Music and the Skillful Listener: American Women Compose the Natural World

Music and the Skillful Listener: American Women Compose the Natural World

by Denise Von Glahn


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Denise Von Glahn explores the relationship between listening and musical composition focusing on nine American women composers inspired by the sounds of the natural world: Amy Beach, Marion Bauer, Louise Talma, Pauline Oliveros, Joan Tower, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Victoria Bond, Libby Larsen, and Emily Doolittle. Von Glahn situates "nature composing" among the larger tradition of nature writing and argues that, similar, works of these women express deeply held spiritual and aesthetic beliefs about nature. Drawing on a wealth of archival and original source material, Von Glahn skillfully employs literary and gender studies, ecocriticism and ecomusicology, and contemporary musicological thought to tell the stories of these composers who seek to understand nature through music.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253006622
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/09/2013
Series: Music, Nature, Place
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Denise Von Glahn is Professor of Musicology and Director of the Center for Music of the Americas in the College of Music at Florida State University. She is author (with Michael Broyles) of Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices (IUP, 2007).

Read an Excerpt

Music and the Skillful Listener

American Women Compose the Natural World

By Denise Von Glahn

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Denise Von Glahn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00662-2


A Context for Composers


* * *

Until the 1980s, noted American women composers were few in number; their activities were limited in scope. Social mores and circumscribed educational opportunities had discouraged and denied women's pursuits of professional musical careers. The situation regarding women and music composition, in particular, differed from the long tradition of notable American women writers, and more particularly for purposes of this study, American women nature writers whose history of public participation went back to the earliest colonial times.

Inadequate or nonexistent musical education beyond that which guaranteed a desirable level of "accomplishment" and limiting codes of behavior, which confined women's musical sphere to the home or school, meant that most aspiring American women composers prior to the twentieth century looked no further than parlor performances as sites for their original songs and piano pieces. Public performances that hinted at virtuosic displays would have been construed as unseemly and in certain circles would have drawn severe criticism and even censure. Like some of their literary counterpoints, women composers often kept their identities hidden with pen names, or at the very least disguised behind initials or the use of "Mrs." Prior to the closing decades of the nineteenth century, most American women with musical talent confined themselves to singing "sweetly," or playing violin, organ, piano, or guitar and within a private sphere, often with a goal of attracting an appropriate mate and educating the resulting children.

While women's literary and musical traditions differed in significant ways, including their duration and degree of public engagement, both developed within similar social circumstances. This chapter provides a context for the study of American women composers and their interactions with nature by considering some of the nation's earliest women nature writers and the themes that dominated their works. It documents their desire for silence, solitude, and the opportunity to pursue their work, conditions that eluded many women. As becomes clear, the subject matter and perspective of the nation's earliest women writers and composers have much in common.

* * *

In England, in 1650, the first book of poetry by an American author was published. Without her knowledge, Anne Bradstreet's brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, had taken her writings with him when he sailed across the Atlantic. There they were published as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America ... By a Gentlewoman in Those Parts; the book found its way to the library of King George III. Anticipating by a good seventy years the more famous writings in natural philosophy by Puritan theologians Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, Anne Bradstreet's Tenth Muse meditated on the deep connection that she perceived existed between nature and God. Appearing 186 years before Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1836 essay "Nature," Bradstreet depicted nature as a moral text ripe with lessons to guide one's personal behavior. Over the next two centuries, women would become increasingly responsible for and identified with the moral instruction of the nation, as that duty was assigned to them and their sphere, the home. Women would use nature's lessons to teach their families.

