Date of Degree
Joseph N. Straus
Musicology | Other American Studies
Reception history, Modernism, American women composers, Twentieth century
Although it has been acknowledged that American female modernist composers encountered obstacles to success, the nuanced and multi-faceted nature of these obstacles has yet to be fully examined. In this dissertation, I explore the worlds of Marion Bauer, Johanna Beyer, Vivian Fine, Miriam Gideon, and Ruth Crawford Seeger through the lenses of music history, reception history, and socio-linguistics in order to contribute a more thorough understanding of the obstacles women encountered.
Before a note composed by a woman was ever heard, a battle was being waged with gendered identities. These identities are the starting point for my analysis of obstacles that threatened the careers of women modernists. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says that society produces the creature that is woman. Drawing from this dictum, I explore ways in which socially-constructed identities were central to evaluations of women’s contributions. Using personal accounts and remembrances of the lives and careers of female modernists, I illustrate ways in which criticism of their music was also commentary on their potential or perceived lack thereof. I complicate the (mis)understanding that music composed by women was denigrated while that composed by men was praised. Women’s music was often praised but favorable evaluations were too often tempered by words that implicitly devalued their work, thereby contributing to their erasure from the canon.
The second half of this dissertation examines Fine’s opera Memoirs of Uliana Rooney, which has received little scholarly attention. In it Fine provides a retrospective of obstacles that stymied twentieth-century women composers. Combining autobiography, fiction, and biography, Fine gives voice to the experiences of modernist women from her perspective as a woman enmeshed in the scene. In writing this work, Fine proclaimed she was “looking back into my life to see what happened.” Taking this statement at face value, I use Fine’s opera to initiate a heretofore unspoken conversation that recognizes women’s own perceptions of the challenges with which they were confronted and their strategies for emerging victoriously from the metaphorical minefield. I conclude with thoughts about the problems women are still faced with today and I suggest avenues for further research.
Passwater, Tonia L., "“After being equals, is this the sequel?”:
Vivian Fine’s Memoirs of Uliana Rooney as Artistic Commentary on Shifting Reactions to American Women’s Music" (2024). CUNY Academic Works.
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