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A Voice of One's Own
Bernstein creates a broad appreciation for women in music.
The harpsichord that takes up half of Jane Bernstein’s
office is a vivid reminder of her passion. As a historical musicologist,
she is considered a leading scholar of Renaissance music; her
book Music Printing in Renaissance Venice: The Scotto Press
(1539–1572) won the American Musicological Society’s
Otto Kinkeldey Award for the most distinguished musicological
work of the year. But today Bernstein, the Austin Fletcher Professor
of Music and former chair of the music department, is eager
to talk about what inspired her to create and edit a work with
a wider vantage point. Women’s Voices across Musical
Worlds (Northeastern University Press) is the first book
to explore significant themes concerning the musical activities
and expressions of women from a cross-cultural and cross-historical
view. Its essays—from “Hildegard of Bingen”
to “Tori Amos’s Inner Voices” and “Blues
as the Black Woman’s Lament,” among many others—deal
with a broad spectrum of topics and approaches about women,
gender, and sexuality in music across Asia, Europe, the Middle
East, and the Americas from the 12th century to the present.
She spoke with Laura Ferguson from her office at 48 Professors
What led you to undertake
this particular approach?
It began several years ago when I developed a course on women
and music. The typical “music and women” course
at the time was structured as a historical survey, but I felt
that this gave short shrift to women because in certain periods
of music there were great men composers, but there weren’t
necessarily great women composers. This convention follows the
concept of the Western canon, that is, the lives of one “great
composer”—read: male—after another. You can
see this in Paine Hall at Harvard, where the names of composers
line the ceiling. They planned to do the same in Symphony Hall,
but the only name up there is Beethoven, because when the building
was constructed that’s the only one that they all agreed
How would you
describe your approach to writing the book?
To look at music from the point of view of composers struck
me as not a viable or exciting way to explore the contributions
women have made in music. I began to think: What about the whole
world? I thought it would be exciting to take a thematic approach
and to compare women and music-making cross-culturally and cross-historically.
Why is this perspective
important to bring to the classroom?
It broadens one’s appreciation—it’s crucial
for us to understand, especially for people who’ve only
dealt with Western European art music, what the similarities
and differences are both historically and globally. It is also
important to think of performers and audiences as well as composers
when you think of music, especially when you’re dealing
with women’s contributions.
Albanian wedding rituals, for instance?
Right, in a cultural context, how women fit into their community
and how they empower that community. Women are very much involved
in what is called life-cycle events, particularly death rituals.
All across the world—it’s uncanny that the lament
is a woman’s domain. So I used that as one of the five
themes of the book.
The other interesting aspect about the book concerns how all
these subjects connect. In fact, that’s probably the common
thing: women’s voices—having a voice of one’s
own. In fact, each of the chapters tries to focus on different
aspects of that—“Empowered Voices” or “Cloistered
Voices,” for instance, or “Private Voices, Public
Voices,” which deals with the question of class issues
and how in some cases women could perform music only in the
home, but what they had to do to compensate for their status.
It’s fascinating to read about how that compensation arises
in different ways. Around the theme of sequestered female musical
performances, for instance, the cloistered nuns of Bologna were
socially acceptable by being invisible, but they were “angels
on high” when they sang.
Right. They are sequestered behind the walls of the “public”
part of the church and so when they sing, you can only hear
their voices. The church hierarchy sought to silence them, but
the nuns wanted to be heard, so they, in their own way, protested
against these strictures, against the Archbishop in Bologna,
by “raising” their voices behind the grilled windows
that pierced the walls of the church. There were all these strategies
that women used at different points in time. Hildegard is yet
another example of a woman who lived in her own cloistered community
and first wrote music mainly for the nuns. She had these visions,
but if she revealed them she would have been deemed a heretic.
So she was careful not to reveal her full capacities until she
received the blessing of the Pope and was then thought of as
a visionary, or as someone to listen to. I don’t know
whether she herself deliberately had this strategy in mind,
but it enabled her to fit in.
You selected Joan Baez and Mercedes Sosa for an essay. Why?
They were part of the generation that I grew up with, and I
thought both women showed this concept of empowerment and how
a woman becomes a voice of the people, an icon.
It was interesting that Baez has been called the “high
priestess of folk songs, the folk Madonna, the matron saint
of hippies,” that the counterculture found, in the symbolism
of religion, a way to honor her.
You can’t think of her or Sosa as real women. That’s
a crucial point. I use the metaphor of either the Statue of
Liberty or the Virgin Mary—to use the Virgin Mary as a
maternal figure with Mercedes Sosa and with Joan Baez, the idea
of the virgin warrior. They actually dubbed Baez Saint Joan
because she has this voice, a very pure voice that can be heard
so clearly. She could project through anything. There weren’t
that many women singers in the folk-music movement. She was
the one who pushed forward, almost as if she’s leading
the people. It is amazing that when she was just beginning her
career, at the March on Washington, when she sang “We
Shall Overcome,” the organizers told her to get up there
and do it as if she was the pure virgin, the innocent of innocents
for the cause, leading the people. And in the case of Mercedes
Sosa, in Argentina, she is thought of as the mother figure who
represented the pueblo or common people during the terrible
years when people in that country were disappearing.
And she put her life at risk for that.
Yes. Her recordings were removed from stores; the government
banned her performances; and they even arrested her while she
was singing at a concert. They forced her into exile.
Talk a bit about the gendered performance.
In the section “Gendered Voices and Performance,”
I am trying to see what specific gendered roles men and women
play vis-à-vis singing in various cultures. So the essays
look at the contrasting singing styles of men and women in Albanian
wedding songs; how women played men’s roles in early 19th-century
Italian opera; and in traditional Japanese dance, how women
take on multiple roles—playing both men and women. Besides
singing, we can also think about musical instruments as gendered
and how that has changed over time. We think now that the flute
is a woman’s instrument. It wasn’t before the 20th
century. Oh, no. Anything that you blew, that you put against
your lips, was not to be performed by a woman. In general, women
were not allowed to play symphonic instruments because they
weren’t considered “ladylike” and also, frankly,
they would not be professional. It’s only been toward
the end of the 20th century that women have gained some headway
in symphony orchestras. During the Renaissance in Elizabethan
England, there was actually an instrument that was a type of
harpsichord. It was called the virginals. And it was called
that because young women played the instrument. There are so
many things that come into play here regarding gendered performance.
Your status, your class, your religion. And I try to bring that
out, particularly in this section of the book and the one on
“Private Voices, Public Voices.”
that the book has been published, what are your hopes for it
taking hold in the curricula of other colleges and universities?
One of the intentions of this book is that it will, in some
way, serve as a sourcebook for newcomers to the field and offer
those who have already taught this course a new and creative
way of looking at the subject by showing the crucial influences
and effect that women had in different aspects of music. What
I wanted to say is: Look, there are connections. At the beginning
of E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End,
there is a famous epigraph—“Only connect.”
Make the connections. And if you do, it opens up a wider world
to you and enriches what you’re doing.