In 1704, Sarah Kemble Knight (Mrs. Richard Knight) traveled from Boston to New York, a distance of about 150 miles, to help a cousin. She did this with no single, steady companion, but with a series of hired guides to assist her passage over uneven countryside and swollen waterways. She recorded her alternately humorous, terrifying, and rapturous experiences in a book published posthumously in 1825 as The Journal of Madam Knight. Within its pages, an eighteen-line paean to the moon, that "Bright Aspect" who diffused Joy through [her] soul, aroused a more secular appreciation of nature than Bradstreet had expressed. While Sarah Knight's journey without a proper escort – which according to social custom would have been a husband, brother, son, or other male relative – might suggest behavior far outside the norms of acceptability for respectable thirty-eight-year-old women at the time, her descriptions of the woods reveal what was then considered a suitable female sensibility. Mrs. Knight portrayed her unaccustomed natural surroundings as comfortable. She employed domestic imagery, which would become the standard vocabulary for women nature writers in the nineteenth century: "the pleasant delusion of a Sumptuous city, filled with famous Buildings and churches, with their spiring steeples, Balconies, Galleries and I know not what." Making the natural world home-like, with its balconies and galleries, or at least familiar, was commonplace for early American women nature writers, who seldom ranged far from their domiciles or towns. By drawing analogies between the potentially dangerous climes and domestic features, Knight claimed her right to be there: she stayed within her sphere, even if only rhetorically.

As the nation expanded, however, the nineteenth century saw the publication of a number of accounts by women who ventured from their northeastern birthplaces and went west to stay. Books by Caroline Kirkland, Margaret Fuller, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Eliza Farnham reveal additional aspects of women's experiences with nature. Kirkland's A New Home – Who'll Follow? or Glimpses of Western Life by Mrs. Mary Clavers, an Actual Settler, published in 1839, is the story of the New York City–born Caroline Matilda (Stansbury) Kirkland (Mary Clavers is a pseudonym) and her husband traveling by horse-drawn wagon to Michigan, which was then the edge of the frontier. Although she described a broad range of experiences, including fording treacherous bog holes, and the unusual practices associated with purchasing land and naming and constructing towns in the west, Kirkland focused on the domestic sphere, with its specific challenges to women and family life. While not primarily about nature or the spiritual or religious lessons it contained, the natural elements regularly informed and decided her actions, activities, and attitudes; like her predecessors, Kirkland wrote from a decidedly female perspective.

A more widely circulated account of a city-bred northeastern woman interacting with nature was Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. Fuller's trip around the Great Lakes lasted only a few months, June 10 to September 19, 1843, so the author did not develop the emic perspective achieved by Kirkland during her eight-year residence in the frontier. But she too used the physical journey to meditate on social issues and explore more interior landscapes. The book became, in Susan Belasco Smith's words, "an expression of self-discovery."

Like Sarah Kemble Knight, Fuller was often transfixed by the beauty of nature; this is nowhere more evident than in her description of the start of her journey at Niagara Falls, considered at the time to be the nation's most famous natural phenomenon and the symbol of American power and promise. While she despaired that her own reactions to the cataract were thoroughly influenced by those who had already captured it in prose and pictures, and thus denied their full originality, Fuller achieved a personal, epiphanic moment during an uncommon solitary moonlight visit to the falls. Her description reflects the easy blending of nature with spirituality characteristic of many women nature writers and more generally of the Transcendentalist group, of which she was a prominent member.

I felt a foreboding of a mightier emotion to rise up and swallow all others, and I passed on to the terrapin bridge. Everything was changed, the misty apparition had taken off its many-colored crown which it had worn by day, and a bow of silvery white spanned its summit. The moonlight gave a poetical indefiniteness to the distant parts of the waters, and while the rapids were glancing in her beams, the river below the falls was black as night, save where the reflection of the sky gave it the appearance of a shield of blued steel. No gaping tourists loitered, eyeing with their glasses, or sketching on cards the hoary locks of the ancient river god. All tended to harmonize with the natural grandeur of the scene. I gazed long. I saw how here mutability and unchangeableness were united. I surveyed the conspiring waters rushing against the rocky ledge to overthrow it at one mad plunge, till, like topping ambition, o'erleaping themselves, they fall on t'other side, expanding into foam ere they reach the deep channel where they creep submissively away.

Then arose in my breast a genuine admiration, and a humble adoration of the Being who was the architect of this and of all. Happy were the first discoverers of Niagara, those who could come unawares upon this view and upon that, whose feelings were entirely their own.

