Making space for female composers

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Making space for female composers

A Report from the Field by Graduate Dissertation Fellow, Kiri Heel

by Kiri Heel on Sunday, September 5, 2010 - 11:34pm

 Kiri HeelWomen were left out of the narratives of musicology for decades. Since the 1970s, though, feminist scholarship has included musical women. As we uncover “missing” women, we can question the patterns in musicology that have left these figures out if its narratives.

My dissertation research focuses on French composer Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983). Her career has been considered less successful than those of her male colleagues. While she undoubtedly faced many challenges as a woman in a male-dominated profession, Tailleferre had many successes, which I argue have been unjustly ignored by a primarily male-dominated narrative.

In 1923, for example, Tailleferre and artist Hélène Perdriat (1894-1969) collaborated on a ballet titled Le Marchand d’oiseaux (The Bird Merchant). The Ballets Suédois (Swedish Ballet Company) premiered the work on 25 May 1923. The ballet mixes traditional and modern: Tailleferre’s music is inspired as much by Bach as by Stravinsky, and Perdriat’s costumes feature both full-coverage corseted dresses and revealing burlesque fashions.

Le Marchand d’oiseaux has been almost forgotten since the 1920s. It has not been revived for performance, nor has it been given significant scholarly attention. Instead, musicologists and dance scholars have focused on ballets from the 1920s that are considered innovative and modern. Tailleferre’s close friends and colleagues, especially composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), have featured prominently in histories of ballet and music of the 1920s. Milhaud’s L’Homme et son désir (Man and His Desire, 1921) and La Création du monde (The Creation of the World, 1923) are seen as pushing the boundaries of music, dance, and theater.

But my research into Tailleferre and Perdriat’s ballet shows that this focus on innovation does not accurately reflect the popularity of the works. L’Homme et son désir was performed fifty-six times by the Ballets Suédois before it disbanded in 1925, and La Création du monde, just twelve times. Le Marchand d’oiseaux, however, was performed ninety-five times by the company. Furthermore, La Création du monde was performed only in Paris, while Le Marchand d’oiseaux was performed on three continents and in more than forty cities. Le Marchand d’oiseaux even replaced L’Homme et son désir on the Ballets Suédois’ 1923-1924 US tour when American audiences rejected the modernism of Milhaud’s ballet.

My research illuminates the gendered modernist hierarchy that privileges innovation over popularity. I call for an end to disciplinary and aesthetic institutions that exclude musical women. Instead, I join other feminist scholars who have begun to establish popular modernism as an aesthetic category that creates a space for much of the art created by women in the twentieth century, including Tailleferre.

In addition to paying Le Marchand d’oiseaux the scholarly attention it deserves, let’s hope that the ballet returns to the stage soon, so that the colorful costumes, beautiful scenery, and lively music can enchant audiences once again.

Kiri Heel was a 2009-10 Graduate Dissertation Fellow of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.