Institute for Studies In American Music
Inside This Issue:
Intersection of Gender and Modernism in the Music
of Johanna Beyer
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
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
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
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
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-
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.
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
<www.frogpeak.org> has been actively publishing scores of
6 Polansky, “Total Eclipse,” 720.
7 Composers’ Forum Transcripts,
8 Composers’ Forum Transcripts,
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 (
12 Herbert A. Leibowitz, “Introduction,” Musical Impressions: Selections from Paul Rosenfeld’s Criticism (Hill and Wang, 1969), xix–xx.
14 Judith Tick, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music (Oxford University Press, 1997), 167.