Diverging Currents: Women Composers, Musical Institutions, and The Criticism of the "Old Guard" in Fin de Siecle Boston

Date of Completion

January 2011


Music|Women's Studies




The unprecedented emergence of American women as professional composers of art music in the late nineteenth century required a radical reassessment of aesthetic standards by music critics of the day, the vast majority of whom were male. Criticism soon became saturated with problematic notions of gender and creativity, resulting in the development of sexual aesthetics, or a system of gendered criteria for the critical evaluation of women's music. Because written reception connoted a signifying network imbued with power and authority, the marginalization accorded women in critical rhetoric served to encourage their lesser status, historical positioning, and subsequent exclusion from the musical canon. ^ This study examines the complexity of critical response to music by American women composers in Boston in the years surrounding 1900 and explores the agency of music critics who helped shape public perception of women's works, establishing the criteria by which their music was judged. The era proved defining for both: while American women attained nascent recognition as composers, critics enjoyed a virtual celebrity status never again conferred. The nexus of their trajectories converged in ways that had differing implications not only for each other, but for the future of American art music as well. On a larger level, issues surrounding the reception accorded women composers reveal the degree to which their emergence had a cultural significance that extended beyond art, reflecting change with American society at large. ^