Towards a Feminist Criticism of Music

By McClary, Susan | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

Towards a Feminist Criticism of Music


McClary, Susan, Canadian University Music Review


At a time when both male and female scholars in most branches of the humanities practice some form of feminist-influenced criticism, the discipline of musicology remains relatively untouched by feminism. To be sure, there has been considerable work accomplished within the last decade towards rediscovering the contributions of women to the history of music, and the place of women within today's musical institutions has also come under scrutiny. But a critique of music from a feminist perspective has scarcely begun.

It is important to keep in mind that music traditionally has resisted not only feminist criticism but all forms of socially grounded criticism. Because of its relatively abstract modes of construction, music has long been held to be impervious to interpretations that would link its patterns to concerns of the material or social world: concerns such as gender and sexuality, but also race, ethnicity, and class. Part of the rationale for this resistance was articulated to me recently by a well-meaning, liberal musicologist who asked: "How is the work of art to survive the social critique? Is there a remedy that does not violate the work?"

Recent statements by scholars such as Joseph Kerman make it seem that on the one hand musicology is eager to have instances of feminist criticism; but, on the other hand, the discipline is apprehensive about how far the critique would go and about the consequences with respect to the canon. The ideal form of feminist critique would appear to be one that contributed new insights but that did not challenge received conceptions and judgments. The great composers and traditional notions of what makes them great would remain securely in place, but we would have yet another reason to pay them homage: the sympathetic portrayals of Mozart's Countess or Beethoven's Leonora, the heroism of Brunnhilde or Norma, the delicious "feminine" sensibility of Schubert or Debussy. But the question remains: if a critique of gender (or race or class) were admitted into musicology, could it be successfully contained - i.e., restricted to the affirmative enterprises just mentioned?

The most obvious matter to be addressed in a feminist critique of music is the construction of gender in texted or dramatic repertories, for at least it is clear in these contexts that gender is an issue. From the beginnings of seventeenth-century opera, composers have been called upon to write music to put into the mouths of both male and female characters; and under those conditions, a musical semiotics of gender emerged very rapidly. Not surprisingly, characteristics of the "feminine" and the "masculine" in music are informed by beliefs deeply held by various societies about gender difference. And inasmuch as such larger-than-life images contribute to the shaping of gender in the general public - either because they transmit or because they contest traditional behavioral codes - they become highly significant. Needless to say, virtually all of such constructions have been produced by male artists.

In certain instances, it is possible to deal with the construction of female characters in opera in ways that justify the upholding of these pieces as what is brightest and best about elite culture. The Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, for instance, is more ethical, more intelligent than any of the male characters that surround her, and it is not only through the libretto that we know this. The music Mozart gives her is extraordinarily strong and dignified: in "Porgi amor," even though the accompaniment she is given is heavily ornamented and coy (in keeping with contemporary constructions of femininity in music), she sings a melodic line that is decisive and willful. She may be encased in white wig and cascades of lace, but she is a woman of great resolve. Her scena "Dove sono" reveals her to be tender and at the same time dynamic: her concluding allegro is the most dynamic music in the opera as she moves forward, overcoming all obstacles, and finaUy envisions her goal of reconciliation with the Count. …

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