A Celebration of Women Writers

"Woman in Music." by Mrs. Gaston Boyd.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 570-573.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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It is interesting in tracing the development of woman along the line of music and the change of sentiment with regard to her capabilities, to consider for a few moments some of the thoughts contained in a work written upon this subject in the year 1880. This writer says: "The subject naturally divides into two heads; first, the influence of women in encouraging the great composers to labor and inspiring them in the production of their finest works; second, the relation of woman to the performance of vocal and instrumental music." The writer states that the latter branch does not require special attention, hardly more than eulogistic reference in the face of well-known queens of song. But of the former branch he says: "More than one immortal work of music may be traced to the steadfast love and thoughtful care of woman in the quiet duties of home life." This is emphatically true in the same sense as in a certain response once given by Mrs. Ormiston Chant. After one of her characteristic addresses upon the rightfulness of opening to woman every avenue of employment or advancement she cared to enter, a man of surly aspect and illiterate speech arose and made objection to the arguments and statements made by Mrs. Chant. He said woman was not so intelligent and capable as man; if she were, why had she never produced a Shakespeare? To which Mrs. Chant responded: "She has; if she didn't, who did?" It is in this sense only that the writer to whom reference is made seems to think it possible that woman can bear any relation to music as a composer. He says: "The attachments of love, the bonds of friendship, the endearments of home, have played an important part in shaping the careers of the great composers and in giving color, form and direction to their music." No one would question the truth of this, but the application falls far short when it attaches the bonds and endearments only to the woman and the noble career to the man.

In reading his work, were it not for the introduction of technical terms, one might easily conceive he was reading the old and half-forgotten theories why woman could never succeed as a doctor, as a lawyer, as a banker, as a voter, or in any of the many avenues of life where woman has demonstrated her ability to succeed.

Listen to his reasons why woman can never succeed as a composer: "She lives in emotion and acts from emotion. When the emotions lose their force with age, her [Page 571]  musical powers weaken. Man controls his emotions and can give an outward expression of them. In woman they are the dominating element. There is another phase of the feminine character which may bear upon the solution of this problem, and that is the inability of woman to endure the discouragements of the composer and to battle with the prejudice and indifference, and sometimes with the malicious opposition of the world that obstructs his progress. If her triumph could be instant; if work after work were not to be assailed, scoffed at and rejected; if she were not liable to personal abuse, to the indifference of her own sex on the one hand and masculine injustice on the other, there would be more hope of her success in composition."

One quality heretofore accorded to the feminine nature is that of endurance. If we go back to the history of the early Christian Church we surely find no indication of the want of endurance on the part of woman. One has but to look out over the world to-day to realize that it is the woman rather than the man who is distinguished in the exercise of this qualification. Indeed, the progressive spirit of woman often meets with the rebuff that it is man's province to achieve, woman's to endure.

If we wish an instance of one who through scoffs, discouragements, indifference of her own sex on the one hand and masculine injustice on the other, where can we find a more shining example of the steadfast and courageous pursuit of the object to be attained than in the life and labors of Susan B. Anthony? It can hardly be said of her that she lives in emotion and acts from emotion.

At what age the emotions are supposed to lose their force is not stated; but he is a manly man, indeed, who, of the years of Miss Anthony, evinces as great interest and activity in the vital questions of the day; in the future of the young people of our land; in the present good of the humblest of her sisters. It may be urged that Miss Anthony is an exception. So are the great composers exceptions who are said to require, pre-eminently, these elements of character. But in so far as these characteristics are necessary to the ability of musical composition in its highest form, woman is more richly endowed than her brother, man.

Still another reason why woman can never succeed as a composer is that woman reaches results mainly by intuition. "Her susceptibility to impressions and her finely tempered organization enable her to feel and perceive where man has to reach results by the slow process of reason." You who have heard Rev. Anna Shaw illustrate in her inimitable way the difference of reaching a result by reason or by intuition will enjoy this illusion.

Acknowledging the list of female composers found in the appendix of his work, this writer asserts: "But of all the works written by these numerous composers, hardly one is known to the lyric stage today," and that the indisputable reason therefor is, that having had equal advantages with men, they have failed as composers. Inasmuch as this is found in a revised edition of the work published last year, the entire statement is open to question. The defense of our sisters may safely be left to their own achievements. An argument against their ability is as interesting reading at this date as was the elaborate proof published years ago that an ocean steamship was an impossibility; which publication was brought from England to these shores in the impossible steamship.