Fuller revels in her personal, individual, solitary encounter with nature writ large. The extreme rarity of such experiences for women, especially in relation to grand, iconic natural phenomena such as Niagara Falls, undoubtedly fueled the passion of Fuller's reaction. Women were more often members of large parties of tourists on grand tours of natural wonders who came weighted down with Claude glasses, portable easels, picnic hampers, and pets. The opportunity to interact solitarily with a site of such unique power and beauty was of incalculable importance to Fuller. The experience was hers. As readers will discover, more than one composer in this study has sought out similarly unaccompanied interactions with the natural world. With the urging and intercession of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fuller turned her journey into her first book.

Women writers continued to acknowledge nature's moral, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities, although practical exigencies associated with the nation's western expansion encouraged additional insights and understanding. Eliza Farnham's Life in Prairie Land from 1846 is a third midcentury chronicle of women's experiences of the enlarging nation. Moving from her New York home, Farnham lived along the Illinois River in Tazewell County, Illinois, for nearly five years in the mid-1830s. Her account, simultaneously realistic and romantic, benefits from the sobering experiences of extended time spent in an often unforgiving landscape. Farnham, who would become one of the first and most effective advocates of equality for women, was especially aware of the challenges the West presented to her sex, and she attributed many of them to inadequate education and social constraints: "Very many ladies are so unfortunate as to have had their minds thoroughly distorted from all true and natural modes of action by an artificial and pernicious course of education, or the influence of a false social position. They cannot endure the sudden and complete transition which is forced upon them by emigration to the West."

Her real-life informed pragmatism, however, did not prevent Farnham from appreciating the inherent beauty of her surroundings. While avoiding the religious overtones of Fuller's prose, Farnham captured the unique landscape of Tazewell County. The final passage from part 2, chapter 2 shows the author responding to the variety of this prairie place:

The great road from the northern to the southern extremities of the state passes, for the most part, over large prairies. These are sometimes divided by groves two or three miles in extent, sometimes by open, sparsely timbered tracts, called barrens, and sometimes by a mere thread of timber, towering above the swelling plain, showing a dark green line at the distance of miles, the first glimpse of which often elicits a cheerful 'land ho' from travelers who are unaccustomed to these long voyages by terra firma. This road intersects at Peoria the Illinois river, with which it runs nearly parallel for sixty or seventy miles, at a distance varying from four to eight, ten, and fifteen miles from the stream. The wood which crowns the bluffs of the stream stretches back at frequent intervals in long lines, and fringes the plains over which the road passes. These groves are generally very beautiful. They are usually seen on the high swells of the prairies, their outlines clearly defined on the horizon, long before you reach them. Their edges are bordered with the plum, hazel, and other fruit-bearing trees, and shrubs, which are frequented by birds, hares, squirrels, et cet. The music, life, and freshness of these woodlands, together with their utility to the husbandmen, led the early settlers to select them as the sites of their new homes. There the cabin was laid up under the spreading boughs of the outermost trees; and there the hardy frontiersman placed his family, remote from every artificial means of comfort, "alone with nature," rich, beautiful, majestic, nature in the silent prairie land.

Farnham sees the woods as crowning and fringing the plains. She construes the landscape as "rich, beautiful [and] majestic" and takes aesthetic pleasure in its "music, life, and freshness." In the context of her values, Farnham's distance from artificial comforts and solitary communion with nature in "the silent prairie land" has become a desirable condition. Eight years later, Henry David Thoreau would similarly plump the benefits of a wide margin between oneself and softening comforts. The inadequately educated ladies referred to in her preface, however, would likely have thought otherwise.

Back in the Northeast, in 1850, two hundred years after Bradstreet's Tenth Muse and four years before Thoreau's Walden, Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote Rural Hours, "a record of our simple rural life." Thoreau read her book, referred to it in his journal, and perhaps even used parts of it as models for his own record of time "alone, in the woods." Like Walden, which would focus on Thoreau's stay at his cabin by the eponymous pond in Concord, Massachusetts, Rural Hours explored the natural world of Susan Cooper's hometown, the one founded by her grandfather William Cooper, the one now famous for its Baseball Hall of Fame: Cooperstown, New York.

