Expanding The Music Theory Canon, a collection of inclusive music theory examples by women and BIPoC composers. The seven most-used textbooks in U.S. undergraduate music theory courses contain 2930 examples, of which 1.67% are by non-white composers and 2.15% are by women. This compilation of several hundred examples is aimed at the undergraduate music theory core.
"Notorious Strumpets on the English Restoration Stage" for Early Music America's Blog
Women's first appearance on the English stage was fraught with controversy. This post looks at the reception history of Nel Gwyn and Moll Davis, two of the first generation of Restoration singer-actresses. Both women came from working-class backgrounds, yet their musical prowess elevated them from the poorest slums of London to the King's bedchamber.
The Ugly Virtuosa
In August 2019, music critic Manuel Brug reviewed a Salzburg Festival performance of Jacques Offenbach’s 1858 opera Orphée aux enfers as full of “fat women in tight corsets [who] keep spreading their legs.” After significant social media condemnation, Brug further asserted that if a woman “shows her body on stage she has to deal with being described like that.” This practice of empowered male critics focusing on the performing female body and sexuality, rather than producing assessments of women’s musical contributions, has persisted for centuries. The Ugly Virtuosa fuses scholarly research and writing with public performance art to explore derogatory descriptive language at the critical historical moment when early modern women began appearing on the public stage as professional musicians in Italy, England, and France. While many were praised for their beauty and chastity, my project evaluates the lived experiences of and pejorative discourses surrounding early modern female performers deemed “ugly” due to their 1) physical features, 2) gender non-conformity, 3) perceived sexual immorality, and/or 4) ethnicity.
The Ugly Virtuosa draws on a wealth of primary sources as well as contemporary scholarship on disability studies, critical race theory, and performance studies.
Chapter 1: The Early Modern Women Who Took the Stage
Women appeared on the public stage as professional musicians during the early modern period in a variety of contexts. Music-making outside of a domestic context was often fraught with controversy, with some spectators fetishizing women musicians and others condemning their immorality. This chapter provides the historical context for women's appearance as professional musicians in England, Italy, and France.
Chapter 2: Cultural Inscriptions of Ugliness
Regardless of whether spectators thought women musicians were morally bereft or celestial sirens, their physical appearances and behaviors were considered to be significantly important to spectators. While many were thought to be incredibly beautiful, women who were not conventionally beautiful in appearance and/or behavior were vehemently slandered. This chapter evaluates the cultural construct of ugliness in the early modern period in relation to gender, chastity, physical appearance, and physical ability.
Chapter 3: Notorious Prostituted Strumpets on the Restoration Stage
Nell Gwyn and Moll Davis were some of the first women to legally perform on the London public theater stage in the 1660s. Both women performed a mad song, which purportedly elevated them from the working class to King's bedchamber. Their social ascent automatically rendered them notorious prostituted strumpets in the eyes of spectators who had previously adored them.
Chapter 4: The Sword-Fighting Diva at the Paris Opéra
Parisian opera connoisseurs were confused by their response to the boundary-breaking Julie d'Aubigny (stage name La Maupin). Prior to becoming an opera star, La Maupin burned down a convent to escape with her girlfriend, won numerous duels, and was frequently in legal trouble. Spectators were captivated by her, but they were also concerned about their attraction a "masculine" woman.
Chapter 5: 'Scarcely one of them without some striking defect'
For centuries, the Venetian Ospedali Grandi provided housing and education for thousands of foundlings, orphans, and ill children. By the mid-seventeenth-century, these institutions were renowned for their extraordinary female music-making. Shielded from sight behind a lattice screen, women played "unfeminine" instruments and sang for Europe's most elite audiences. Many visitors imagined the women to be young, beautiful, angelic virgins. On a rare chance meeting in 1743, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was horrified to discover that most of the women were not young or beautiful, and many had physical disabilities.
Chapter 6: The Italian 'Pigs and Elephants' in Handel's London Operas
The Italian sopranos Margherita Durastanti, Anna Maria Strada, and Francesca Cuzzoni were brought to London to star in Handel’s operas after establishing successful performance careers in the Italian regions. While both English and Italian women were catapulted to extraordinary fame as leads in these operas, there are substantial discrepancies concerning the type of language that was used to describe the women’s physical appearances. Although the aforementioned Italian sopranos were generally highly revered for their musical prowess, they were also mocked with dehumanizing rhetoric comparing them to animals and attacking their physical features.
Chapter 7: Performing Ugliness Incorrectly
Naomi Baker's groundbreaking The Beauty Myth argues that the beauty myth is a series of behaviors contemporary women engage in to conform to patriarchal standards. I argue that ugliness was also a quality that early modern women were expected to "perform" in specific ways.
Recording Project: Elizabeth Turner's 1756 Six Harpsichord Lessons
Little is known about English composer and singer Elizabeth Turner (1700-1756). Her songs were quite popular in the first half of the eighteenth century, and critics revered her as a first-rate soprano. She was also one of the first known Englishwomen to publish a substantial collection of musical works. More than 400 names appear on the subscription list for her 1750 volume, and 350 for her 1756 collection. Subscribers included musicians such as G.F. Handel, William Boyce, and John Stanley as well as numerous elite patrons. Several of her songs were popular enough to warrant publication in London Magazine and The Lady’s Magazine, the latter of which dubbed her “the ingenious Miss Eliza Turner.”
Turner seems to have been more well-known during her career as a performer than as a composer. In addition to collaborating frequently with Boyce in numerous settings, she was also known for her performances of arias from oratorios by Handel, Thomas Arne, and Boyce. Charles Burney reported that Turner was a favorite performer at the Swan, and she also performed at the Castle Tavern, Hickford’s Room, and the Great Room in Dean Street.
The London Evening Post reported her death in 1756, noting “Yesterday died at Islington Miss Elizabeth Turner, whose extraordinary Genius and Abilities in Musick, make her justly lamented by all Lovers of Harmony.”