply this view as a universal formula, a “static structure”, then we cut ourselves off from inquiry into the way the ‘female’ position changes and had changed over time, thus “flattening out difference (something which feminist theory has sought to avoid)”21. McClary also fails to recognise the ‘complimentary opposition’ to be found in musical passages from the eighteenth century ‘sonata’, where the first and second themes are complimentary halves of a whole in the same key. The opposition created is for “immediate local contrast in the same key”; the elements do not function structurally in the gendered way delineated by A.
B Marx in the nineteenth century, which McClary needs for her theory to work,. “This kind of theme can not serve as the “feminine Other” because it is never “conquered”… it occupies the same functional slot as the “masculine theme””22. In spite of the apparent weaknesses in McClary’s theories, she is very clear on her position with regard to the gendered nature of forms and structures; Feminine Endings provides a strong ‘call to arms’ for women to consciously break with such masculine-oriented traditions and styles, particularly in the provocative chapter “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk”23.
In her composition Genesis II, Vandervelde celebrates the process of childbirth by attempting a musical representation as a reaction to the music she wrote for “Jack and the Beanstalk”. After writing the music, the composer felt “the end result was that the same old phallic images once again reared their ubiquitous heads”- Vandervelde thus set off in “search of alternative ways of organizing sound, ways that correspond more closely to her own values and experiences”24.
McClary reads the piece as a clockwork conception of childbirth and female sexuality, opposed by a violent string section, which by its traditional nature is associated with the “male”. She sees the piece as addressing “a very basic level of Western culture’s metaphysical foundation, a level at which many of the essential binary oppositions underlying our value system are laid distressingly bare: culture/nature, progress/stability, individuality/community”25.
McClary makes such disavowals of essentialism throughout her writing, but here, the notion of ‘female’ is reduced to its biological substance, which is in turn presented as somehow the ‘essence’ of woman. I feel this most strongly in her discussion of how her female and male students respectively reacted upon hearing Genesis II when played in class: Interestingly, many women students recognize in the clockwork an image of female erotic pleasure… y contrast, many of the men in the classes often report having heard the clockwork as a “void,” and they tend to be relieved when the strings rush in to “make something happen”26 McClary still reads the piece in terms of male/female, though the inherited ‘phallic gestures’ that so troubled Vandervelde are inverted, creating some kind of essential female sexuality that is here preferable to male sexuality. Through reversing the male/female binary, both McClary and Vandervelde are encouraging and reinforcing essentialist readings.
McClary appears to concede this point, but justifies the approach in that it allows a woman composer to inhabit the traditional male discourse and to question its procedures from the inside, thus taking up a new vantage point from which she can “imagine… the possibility of other narrative schemata”27. Elizabeth Sayrs recognises another problematic area: The language that McClary uses is very revealing. Her “women students recognize in the clockwork an image of female erotic pleasure”.
They do not merely hear that it is circular and might map onto a particular version of female sexuality: Female erotic pleasure is in the clockwork, and women recognize it simply because they are women[… ]The biggest question is, how do women recognize this pleasure? How do they know if they have never heard it before [if], as McClary asserts, we are inundated with and come to identify with and desire the male phallic economy in music from the time we start watching cartoons as children[? ]28
Sayrs’s criticism is that sexual intercourse is also essentialised in McClary’s writing, it is always opposing and heterosexual and used as the ground for all human expression. The “utopian notion of sex freed from a phallic construct” or “the notion of a specifically feminine sexual pleasure that is radically differentiated from phallic sexuality” does not recognise the ways in which ‘traditional’ power relations “continue to construct sexuality for women even within the terms of a ‘liberated’ heterosexuality or lesbianism”29.
Setting up a female musical structure such as the clockwork pattern in Genesis II appears to support the patriarchal structures in composition that feminist musicology is so keen to overthrow. It is almost too easy now to criticise Feminine Endings. While its enormous influence at its first appearance is acknowledged, the field of feminist musicology has rapidly assimilated theory to the point that the book now seems rather dated.
This is actually to McClary’s credit; the debate that Feminine Endings sparked, between feminists (who are not to be seen as one group lumped together) as well as musicologists and music theorists, ensured that much good work was done to positively progress with speed. The way McClary’s postulations are read is of great consequence; is she to be taken as creating a new, feminine, though slightly crude, system of musical interpretation, to be employed rigorously by all women who care about their societal position, or are her ideas more experimental and exploratory?