Thoreau would ponder the tall timbers that became railroad ties; Cooper had commented upon the less easily calculable value of trees: "Independently of their market values in dollars and cents, the trees have other values ... they have their importance in an intellectual and in a moral sense." "The great trees, stretching their arms above us in a thousand forms of grace and strength ... fill the mind with wonder and praise." While Cooper doesn't quite assign value to trees simply as trees (devoid of any useful purpose to humankind), her recognition that trees have intellectual and moral value beyond their potential as material commodities suggests the resonance of her thinking with what Kate Soper and other modern environmental philosophers have identified as the argument for the "intrinsic" value of nature: value that resides in its mere being. The connection between nature and religion first seen in Bradstreet, and then echoed in Fuller, persisted in Cooper with her attributions of grace, strength, and praise. She mourned for the ancient forests where now only tree stumps stood. Later in her "record," she noted the significantly declining bird populations and wondered what their disappearance augured. Cooper understood the interrelatedness of humanity and nature; she believed that the civilization of a nation could be measured by its treatment of the natural world, and that over time people would recognize the connection. Passing the afternoon in the woods on Saturday, July 28, 1848, Cooper contemplated "the noble gift to man [of] the forests":

But time is a very essential element, absolutely indispensable, indeed, in true civilization; and in the course of years we shall, it is to be hoped, learn farther lessons of this kind. Closer observation will reveal to us the beauty and excellence of simplicity, a quality as yet too little valued or understood in this country. And when we have made this farther progress, then we shall take better care of our trees. We shall not be satisfied with setting out a dozen naked saplings before our door, because our neighbor on the left did so last year, nor cut down a whole wood, within a stone's throw of our dwelling, to pay for a Brussels carpet from the same piece as our neighbor's on the right; no, we shall not care a stiver for mere show and parade, in any shape whatever, but we shall look to the general proprieties and fitness of things, whether our neighbors to the right or the left do so or not.


Excerpted from Music and the Skillful Listener by Denise Von Glahn. Copyright © 2013 Denise Von Glahn. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. A Context for Composers: Within the Nature-Writing Tradition
I. Nature as a Summer Home
2. Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H. H. A. Beach)
3. Marion Bauer
4. Louise Talma
II. Nature all Around Us
5. Pauline Oliveros
6. Joan Tower
7. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
III. Beyond the EPA and Earth Day
8. Victoria Bond
9. Libby Larsen
10. Emily Doolittle
Conclusions: The Repercussions of Listening

What People are Saying About This

author of Good Observers of Nature: American Women and the Scientific Study of the Natural World, 18 - Tina Gianquitto

Denise Von Glahn’s illuminating study of the profound relationship between American women composers and the natural world takes readers into previously uncharted terrain. Especially interesting is the way Von Glahn frames these relationships in terms of 'collaborations' between human and non-human. Her book, which spans both place and time, will appeal to musicologists and also to those interested in the intersections of the arts and the environment.

Composer - Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

In Music and the Skillful Listener, Denise von Glahn combines the knowledge and attention to detail of the musicologist with the curiosity and awe of the naturalist. Von Glahn has produced an eminently readable and unique study.

composer/conductor - Victoria Bond

It is no accident that Denise Von Glahn calls her book The Skillful Listener, as this ability is one that she has in abundance. Her active listening and probing interviews reveal the artistic, spiritual and personal essence of each of the nine composers in this book. Although all have found inspiration in the natural world and have focused much of their creativity on it, Von Glahn has extracted the significant differences that make up each individual perspective as well as the common thread that unifies them all. She has composed a theme and variations with words, orchestrating each composer as a human manifestation of infinite variety.

University of North Carolina, Greensboro - Aaron S. Allen

In nine case studies of American women composers, Von Glahn conveys passionately the connections between life, work, nature, and humanity. She listens so well to these composers’ words and sounds, collaborates so productively with them and with scholars from an impressive array of disciplines, and communicates so effectively to her readers that, were she a composer of sounds rather than words, she would deserve a place alongside the accomplished women to whom she ascribes the same important characteristics of listening, collaboration, and communication. Music and the Skillful Listener is a tour de force from a profoundly engaging thinker. It will be of great interest to anyone who cares about the power of music, the place of women in society, the fate of our planet, and what it means to be American — and human.

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