Institute for Studies In American Music
Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York



No. 2      Spring 2004

Inside This Issue:

Documenting Calypso by Stephen Stuemple

Brooklyn’s Jazz Renaissance by Robin D.G. Kelley

Bolly’hood Re-mix by Kevin Miller

Johanna Beyer by Melissa J. de Graaf

Exploring Roots Music: Review by Charles K. Wolfe

Cage and Carter DVDs: Review by Anton Vishio

ISAM Matters




Intersection of Gender and Modernism in the Music of Johanna Beyer
By Melissa J. deGraaf

The New York Composers’ Forum, founded in 1935 under the auspices of the Federal Music Project, was a series of new music concerts showcasing a vast array of composers, among them Aaron Copland, Amy Beach, Virgil Thomson, and Ruth Crawford.  The Forum allows us a glimpse of the inner workings of American modernism, by virtue of fully transcribed discussion periods between composers and audiences after the weekly concerts.  This treasure trove of archival documents, located at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, is especially important for female composers of the 1930s, who have, for the most part, been overlooked.  For Johanna Beyer, German American ultra-modernist, the Forum sessions not only allowed her to test her music in front of live audiences, they also provided her with an opportunity to construct her artistic and gender identities.  The discussions show how Beyer engaged in modernist practice, carefully negotiating with colleagues and audience.  Beyer’s transcripts also give us a rare glimpse of audience reception of modernism, enriching our understanding of this period of music history.

Beyer operated within a modernist musical world dominated by men and ruled by  masculinist ideology. Charles Ives was perhaps the most notorious, believing, “Music has always been an emasculated art—at least too much—say 88 2/3%.”2  Critic Paul Rosenfeld commented that Edward MacDowell, a somewhat traditional composer, “minces and simpers, maidenly and ruffled.  He is nothing if not a daughter of the American Revolution.”3

Far from being isolated examples, these comments reflect a large-scale masculinist ideology of modernism and creativity.  Masculinity had long been viewed as the ultimate and only creative force.  Men were defined as creators, while women were procreators, limited to imitating or inspiring.  Women who did aspire to artistic creation were perceived as masculine, lesbian, or pseudo-males.  With the rise of modernism came a preoccupation with virility; hypermasculinity and male sexuality became equated with modernist creative force.  Many modernists perceived a feminization of music and culture, which they believed needed to be attacked and eradicated.4

In order to fit into this complicated web of modernism, misogyny, and gender, Beyer struggled with two intersecting, often contradictory identities, negotiating a place for herself within her musical circle as a woman and a modernist.  She defined her modernist identity by choices in teachers, associates, and musical style.  Around 1928 she began studying with Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford, and Dane Rudhyar and in 1934 took Henry Cowell’s percussion class at the New School for Social Research. Her musical life during these years was intertwined with Seeger, Crawford, Cowell, John Cage, and others in this modernist circle such as Jessie Baetz, a now-forgotten composer and painter who studied with Beyer.  Beyer dedicated pieces to Cage, Cowell, and Ethel Luening, soprano and wife of composer Otto Luening, who performed Beyer’s works.  Cage promoted Beyer’s music as part of his Northwest tour of percussion music in the late 1930s, performing two of her Three Movements for Percussion (1939 K5), which she dedicated to him.  Her closest relationship was with Cowell, on whose behalf  she worked tirelessly during his San Quentin years, corresponding with publishers, conductors, and other composers in an attempt to get his music and writings published.

Beyer’s early works (1930–1936), show an affinity to the dissonant counterpoint style of Seeger, Crawford, and Cowell.5  Several works in particular appear to have been influenced by Crawford’s String Quartet 1931 and Piano Study in Mixed Accents.  These include the retrograde first movement of Beyer’s Suite for Clarinet 1 (1932 K7) and the second movement of her String Quartet
No. 2 (July 1936 K21).  The latter is reminiscent of the third movement of Crawford’s Quartet, with a continual crescendo/decrescendo texture emphasizing timbre over melody, harmony, and rhythm, with a kind of “explosion” similar to Crawford’s.  Her music tends to be more playful than Crawford’s.  Many of her works reveal a quirkiness, romance, and lyricism she usually kept hidden from colleagues.  Her later works, while highly individualized, show a continued commitment to experimental ideas.  Her music, as well as her choices in
colleagues, clearly were ways in which Beyer constructed her
modernist identity.