The authority with which she writes suggests the former; however, I see that it was necessary for McClary to adopt a tone of authority in order for her ideas to be heard. Such provocative thinking needs to be presented with strength and conviction in order to be taken seriously. The danger is, and has been, that readers (and non-readers) unacquainted with more general feminist thought (McClary was, contrary to some opinion, not the world’s first feminist! take McClary’s views to be definitive of feminism, due in equal measure to its authoritative tone and accessible nature. In her book Gender and the Musical Canon30, Marcia Citron appears to have learnt some lessons from McClary in that she seeks to present her work in a significantly less antagonistic way, carefully setting out her territory and adopting a more cautious tone, aiming to avoid ‘philosophical collisions’ exemplified by the reaction of Pieter van den Toorn to Feminine Endings.
Unlike McClary, Citron stops short of offering a definitive philosophical stand; rather, more than in McClary’s writing, she invites scholarly contribution through her unprescriptive approach. Another good point of comparison for McClary and Citron comes in her gendered critique of sonata form in the chapter “Music as gendered discourse”, with particular regard to the Piano Sonata op. 21 by Ci?? cile Chaminade (1857-1944). As McClary, Citron postulates that a woman composer, aware of the gendered connotations of the “masculine” thematic functions in sonata form, might choose another route in presenting her work.
However, rather than designing a feminist ‘role reversal’ akin to Genesis II, Citron sensitively examines how Chaminade takes a non-hierarchical approaches to the composition of a sonata movement, and in doing so how she “challenges an important driving force of sonata form”31. Citron also addresses the ‘anxiety of authorship’ as a widespread experience felt by women composers over time, for the reasons set out above. This way, she develops a non-prescriptive methodology that can be applied to the analysis of works by other woman composers.
Both McClary and Citron discuss music from the Western musical canon, and its implications. At the end of her book, Citron explores the view that the musical canon can be shaped and transformed by the “modification” of our “collective and individual desires”, and that “one major ideal of a canon should be a recognition of the strength to be found in diverse practices”32. Again, she does not suggest any way in which this might be done, leaving the way open to suggestion rather than formula.
It should be noted that the formation of a musical ‘canon’ is in itself a new development in relation to the hundreds of years worth of music that value judgements have been imposed upon. This marginalises not only the woman composer but the male composer whose work does not fit this pattern of value. There are many strong arguments for the revision of the priorities and values that lie behind the reformation of the canon to include male marginalised composers.
The sole criterion for inclusion is ‘greatness’, which as we have seen comprises a narrow ‘masculine’ view of music’s value and what is ‘great’- how is this to be revised and redefined? While musicology has always lingered behind developments elsewhere in the art world (the delay in the arrival of a feminist musicology being case in point), the sister discipline of music theory has loitered even further behind, clinging on tightly to its strongly traditional values and ideology.
Rosemary Killiam puts the absence of analytical work on compositions by women down to the absence of role models: For many current theorists, women composers have not been available as teachers or as role models. Although these theorists are aware of women as composers, their choice of compositions to illustrate twentieth-century techniques would more likely be drawn from their early role models and mentors. 33 Justin London reinforces this view in that music theorists “are specialists in a particular kind of musical diagnosis… nd therefore we tend to apply those diagnoses to the music we encounter… unsurprisingly, we choose to examine those musical “patients” for whom our special methodologies are most apt”34. The developments in feminist musicology since Feminine Endings, in particular the wide embrace of an interdisciplinary approach apparently feared by music theorists, have, been of particular value to the recent opening-up of music theory to a new ‘gendered’ outlook, expanding its methodology to better reflect the musical activities of the last century.
Killiam lists the positive ways in which feminist music theory can be applied, noting the way in which it encompasses “supplementary ideas such as… they can be contextual, recognizing the influences of culture and history… they can be subjective… they can be supportive of diversity and individual experience”35. The new musicology has offered music theory the chance to re-examine their discipline from a new perspective instead of continually resisting any criticism of its principles.
Music theory as a whole is beginning to discover that, through embracing the fact that music is fundamentally implicated in socio-cultural concerns, it can also “embrace ever broader cultural contexts without at the same time abandoning the analyst’s commitment to interpreting the score”36. The conclusion to be drawn from these investigations is that it is necessary to be unafraid to move into new territory and to be inclusive and open to fresh thought and perspectives. This is fundamental if we are ever to make positive change.
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