Aristocratic women exerted unprecedented political and social influence in Florence throughout the late 16th and early 17th century; during this period convents flourished and female members of the powerful Medici family governed the city for the only time in its history.
These women also helped to shape the city’s aristocratic life, commissioning works of music, art, and theater that were inscribed with their own concerns and aspirations, promoting a vision of their world and their place in it—a worldview that differed significantly from that of their male counterparts.
The musical construction of female characters in the developing operatic realm became especially important and increasingly politicized. Court sponsorship of the arts began underwriting a new image of legitimate authority, presenting Florentine audiences and influential visitors with numerous examples of virtuous and powerful female leaders.
For example, in Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, commissioned and produced by the archduchess Maria Maddalena (above) for a diplomatic celebration, the benevolent sorceress Melissa single-handedly defeats the evil enchantress Alcina, freeing the heroic Ruggerio from the bonds of illicit sensuality. Alcina’s fatal excesses are depicted in musical passages that surpass the normal harmonic vocabulary of early 17th-century Florentine opera, demonstrating her defiance of the boundaries of acceptable behavior; Melissa’s superior power is portrayed in music that avoids harmonic and melodic extremes, indicating her rationality and control as she restores the hero’s sanity. Such heroines symbolically asserted both women’s political rights and the moral and spiritual basis for their legitimacy.
This according to Echoes of women’s voices: Music, art, and female patronage in early modern Florence by Kelley Harness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2006-4451).
In canonical French Orientalist discourse of the 19th century, the Orient is cast as effeminate, weak, and in need of rehabilitation by Western civilization. However, the dramatic arts of late 16th- and early 17th-century France constructed a different picture, one in which the Orient as temptress was a deadly threat to the West.
During the late Valois and early Bourbon monarchies, the queen regents Catherine de Médicis (1519–89), Marie de Médicis (1575–1642), and Anne d’Autriche (1601–66) were associated with political turmoil and civil war that threatened to destroy the kingdom. Within this troubled political context, fatal women of the Orient sought to entice their prey on the French stage. Most deadly among them was Cleopatra, embodiment of Egypt, incarnation of women’s malignant sexual seduction, exposed in her subjugation of Marcus Antonius, the fallen, conquered, and emasculated Roman.
With the rise of Louis XIV (1638–1715) and his imposition of a purportedly indomitable and masculine monarchy, women were to be vanquished outright. Reigning women, including those in the tragedies of Philippe Quinault (1635–88), were the victims of self-destructive passions ending in defeat, death, or abandonment by the heroes whom they sought to enslave. An emblematic example of such a crushed woman is the sorceress Armide in the tragédie en musique by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87), the libretto of which is by Quinault.
This according to “Regnorum ruina: Cleopatra and the Oriental menace in early French tragedy” by Desmond Hosford, an essay included in French Orientalism: Culture, politics, and the imagined Other (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010, 23–47; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-6408).
In 1963 Eunice Waymon, a classically-trained pianist who had recently achieved recognition as a jazz singer under the stage name Nina Simone, learned that four young African American girls had been killed in the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama.
She immediately wrote the song Mississippi Goddam “in a rush of fury, hatred, and determination.” The lyrics—filled with anger and despair in stark contrast to the fast-paced and rollicking rhythm—vehemently rejected the notions that race relations could change gradually, that the South was unique in terms of discrimination, and that African Americans could or would patiently seek political rights. Simone also challenged principles that are still strongly associated with liberal civil rights activism in that period, especially the viability of a beloved community of Whites and Blacks.
With both her music and her self-presentation, Simone offered a vision of Black cultural nationalism within and outside the U.S. that insisted on female power. Her story demonstrates how events and issues from the 1960s that are often treated as separate were in fact deeply intertwined—the development of Black cultural nationalism, the role of women in Black activism more generally, and the emergence of second-wave feminism.
This according to “‘I don’t trust you anymore’: Nina Simone, culture, and Black activism in the 1960s” by Ruth Feldstein (Journal of American history XCI/4  1349–79; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-23369).
Louisa May Alcott effectively depicted collective musical performances to affirm community in Little women; but more significantly, she used music to represent the feminine sphere as she and the culture of her time defined it.
Each sister’s acceptance of or entry into that domain is depicted through scenes of musical performance: “No one but Beth could get much music out of the old piano; but she had a way of softly touching the yellow keys and making a pleasant accompaniment to the simple songs they sang. Meg had a voice like a flute, and she and her mother led the little choir. Amy chirped like a cricket, and Jo wandered through the airs at her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with a croak or a quaver that spoilt the most pensive tune.”
Laurie, the rich boy next door, who is a talented pianist, must take the opposite path on his journey; his attainment of manhood is symbolically represented through the silencing of his musical voice.
In these and more ways, the musical leitmotif in Little Women tells us much about gender roles in American culture and about the limited choices facing both nineteenth-century American women and nineteenth-century American men.
This according to “Music as leitmotif in Louisa May Alcott’s Little women” by Colleen Reardon (Children’s literature XXIV  74-85; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-26449).
Today is Alcott’s 190th birthday! Below, Beth’s Christmas scene from the 1994 film.