Potentially in conflict with her identity as a modernist was her identity as a woman.  While her sex put her at an obvious disadvantage as a modernist, her gender, as distinct from her sex, was something she could construct, manipulate, and perform. She negotiated a place for her gendered self through her appearance, language, and behavior.  In the photograph used for the Forum program, she presents a stark, severe, what some might call unfeminine physical appearance.  She does not look demurely down, as other women in the Forum do in their pictures.  Instead, her strong gaze accentuates the sharp lines of her neck and shoulders and the severity of her pulled back hair.  Those who knew her, including Cage, Sidney Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Otto Luening, describe her as having been “tall, angular, awkward, and self-conscious.”6  The language of her responses in the Forum was efficient, cutting, quick, and lacking emotion—characteristics often associated with the rational and masculine.

While these qualities may have helped her to be taken seriously by her modernist male counterparts, she did not rely on a purely masculinized musical identity when interacting with lay audiences.  She carefully navigated a path between the genders through which she identified musically as masculine, but retained certain traditionally feminine characteristics and behaviors, such as her responses to attacks.  After one particularly rude comment, she simply bowed graciously.  She never lost her temper or displayed impatience with the audience the way many men did, always maintaining a feminine decorum and politeness.

Anti-modernist reactions involving gender, while overlooked in the scholarship, are wonderfully rendered in the Composers’ Forum transcripts.  Discussions at Beyer’s concerts reveal three basic types of comments from the audience: anti-modernist comments, anti-female modernist comments, and heart versus brain comments.  While many modernists in the Forum were criticized for their unpleasant, dissonant style of composing, none was attacked as harshly as Beyer.  At her first concert in May of 1936, her music was described as chaotic and weird, containing “pathological sounds and noises.”  At her second Forum concert in 1937, her use of elbows and fists was considered “very unusual, but not appreciated here.” 

Of course, male modernists were not exempt from such criticism, either.  The audience at Norman Cazden’s Forum found his String Quartet “painful to listen to” and “a waste of time.”7 But none of the men in the Forum had to face attacks based on their gender.  Underlying gender tensions rose to the surface in this question: “Miss Beyer, you seem to have gone your male preceptors one better in search for strange and ineffective tonal combinations.  Have you consciously adopted Rudyard Kipling’s statement, ‘The female of the species is deadlier than the male’ as a guiding principle in your composition?”

The intersection of gender and modernism can be found most frequently in conversations concerning heart versus brain music.  Audiences were fascinated by this idea, and frequently criticized modernist composers for their tendency toward intellectualism.  One listener commented on Edwin Gerschefski’s “clouds of meaningless dissonances,” asking, “are your developments inspired by arithmetical plans or a beauty of spirit?”8 At Beyer’s 1937 concert, her apparent lack of feeling and emotion disturbed the audience’s assumptions about gender.  One listener wondered whether Beyer’s works were “mere brain children” or whether they “emanate[d] from the heart.”9  Another audience member questioned whether Beyer had ever been in love, implying that such emotion was impossible for a woman who wrote such unfeeling music.

The heart versus brain concept dominated musical discourse outside the Forum as well. The language in music appreciation textbooks of the 1920s and 1930s is striking in its frequent opposition of heart and brain, depicting modernist music as pure intellect.  New York Times critic Olin Downes, a regular attendee at Composers’ Forum concerts, frequently wrestled with this dichotomy, employing overtly gendered language.  For instance, he associated Schoenberg’s music with declining virility, refering to the composer’s attempts to “make his music potent and articulate while every day its ‘complexes’ multiply and its potency declines.”10 
For anti-modernists like Downes, this music was somehow
emasculating.  As music critic Francis Toye stated, modernists were “mandarins who would emasculate the art for service in their own intellectual harems.”

