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Music Division



arrow graphicIn Search of the Woman Composer: Finding Music by Women
Topical Research in Popular Song





In Search of the Woman Composer: Finding Music by Women
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I'm raising my boy to be a soldier to fight for the U.S.A.. 1905. Music by Mrs. Leo Ryan; words by Leo Ryan; arr. by Jos. Farley. Music Division.
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When the eminent psychologist Carl E. Seashore published his now-famous article “Why No Great Women Composers?” in 1940, he was continuing a long tradition espousing the inferiority of women in music. As far back as 1880, music critic George P. Upton argued that “it does not seem that woman will ever originate music in its fullest and grandest harmonic forms. She will always be the recipient and interpreter, but there is little hope she will be the creator.” Seashore concurred, theorizing that “woman's fundamental urge is to be beautiful, loved, and adored as a person; man's urge is to provide and achieve in a career.” 4

Women's defenders frequently mentioned the lack of training available to women and lamented that women were too quick to support men's efforts at their own expense. Pianist Amy Fay (1844-1928) wrote in 1900 that “[w]omen have been too much taken up with helping and encouraging men to place a proper value on their own talent, which they are too prone to underestimate and to think not worth making the most of.” And English composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), in her Female Pipings in Eden, proclaimed “there is not at this present moment (1933) one single middle-aged woman alive who has had the musical education that has fallen to men as a matter of course, without any effort on their part, ever since music was!”5

Today the field of women and music is a thriving branch of women's studies. Research has shown that women have been composing music through the ages just as their male counterparts have, and the scores collection at the Library of Congress bears this out. Music scores make up the largest portion of the Music Division collections, and women's works are amply represented. From new editions of chant by Saint Hildegard (1098-1179) and first editions of piano pieces by Amy Beach (1867-1944) to original copyright deposits of songs by blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939), the scores collection is rich with the music of women.

Music scores are cataloged and classified according to genre and medium of performance and the composer's name. Although the subject heading “Music by women composers” exists, it is used only when gender is mentioned as a significant aspect of a work. Thus, the Historical Anthology of Music by Women, edited by James R. Briscoe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987; M2.H68 1987) [catalog record], receives this subject heading, but Clara Schumann's Ausgewählte Klavierwerke (München: G. Henle, 1987; M22.S393 K6 1987) [catalog record] is assigned only the heading “Piano music.” Obviously, the vast majority of pieces by women composers are not represented by a subject heading that denotes gender.

Music copyright deposits are another important source for research. The copyright law of 1870 brought eighty years of copyright records and deposits to the Library of Congress and ensured that all future registrations and deposits would come directly to the Library. Copyright deposits are the reason the music collections are so strong in holdings of music from the United States and account for the extensive number of popular songs. Popular song is less well represented as notes on paper from 1978 on owing to a change in the copyright law that allows music to be submitted for copyright in recorded format. Much popular music is registered this way today and becomes the custody of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Researching copyright records can be tedious and time consuming (see “Using the Collections”), but it can reap real rewards. Unpublished manuscripts of African American composer Florence Price (1888-1953) have been discovered in this way, as well as original copyright deposits of songs by blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937) and jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Numerous sources are available to assist in locating music by women composers. For extensive work lists and biographical information, see:

Cohen, Aaron. International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. 2nd ed. New York: Books & Music [USA], 1987. ML105.C7 1987 [catalog record].

The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. ML105.N66 1994 [catalog record].

For specialized bibliographies, see:

Grattan, Virginia. American Women Songwriters. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. ML106.U3 G73 1993 [catalog record].

Jackson, Barbara Garvey. "Say Can You Deny Me": A Guide to Surviving Music by Women from the 16th through the 18th Centuries. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994. ML128.W7 J3 1994 [catalog record]. An invaluable union list of music manuscripts and early imprints that includes some of the earliest compositions by American women.

Walker-Hill, Helen. Music by Black Women Composers. Chicago: Center for Black Music Research, 1995. ML128.W7 W35 1995 [catalog record].

Also useful are the numerous bibliographies in the Greenwood Press Music Reference Collection series, including:

Boenke, Heidi. Flute Music by Women Composers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. ML128.F7 B6 1988 [catalog record].

Heinrich, Adel. Organ and Harpsichord Music by Women Composers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. ML128.O6 O73 1991 [catalog record].

Johnson, Rose-Marie. Violin Music by Women Composers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989. ML128.W7J63 1989 [catalog record].

MacAuslan, Janna and Kristan Aspen. Guitar Music by Women Composers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. ML128.G8 M33 1997 [catalog record].

Meggett, Joan. Keyboard Music by Women Composers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. ML128.H35 M43 [catalog record].

Walker-Hill, Helen. Piano Music by Black Women Composers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. ML128.P3 W3 1992 [catalog record].

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