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Three Things My Research Taught Me, Part 2

Thing Number Two: The way music history is taught does a disservice to music and all who make and listen to it.

By separating composers from instrumentalists and singers, the composer from society, and musicians from dancers, by valuing public over private performance and published music over manuscript and oral sources, our educational institutions create an artificial idea of music that keeps people from fully appreciating it. An additional effect of this artificial division is that it focuses on spheres of music-making in which men were more active, thus hiding women composers and their works from view.

With regard to operas composed by women, a common question I encountered was, “Is their music any good?” That is the wrong question. It is, in fact, irrelevant. It presupposes that one knows all of the music ever published or performed everywhere in the world for all of time. It also presupposes that we only know about the “good” music or “great composers” from the past (or present). But look around, or rather listen around. There’s plenty of music being made right now by both men and women—good and bad, memorable and forgettable—and it’s been that way since the beginning of time.

In general, much more music exists in manuscript than was ever printed because printing music was difficult and expensive until very recently. Therefore, a further complication in building awareness of works by women is simply getting it into a useable form. Of course, one first has to find it—you might find that only one copy exists tucked away in a library in a city far, far, away. Then, in order to begin to produce an opera, the score needs to be turned into parts for the orchestra and a piano-vocal score for the singers, if it’s not a piano-vocal score already. If the piece is pre-19th-century, the vocal parts will additionally need to be transcribed into a notation that present-day singers can read. I remember when I was getting my opera company, The Maria Antonia Project, off the ground and discovered that the sopranos with whom I was collaborating had no idea how to read/sing music written in soprano clef. This was a skill I had honed years before at my undergraduate alma mater, Queens College (Go Aaron Copland School of Music!).

And then for audiences, operas by women are difficult to come by because they are rarely recorded (in audio or video form). Just do a search for Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata in your local library catalog and then search for Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina and you’ll see what I mean. I searched the Free Library of Philadelphia’s catalog and found 37 musical scores, 35 CDs and 11 DVD’s for Verdi’s work, and 2 musical scores, 1 CD and 0 DVDs for Francesca Caccini’s (and Caccini is arguably the most famous female opera composer).

Ultimately, what we know or can know about music and about life depends upon our attention span. What are we paying attention to? Our thinking—our mind—limits us because we’ve been taught to accept limitations. We need to move beyond limitations because creativi-Tea is limitless.

Thing Number Three next week.

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