Different Spheres? Thinking about Women and Song

While taking a few days leave, I finally finished a great book about 18th century women composers of songs, by Leslie Ritchie.

There’s loads of fascinating information there, most particularly about the literary side of song-writing.  I think it’s fair to say that the author’s strength is on the literary, “song-writing”, rather than the musical composition of songs.  My interest in literary matters has been lifelong, but my own academic background is from a musicology discipline rather than literature, so I devoured the book enthusiastically, but didn’t gain as much from the music point of view.  I didn’t always agree with the interpretation of the analysis (though the harmonic analysis itself wasn’t faulty) – and I’m off to inspect a copy of Ann [Anne] Young’s Elements of Music this afternoon because I don’t think the “songs” about or by women were actually songs at all. They look like dance tunes to me.  And I rather suspect that when the former owner of the British Library’s later edition marked one item as “a woman” and another as “a man”, she might just have been noting someone connected with the dance,  or someone she heard play it, rather than whoever wrote it.  Either way, dedicating a dance-tune to a woman or calling it “Lady Whatsit’s Favourite”, has no real significance. You named tunes after people to pay them a compliment.

But enough of my nitpicking. The other interesting idea appeared early on in Ritchie’s book, and that was an attempt to unpack the idea of “separate spheres of influence”.  To understand that, I had to read the introduction and first article in another book, No more separate spheres! : a next wave American studies reader, edited by Davidson and Hatcher (2002).  There I learned that the idea arose in 19th century America, thanks to a writer named Alexis deTocqueville (Democracy in America, 1840).

Suffice to say here that we would be wrong to declare that all women moved in the domestic sphere, and all men in the public, commercial sphere, for two or even three reasons: firstly, there is a continuum. It’s not one or the other. Secondly, if we continue to think along these lines, we’re continuing a concept that is now very outdated. And thirdly, although we say “all women”, in this context there’s the tendency to mean fairly well-educated white, middle-class women … but their “sphere” or area of influence was very different from women of other classes and ethnicities.

Having said all that, I’m left with one observation.  Who used the songs in the University of St Andrews’ early music legal deposit collection? Notwithstanding all these very valuable and thought-provoking observations, I put it to you thus: even if they just sang the songs, they were people who could read, and whoever played the piano/harp part could also read music.  They borrowed the music by the kind offices of the university professors.  White, middle-class, educated women borrowing music?  In Georgian times, in St Andrews? In all probability, yes.

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