While anti-modernists believed modernist composers had become emasculated, pro-modernists such as Rosenfeld and Adorno felt that modernism was the very masculine force needed to combat feminized musical culture.  Rosenfeld harshly denounced American musical culture and its “spiritual destitution,” which artists could evade “only at the exorbitant price of self-emasculation and incompleteness.”12 Both pro- and anti-modernists used emasculation, with its obvious anti-female implications, as a tool for criticism and attack.

Beyer’s most interesting responses refer to these heart vs. brain comments.  While many listeners dichotomized feminine and masculine qualities, Beyer identified as both modernist and woman, seeking a balance between feminine and masculine, heart and brain.  Charles Seeger asserted that Crawford had the greatest potential for expressing this perfect balance, an “ideal fusion of intuition and logic that would help usher in the new ‘style’ of balanced composition.”13  Beyer and Crawford shared this “ideal fusion.”  In the program notes for the Excerpts from Piano Suites, Beyer dedicates the first piece, "Dissonant Coun-
terpoint" to Crawford and describes the work as “two-part dissonant counterpoint; the first voice feminine, arabesque-like; the second voice strong, masculine.”  This piece is most likely the first of the group of short works entitled Dissonant Counterpoint (K28), shown in the example above.  Beyer would have been familiar with Crawford’s Diaphonic Suite for Oboe and Cello, in which the oboe represented the female voice (Ruth) and the cello the male voice (Charles), according to a radiogram Ruth sent Charles from Berlin.



Although modernism emerged in some ways as a reaction against feminism, it simultaneously became a vehicle for feminist thought.  Beyer resisted the comments leveled against her, arguing for her right to compose in such a style without abandoning feelings and emotions.  In response to the question of whether she had ever been in love, she declared that she had “never been out of it,” and she insisted more than once that her works “[were] from both the heart and the brain.”  That she sought to embrace dual aspects of her musical self is evident in her music, in which the independent feminine and masculine lines together achieve the balance that Beyer sought in her own complicated identity.


Brandeis University


1 This project is supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation for Education Research. The documents of the Composers’ Forum are the foundation for my dissertation The New York Composers’ Forum, 1935–1940 (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, in progress)  which includes a narrative history as well as discussions of modernism, gender, race, ethnicity/orientalism, and vernacular musics, as expressed and reflected in the Forum.

2 Quoted in Judith Tick, “Charles Ives and Gender Ideology,” Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship (University of California Press, 1993), 85.

3 ibid., 95.

4 Christine Battersby explores masculinity as a creative force in Gender and Genius (Indiana University Press, 1989).  For a discussion of the feminization of mass culture, see Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Indiana University Press, 1986).

5 Larry Polansky and John Kennedy, “‘Total Eclipse’: The Music of Johanna Magdalena Beyer: An Introduction and Preliminary Annotated Checklist,” The Musical Quarterly 80/4 (1996): 719–798.  In this groundbreaking article, Beyer’s music is indexed primarily by Kennedy (K) numbers.  Thanks in part to Polansky’s pioneering work on Beyer, Frog Peak Press <> has been actively publishing scores of
Beyer’s music.

6 Polansky, “Total Eclipse,” 720.

7 Composers’ Forum Transcripts, 20 April 1938.

8 Composers’ Forum Transcripts, 29 April 1936.

9 Composers’ Forum Transcripts, 19 May 1937.

10 Olin Downes, Olin Downes on Music: A Selection from His Writings during the Half-Century 1906 to 1955, ed. Irene Downes (Simon and Schuster, 1957), 165.

11 Francis Toye, The Well-Tempered Musician: A Musical Point of View (Methuen, 1925), 48–49.

12 Herbert A. Leibowitz, “Introduction,” Musical Impressions: Selections from Paul Rosenfeld’s Criticism (Hill and Wang, 1969), xix–xx.

13 Taylor Aitken Greer, A Question of Balance: Charles Seeger’s Philosophy of Music (University of California Press, 1998), 119.

14 Judith Tick, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music (Oxford University Press, 1997), 167.