Echoes of muffled tunes

Rediscovering the Muses:
February 17, 1995

In the mid-1980s Channel 4 broadcast a series of television programmes about the history of music in western Europe. The title of the series (and of a collection of accompanying books) was brief and to the point - Man and Music. Only a title, maybe, but surely one that could only be used by a discipline that unthinkingly believes that the art it studies is one that has been best (or even exclusively) practised by men. This assumption has an important effect on what musicologists, music historians and ethnomusicologists consider worthy of study and on the kinds of evidence that they choose to investigate, often leading to incomplete and even distorted views of musical history and culture.

Kimberley Marshall's broad-ranging collection of articles is an important addition to a rapidly growing body of work that re-examines and reassesses the history of music by investigating women's contribution to musical cultures across the world, in the process often rediscovering forgotten or ignored musical traditions. The 11 articles in Rediscovering the Muses fall into three groups. The two articles in the first group examine women's involvement in musical traditions still practised today and that have been studied first-hand by the authors in Java and northwest South Australia. The authors of the second group of articles use a wide variety of evidence to investigate women's participation in musical life in biblical Israel, pharaonic Egypt, classical Greece and the Byzantine empire, while the articles in the final group explore various different musical genres and communities in western Europe during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Almost every society has placed some kind of restriction on women's musical creativity, restrictions which women have always overcome or side-stepped with extraordinary resilience and determination. One of the fascinating things about Marshall's collection is the way in which certain themes echo across cultures, continents and time. In societies from classical Greece to present-day Java, for example, women are seen as emotional and lacking self-control while men are seen to be rational and logical. This has a direct bearing on women's musical expression. Sarah Weiss suggests that, although expectations are in general very low for women in Java, the female player is valued for her emotional involvement with the puppet show story that she is accompanying. In classical Greece, women's perceived lack of restraint was instrumental in their exclusion from public life. Nancy Sultan explores one exception - women's highly charged public expression of pain and loss in their ritual laments.

A central message is that by taking women's involvement in music for granted, then re-examining old sources as well as unearthing new ones, one can radically change the accepted history of a musical culture. Carol Meyers re-investigates the evidence of terracotta figurines from ancient Israel and passages from the Bible to discover women's performances in dancing, singing and drumming. In an article on creative women in the late Middle Ages, Paula Higgins shows the absurdity of the widely-held assumption that anonymous medieval poetry in a "woman's voice" was written by men. And in perhaps the most compelling article of the collection, Suzanne G. Cusick recounts how hard she found it to believe that Francesca Caccini, a talented, highly paid and celebrated musician and composer at the Florentine Medici court, simply retired from musical life after her second marriage in 16. By adopting the feminist theoretical approach of "thinking from women's lives", by asking different questions and reading sources "with different eyes", Cusick discovered that Caccini continued to work as a professional musician after 16 and that her later career provides important new information about early 17th-century musical life in northern Italy.

The inclusion of articles on women's involvement in popular present-day non-notated traditions such as jazz would have widened the scope of Rediscovering the Muses. But the collection is still essential reading for anyone interested in early music and a welcome companion to previous collections focusing on women's music-making in the non-western world, such as Ellen Koskoff's Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective (1987) or Marcia Hernden and Susanne Ziegler's Music, Gender and Culture (1990). Even in the 1990s, this is still crusading work. Marshall hopes that Rediscovering the Muses will "inspire other readers to undertake new inquiries into the rich and varied cultures of women's music" and uses as an epigraph to her collection a still relevant quotation from the preface of Sophie Drinker's remarkable 1948 book Music and Women, a work which involved over 20 years of research into women's musical creativity: "I present my message in the hope that it will remind every woman . . . that (she has) deep, and as yet in our world, untapped reservoirs of imaginative power."

Sophie Fuller is the author of The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, 1629 the present.

Rediscovering the Muses:: Women's Musical Traditions

Editor - Kimberley Marshall
ISBN - 1 55553 173 3
Publisher - Northeastern University Press
Price - £33.00
Pages - 304pp

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