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A letter published in the June 1925 issue of Gramophone noted the magazine’s general absence of women correspondents: “are the sweet little things too shy, or what?” A response published in August of that year dismissed the idea of women enjoying the gramophone: “ladies…want to be seen and also to see. They don’t want to listen. That will never interest them.”
The October issue included a letter from a woman reader who noted that women have less money at their disposal for entertainment than men, and that when she attends concerts she sees many women, including poor ones, listening attentively. “I can only conclude,” she wrote, “that certain of your correspondents have been singularly unfortunate in the circle of women they have drawn about them.”
The letters are reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-7059). Below, a gramophone recording by the incomparable Josephine Baker.
Mexico is not officially at war, yet violence is pervasive, and young Mexican women increasingly use rap music to protest the ubiquity of homicides, systematic violence, and widespread impunity in their country.
Non-activist rap songs encouraging introspection can be as political as explicitly activist ones, and the aim of both can be to shift people’s understandings and promote change. This is significant because it is only by attending to distinct actors’ positionalities, to their similarities and differences, that negotiation can be collectively enabled to fight violence in Mexico.
This according to “Contesting resistance, protesting violence: Women, war, and hip hop in Mexico” by Hettie Malcomson (Music and arts in action VII/1  46–63; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2019-20968).
While the (male) critics generally praised the ballet, they primarily commented on it as the work of two women; for example, one wrote “here is something that will certainly please the feminists”, while another drew comparisons to the equally male-dominated field of sport: “Nervous and supple like the manner of these female tennis champions, who triumph so easily over the raw brutality of hard masculine wrists…Mme Hélène Perdriat…has imagined the affabulation [sic]…with a sprig of perversity….These candid and malicious games are exactly to the taste of the lovely Muse who dictates to Mlle Germaine Tailleferre her better inspirations.”
Despite this patronizing reception of Le marchand d’oiseaux as a female work, there is nothing feminist in the dramatic action or the music. The ballet is a neoclassical creation that may be seen in the context of a wider trend within interwar modernism, and Tailleferre may be understood as contributing to the development and propagation of this musical style.
A product of two female artists whose immense talents allowed them to overcome the misogynistic social tendencies of their time and achieve success on the Parisian ballet stage, Le marchand d’oiseaux demonstrated that despite all of the French government’s best attempts to suppress the voices of women, with sufficient talent and determination they could still succeed and be recognized as contemporary creative artists.
This according to “Germaine Tailleferre and Hélène Perdriat’s Le marchand d’oiseaux (1923): French feminist ballet?” by Laura Hamer (Studies in musical theatre IV/1  113–20; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-14319).
Today is Tailleferre’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer as photographed by Man Ray around the time of the ballet’s premiere; below, Tailleferre’s score for the work.
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In the “Sirens” episode of UlyssesJames Joyce made words represent music by playing with or even overcoming certain conventional features of language. Particularly notable are Joyce’s representation of polyphony, melody, rhythm, and of music’s traditional absence of conventional meaning.
The essence of Joycean onomatopoeia in “Sirens” is not that it represents music iconically, but that it makes music linguistically. Joycean onomatopoeia is not the natural union of meaning and form, of signified and signifier—it is the signifier freeing itself from the link with the signified.
“Sirens” is a step toward absolute form and abstraction; it breaks with the representational conventions of naturalistic and realistic fiction and points the way toward modernism.
This according to “Strange words, strange music: The verbal music of ‘Sirens’” by Andreas Fischer, an essay included in Bronze by gold: The music of James Joyce (New York: General Music, 1999).
Ulysses was first published 100 years ago today! Above, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife and muse, on their wedding day in 1931; the novel takes place on the day they met in 1904. Below, Cathy Berberian reads an excerpt from the “Sirens” episode.
The Swahili word mpasho is related to the verb -pasha, “to cause to get”, and it refers to someone “getting the message”.
In the popular genre taarab, mpasho performances involve sending and receiving powerful communications—often competetive and antagonistic in nature—through song texts. The subject may be an individual, an organization, or social group, any of which may respond with their own mpasho performance. The phenomenon arose among women singers, most notably Siti binti Saad (above).
This according to “Hot kabisa! The mpasho phenomenon and taarab in Zanzibar” by Janet Topp Fargion, an essay included in Mashindano! Competitive music performance in East Africa (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2000; 39–53). Below, Siti binti Saad’s Wewe paka (You are a cat, 1930) sends a message about unwanted sexual advances that would resonate with today’s #MeToo movement.
Dame Ethel Mary Smyth was a member of the women’s suffrage movement, and was alternately praised and panned for writing music that was considered too masculine for a “lady composer”; yet when she produced more delicate compositions they were criticized for not measuring up to the standard of her male counterparts. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1922, becoming the first woman composer to be awarded a damehood.
This critical edition is based on a photocopy of the autograph manuscript, now in the Royal College of Music Library, with reference also to a fair copy of the score, now in the British Library. The extensive critical notes by John L, Snyder document the changes made by the composer, as well as editorial and performance suggestions made by both the composer and August Manns, who conducted the premiere.
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