Music

By Said, Edward W. | The Nation, February 7, 1987 | Go to article overview

Music


Said, Edward W., The Nation


MUSIC

It is an interesting fact aboutfeminism, and about the place of music in contemporary culture, that very little has been done to map the female role in the production and performance of music. Mainstream classical music is dominated by men in almost every economic, political and social respect, yet women play prominent and varied roles in the artistic sphere. The most traditional is that of inspirational muse, and later helpmeet, adjunct, adoring (but lesser) partner, to some prominent male composer: Clara and Robert Schumann, Cosima and Richard Wagner. The figure of woman as unattainable ideal preoccupied Beethoven; its obverse, woman as destructive seductress, is more frequently to be found in representations of women in music (Berg's Lulu, for instance, or Strauss's Salome) that in the lives of famous musicians. The rise of women performers from the ranks of a socially unacceptable underclass (dancing girl, actress, courtesan, etc.) to luminous fame as divas, star instrumentalists and teachers in the nineteenth century is of paramount importance in the history of music; witness the repertory of great works for and about women, such as Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben, Bizet's Carmen, Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites.

Music criticism and musicology, aswell as the worlds of performance and composition, are strikingly removed from the main fields of cultural criticism. In a recently published exchange between Pierre Boulez and Michel Foucault the latter remarks that, except for a passing but idle interest in jazz or rock, most intellectuals who care about Heidegger or Nietzsche, about history, literature and philosophy, regard music as too elitist, irrelevant or difficult for their attention. Musical discourse is probably less available to Western intellectuals than the obscurer realms of medieval, Chinese or Japanese culture. It is therefore predictable and yet odd that feminism, much concerned with almost all the humanities and sciences, has offered little in the way of music criticism. Feminism in music seems to be roughly at the stage where literary feminism was twenty years ago: a sort of separatist enterprise which attempts to identify women musicians of the past who spokewith a voice of their own. Beyond that, there is a void. But it would be wrong to fix the blame exclusively om music criticism or on feminist theory. The problem is that music today is as massively organized a masculine domain as it was in the past. Without significant exception, women play a crucial but subaltern role.

This is true in almosft any randomsampling of recent events--operas, recitals, orchestral performances--in which issues of interest to feminism are in evidence, but for which feminist critical responses are not likely to be encountered. …

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