Christine Ammer
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Buy *Unsung: A History of Women in American Music* online Unsung: A History of Women in American Music
Christine Ammer
Amadeus Press
Paperback (Century Edition)
382 pages
February 2001
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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It’s not often that one finds enlightenment in a bibliography. Bibliographies are supposed to be where writers demonstrate their homework, not their interpretive skills. Not so Christine Ammer’s Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. Her bibliography is massive, stretching to 13 pages (with the Notes occupying another 32 pages!), and in it we find citations like this: “Is there a Career for Women Musicians” cited in a 1938 issue of Metronome; and “Why Not Women in Orchestras?” in Etude Music Magazine in 1952.

Curled Up With a Good BookToday it is difficult to imagine a world in which such questions occurred. In the 1998–99 season of the U.S.’s most prominent orchestras, women occupied between 18 and 38 percent of the positions. Disproportionate to their actual populace, of course, and also to the percentage of women in music academies (a majority). But on the plus side this is certainly an improvement over debating whether they should even be there.

Nor are women musicians anonymous faces behind the music stands any more. Women conductors have gained national attention, albeit only a handful. Three women have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their compositions—a male-only award up till 1983. The 1999 Avery Fisher Prize went to Sarah Chang, Pamela Frank, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the first time the prize went to women. Author Christine Ammer goes on to site so many women-won honors there is really only two words to adequately describe her book and her subject: mostly massive.

More about the “mostly” in a bit. For now, Unsung is the 2nd edition of a classic text in the field, first published in 1980. The first edition became the definitive book in the field, which this 2nd edition has considerably revised and expanded. Now embracing a full two centuries of women in American music, Ms. Ammer added dozens of composers and performers, including women involved in such byways and back streets as transcribing Native American and Cajun music, ragtime and jazz, electronic and performance art, from the late 1800s to the present.

Ms. Ammer’s new material heaps plenty of fact—and no end of superbly sketched biographical anecdote—on the personal lives, trials, tribulations, and successes of her subjects. Blessedly, she runs long on detail and short on polemic. Literally hundreds of women are conjured vividly to life out of such unpromising material as dusty newspaper archives, hardly-to-be-found program notes from all but forgotten performances, family albums and letters, reminiscences of friends and teachers, and obituaries. In her own words,

“The research process for the first edition was long and laborious. I went through all the journals, newspaper reviews, and programs I could find from the 1790s to the present, mainly in the Boston and New York public libraries. None of the material was indexed or computerized, so it took many months to read it all. When I found particularly interesting women, such as Sophia Hewitt (organist for the Handel and Haydn Society in the early 1800s), I tracked down municipal records and the like. For this second, greatly expanded edition, the clipping files I'd kept over the years, the Internet, and personal interviews with living artists such as composer Joan Tower, made the process much less time-consuming but nonetheless fascinating.”
Ms. Ammer has an eye for the telling detail that’s so piquant you are right there with the individual as events happen:
“[Camilla] Urso’s parents moved to Paris and tried to enroll her at the Conservatory there. At first they could not even get their foot inside the do or. The normal enrollment age was ten, and no girl had ever been admitted. Finally, after nine months of delay the family could ill afford—Camilla’s father could not find work in Paris and her mother had to take in sewing and washing—the Conservatory director . . . agreed to hear her play. After this audition, the eight-year-old was admitted immediately.”
“Undine Smith Moore became known mostly for her choral compositions and arrangements of spirituals. . . . She herself said her rhythms, choice of scale structures, use of call and response, and general use of contrapuntal devices are among the characteristics making her music uniquely black. . . . ‘I hope that everything I have written reflects my blackness. I cannot say, but I hope so.’”
“... some outstanding work was done by three American women who studied American Indian music. Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838–1923) did the first important work, beginning about 1882. ... She wrote a treatise on the songs of the Omaha Indians and articles on the music of the Sioux and Pawnee Indians. ... Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875–1921) ... worked on the Indians of the Southwest, particularly the Hopi and Zuni, beginning about 1900. She published her findings in The Indian’s Book, which contained more than 200 songs of eighteen tribes.”
Regrettably, the mention of “American Indian” brings up one of the book’s shortcomings: its poor index. The term “American Indian” spreads all over page 167 but does not appear in the index. It appears to be a names-and-institutions index that was compiled by the “index” function of a word processor, whose limitation is that they don’t catch ideas, movements, or generic subjects that occupy multiple pages.

But back to Ms. Ammer. All this started virtually by accident. When asked about the initial idea, Ms. Ammer responded,

“The original impetus came in the mid-1970s. I was asked to introduce an all-women's wind quintet, and when I went to the library to look up some background on women wind players, I found absolutely nothing. My children were in school orchestras and bands, which included many girls. I symphony orchestras, chamber groups, and soloists consisted almost entirely of men. So I wondered what had happened to all the girls in school ensembles. And why were all the works I heard in concert, records, and on radio composed by men?”
Until you pick up her book and open it at random, it is easy to overlook the vastness of the subject. Fortunately Ms. Ammer is as methodical as she is exacting. She does not address the subject chronologically; music is too diverse for the timeline approach. Rather, she arranges—so to speak—her study according to discipline. It is easier to simply quote part of the Table of Contents:
  1. The First Flowering—At the Organ
  2. The "Lady Violinists" and Other String Players
  3. Seated at the Keyboard
  4. The First "Lady Composers"
  5. Apartheid—The All-Women's Orchestras
  6. American Composers in European Idioms
  7. Grass Roots—Composers in American Idioms
  8. Opera Composers and Conductors
  9. Contemporary and Postmodern Idioms—After 1950
  10. Electronic Music, Mixed Media, Film, Performance Art
  11. Today’s Orchestras, Conductors, and Instrumentalists
While she is proud of what American women have done, she is less sanguine about the recognition they receive even today:
“The personnel of major American orchestras is now 25 to 35 percent women, and there are many all- or part-women's chamber ensembles, string quartets, etc. But, the numbers are still small-three out of a hundred prizewinners; one out of two dozen...conductors; one-fourth to one-third women players when conservatories graduate a majority of women. Further, in some fields such as music education, women still are consigned to the lower ranks, such as untenured or adjunct professors in colleges and conservatories. Women brass players have a particularly hard time winning acceptance; very few have made it into the big time, and it is not for want of talent or ability. Prejudice lingers, and for those women who have gotten a foot in the door, there is often a glass ceiling.”
Unfortunately, “lack of recognition” is a term that can be applied to Ms. Ammer’s work itself. There are, for all her exactitude, some astonishing lacunae. None of the following are even mentioned, much less is their role in female musicology assayed: Ann Dudley, Anna Turner, Joan Doan, Gabrielle Roth, Constance Demby; and the genres of world fusion, ambient, soundspace, minimalism, blues, trance, techno, space jazz, electronic and acoustical space, hip-hop, punk. Ms. Ammer’s focus on institutional/academic music and music long assimilated into the mainstream, such as ragtime and jazz, neglects almost everything that has been happening in the nonacademic creative sector. We must forgive her for the omission on the grounds of the book’s already massive content, and perhaps the inhibition of the publisher to add another 50 pages or so to a book already in danger of being priced out of the market. (At $19.95 it’s the bargain of the year in academic publishing.)

In any event, nonacademic creative work surely deserves the attentions of an exacting and lucid scholar like Ms. Ammer. Perhaps she will consider the topic for another book, or at least extended article. Or consider this: An all-color large-format book about all that lies behind the Hearts of Space phenomenon—with all those exotic names, instruments, and performances—is surely a strong coffee-table candidate once the art book publishing industry gets out of the present doldrums.

© 2002 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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