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Summer 2003
photo by Rose Lincoln  
A Voice of One's Own
Jane 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 Row.

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 on.

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.

The 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.”

Now 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.