No; it is to the assertion relative to the equal conditions that your attention is called. It is that, having had equal advantages with men, they have failed. Let us find, if we can by our female intuition, the masculine reasoning through which he establishes such a conclusion. He says: "It is a curious fact that nearly all the great music of the world has been produced in humble life and has been developed amid the environments of poverty and in the stern struggle for existence." "The enduring music has been the child of poverty, the outcome of sorrow, the apotheosis of suffering." "In this sphere of life, where music seems to have had its origin, the lot of woman is bounded by homely but unremitting cares. Her existence is mainly devoted to the same tedious routine of labor from the rising to the setting sun" (he might well have added several more hours; the birth and rearing of children, sickness, [Page 572]  nursing, care of family often make her hours of labor from sun to sun again), "which has few intervals of relaxation, certainly no leisure for musical effort. Its demands are so exacting that she has neither time nor disposition for theoretical application which musical composition requires." In this birthplace of the higher forms of musical composition the writer affirms that woman is so hampered by labor and excessive family care, that no time and no spirit is possible for effort were she ever so capable in this direction. It is she who must prepare the scant food; who must clothe the children with a scanty provision of cloth; who not only shares the food she needs for her subsistence, but gives from her own veins the nourishment for his child. Our female intuition would lead us to the conclusion that this masculine reasoning is quite adverse to the stated prevision. He acknowledges that Sebastian Bach was the son of a hireling musician; Beethoven's father a dissipated singer; that Cherubini came from the lowest and poorest ranks of life; that Gluck was a forrester's son; Haydn's father, a wheelright; Händel, the son of a barber; Rossini's father, a miserable, strolling horn-player, who led a wild, Bohemian life; Schubert was the son of a poor schoolmaster; Schumann, a bookseller's son; Verdi, the son of a peasant; Wagner's father, a petty municipal officer of little account as a man.

Now, these dissipated singers, these barbers, bakers and basket makers; these hireling musicians, by a process of reasoning known only to the masculine mind, have transmitted to their sons the stanch faithfulness to a high purpose in life, the unswerving patience to endure poverty, discouragement, scoffs and bitter disappointments necessary to the composer.

Female intuition sees with lightning glance the life of the wife tied to these loose-principled, dissipated, shiftless fathers of our great composers. It sees the crushed hopes, the privations, the toil, the endurance; the birth of the holy mother-love while yet the child be not in her arms; the heavenly love awakening in her soul as the infant lies upon her bosom. All the poetry, all the passion, all the suffering of her poor heart given day by day to the child she has borne; perchance, the greatest happiness she has known, the pitiful pride of her heart in the notes of the strolling singer or the dissipated horn-blower, the father. If the lives and hearts of the mothers of our great composers were laid bare it might not be difficult to trace the primary source of their genius and poetic temperament.

In reading the lives of our great composers, one is struck with the determination with which the boys were urged or compelled to earnest study, to incessant practice, to the development in every possible way of the talent evinced; but we do not read of the same parental anxiety and effort for the girls of the family. Nor can one believe that with the same pre-natal conditions, with similar environment, the musical genius was always wanting in the daughter. But custom, tradition, public sentiment, all required the subservience of the girl to a simple domestic life, and the discouragement of any efforts toward a place for herself in the world. As these old traditions lose their power, as custom recedes before the onward march of achievement, as public sentiment is revolutionized by the more numerous womanly woman who discovers she has brain as well as bread-making ability, it may be thought worth while by parents to make equal sacrifice and bestow as great effort to keep her well on the road toward the highest point of possible development. Until this is done woman will not have had equal advantages with man, nor can her ability as a composer of music be judged from the same standpoint.

It is not necessary in this paper to give a list of the women who have achieved success as composers of music, nor to relate what works have been written by them. It is of more importance to direct our thoughts toward the future and discern what may be done toward the highest development of the creative power.

It has been said that woman would possibly have flooded the world with harmony, as she has with song, if music were only an object of the perceptions or a matter of instinct; if it simply addressed itself to the senses; if it were but an art composed of ravishing melody; of passionate outbursts; of the attributes of joy, grief, exaltation [Page 573]  and vague, dreamy sensations without any determinate ideas; but music is all this and more, for these are only effects. It is a science which, in its highest form, is "mercilessly logical and unrelentingly mathematical." One must toil unceasingly and patiently continue the most rigid application to achieve freedom in the correct expression of poetical thought. Theoretical enigmas, mathematical problems, must be mastered, and the same intellectual activities must be brought to bear as in the acquisition of any other exact science. The unbeliever in woman's ability says: "For these and many other reasons growing out of the peculiar organization of woman, the sphere in which she moves, the training she receives and the duties she has to fulfill, it does not seem that woman will ever originate music in its fullest and grandest harmonic forms." But we who believe in her, say, if her sphere revolves in the atmosphere of fashion, dress, display, society; if her musical training be to fit her for social distinction or professional notoriety; if her duties be such as will limit her freedom or opportunities for the highest development of her powers, then we may look in vain for the materialization of her innate capabilities. That the physical force, the mind, the soul, necessary for this consummation is given to woman, as well as to man, we can not doubt. When mothers come to regard a musical education for their daughters as something more serious than a drawing-room accomplishment, something higher than a stage attraction, then we may look for that environment, that attachment of love, that bond of friendship, the endearments of home which will play an important part in shaping the career of woman in Music.

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Mrs. Gaston Boyd was born in London, England. Her father was a descendant of William the Conqueror and her mother of the House of Rutland. She was educated while young by eminent private teachers. Upon the death of her parents she came to America, was graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music, from Mt. Carroll Seminary, and afterward studied with Madam Hall, Lyman Wheeler and Charles R. Adams. In London her studies were continued with Madam Abbott and with Randigger. She has traveled extensively in this country and abroad. She married Gaston Boyd, M. D., of Newton, Kan., in 1887, resigning her position as head of the Department of Music in Bethany College, Topeka, Kan., upon that event. She was appointed member of the World's Advising Council of Music, and president of the Kansas World's Fair Music Board. She is a professor of music, director of music in the public schools, director of the Newton Musical Union and director of St. Mathews Church choir. Mrs. Boyd is a member of the Episcopal Church. Her postoffice address is Newton, Kan.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom