The Return of Red Vespa

Between 2017 and 2019, my pianist, Natalie Landowski, and I gave over a dozen performances of women’s musical readings. These brief, comic pieces are scored for spoken word and piano, and I explored them in my book, The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word. Performing my discoveries started out as an experiment, but has turned into an adventure. When we realized that our performances would be ongoing, Natalie and I adopted the name “Red Vespa” for our duo. Not only have we appeared in Iowa, we’ve performed in Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, Washington, DC, and at Ohio State University.

Then the pandemic hit and all performances came to a halt. We had planned to make a video with the help of funding from the Society for American Music and the University of Iowa but that too, was put on hold, due to our inability to safely invite a live audience. But next Sunday night Red Vespa returns with a full recital, performing works by Frieda Peycke, Phyllis Fergus, and other women composers. We’re also giving the world premiere of a new piece that I commissioned from Portland composer Lisa Neher, Upon a Broken World. Unlike the humorous works on the program, Neher’s piece is a setting of three serious poems: Amy Lowell’s  September, 1918,  Good Bones by Maggie Smith, and Small Kindnesses by Danusha Laméris.  I selected these texts because they spoke to me about the struggles of living through the last few years. The title of the piece comes from Lowell’s poem, which captures the difficulty of experiencing life in the midst of World War I: “For I have time for nothing / But the endeavour to balance myself / Upon a broken world.”

You can read more about my experience of becoming someone who recites poetry and why I decided that the genre of the musical reading needed new compositions at the Women’s Song Forum. You can see Red Vespa’s concert streamed live from the University of Iowa’s School of Music, on Sunday, October 24, at 7:30 pm, central time.

Women’s Song Forum

The Women’s Song Forum was founded last fall by musicologist Christopher Reynolds of the University of California Davis. It is made up of a terrific team of scholars writing about all genres and styles of songs composed and performed by women, and I’m excited to be a part of it. My contributions so far have been about Grace Porterfield Polk, who tried to found an American Song Festival in Greenwood, Indiana, in the 1920s, and Mary Turner Salter’s 1905 song about loss, “The Cry of Rachel,” popularized by opera singer, Ernestine Schumann-Heink. There are some wonderful essays and video blogs on the site and recordings of little known music, so check it out!

On Tuesday, April 13, at 1 pm EST, you can see a video I made with two members of the forum, Steve Rodgers from the University of Oregon, and the founder, Chris Reynolds, talking about American women’s songs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The fascinating discussion we had was hosted on Song and Beyond, the Idagio streaming channel of Thomas Hampson, who promotes song through his Hampsong Foundation.

Beside the Wabash: Death, Song, and the Pandemic

As children, my parents and their siblings lived through the Great Depression. Perhaps that accounts for their attitude that most problems could be solved through practical application and that one shouldn’t wallow in despair. With the exception of a few Broadway musical LPs, sentimental songs didn’t figure heavily in their adult listening habits. At family gatherings when my mother and aunts would giddily belt out childhood favorites, they were usually humorous. My generation delighted in their rendition of “Little Willie,” a nonsensical song about a dying child.

We knew that he was dying by the color of his breath,
The flowers they lay drooping in the mud.
The doctors all agreed that to save our Willie’s life
We must stop the circulation of the blood.

So we gently dipped his head in a pot of boiling lead,
And then we laid our darling down to rest,
But the burglars came at night, and they came without a light,
And they stole the mustard plaster off his chest.

[Spoken:] Little Willie was doing very well until…

On the 33rd of May Little Willie passed away,
In spite of that we could do to save.
So I’m going to the barbershop to grant his last request
And to plant a bunch of whiskers on his grave.

No more upon the mat will he play with pussy cat,
No more between his teeth he’ll bite her tail.
No more he’ll push her nose on a red hot iron stove,
For our darling little Willie’s kicked the pail.

Years later, it occurred to me that this silliness was satire of the numerous “Little Willie” songs from the nineteenth century. For example, “Willie’s Grave” (1857) depicts mourning at the ill-fated boy’s final resting place, and in “Close the Shutters, Willie’s Dead!” (1872), he has been called home by angels. These might have been songs my great grandparents knew. My grandparents lived through the 1918 pandemic, and perhaps by the time my parents were born in the 1920s, it was better to laugh at death than to weep.

Close the Shutters, Willie’s Dead!

My father would scoff at earlier saccharine mawkishness. For some reason, he took special umbrage at the once wildly popular “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” “Where the heck is the Wabash?” he would scowl, only partly joking. “Who gives a damn about the Wabash!?” The two verses of Paul Dresser’s 1897 song are a reader’s digest of sentimental clichés. In the first verse the singer misses his dead mother and in the second, longs for the dead woman he loved, managing to condense two stereotypical plots into one. The chorus leaves death behind, but is so steeped in nostalgia for rural Indiana that “On the Banks of the Wabash” was made the state song.

At the heart of the nineteenth century’s sentimental aesthetic was the inevitability of death and loss. Parlor songs about death were commonplace—the Lester Levy collection of historical sheet music contains over two thousand entries under the category “death and mourning.” Songs expressing grief were part of a wider culture centered on memorialization and consolation. The bereaved wore black clothing and jewelry that featured the deceased’s name or image, or was woven from their hair. Mourners hung up prints of graveyard scenes with weeping willows drooping over tombstones on which they wrote their loved one’s name. Artists and photographers created treasured deathbed portraits, matted with black frames. Cemeteries located in lush, green, pastoral settings were tourist attractions that inspired guidebooks. All of this seems overly morbid to us now, but in this context (and given the period’s high infant mortality rate), “On the Banks of the Wabash” and songs about Little Willie’s demise do not seem so overwrought.

I have thought of these cultural artifacts and the rituals that surrounded them as Americans die in the hundreds of thousands from the pandemic. It’s a historical truism that the Victorians were obsessed with death and unwilling to discuss sex and today the subjects are reversed. Nonetheless, we now seem to be capable of incredible denial about our own mortality. Denial is most manifest in people who refuse to wear a mask, even though it could save their neighbors and themselves. Modern medicine has made death less of an everyday occurrence—the symbols to remind us of it are certainly less pervasive. The maskless did not grow up with sepulchral portraits of lost siblings on their walls or singing about young women buried near the Wabash. They might be more likely to don protection if everyone they passed in the grocery store aisle who had lost a loved one were dressed head-to-toe in ominous black.

Lithograph tomb, ca. 1850s

In the midst of great tragedy, other than streamed funerals and columns of names in the newspapers, there are few chances for ritualistic mourning over the horrible losses we have faced. Anyone who has grieved knows the sense of disbelief that the rest of the world could continue, oblivious to the pain that can still overwhelm them weeks or months after their initial loss. The pandemic rages, the world moves on, and there is no song or print or jewelry to help us to grieve. Yet a song over a century old still speaks quietly of human desolation: “Without her face it seems so incomplete.” “Still I’d give my future, were she only here.”

Hair Locket, ca. 1860s (Library of Congress)

Perhaps after the pandemic, like my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, we will simply soldier on, laughing at the Wabash and no longer weeping over Willie’s grave. But some of us will remember someone we lost and hear sad songs.

Google does it again: This is not Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Cécile Jeanrenaud Mendelssohn painted by Eduard Magnus

When Felix Mendelssohn fell head over heels in love while in Frankfurt in the summer of 1836, his sisters back in Berlin begged for information about the young woman with whom he was besotted. Cécile Jeanrenaud was nineteen, the daughter of a pastor. Although Cécile and her future husband shared a love of drawing and painting, when Felix’s sister Rebecca asked if she was musical, he answered, “No, not at all.”

Cécile has remained a rather shadowy figure in Mendelssohn biography, despite having been the composer’s life partner and mother of his five children. This is due primarily to her having destroyed her husband’s letters before her own early death from tuberculosis. In the age of social media, Cécile’s assertion of privacy might seem odd. However, it indicates a woman who knew how famous her spouse had been and who did not wish all of his life—or hers—to be laid open to the world.

What survives, more than any sense of the intimacies of the couple’s relationship, is the famous painting of Cécile by Eduard Magnus. Mrs. Mendelssohn is depicted as the ideal upper-class Victorian woman, richly dressed, her wedding ring prominently displayed in the position of her hands. She is utterly lovely. It’s not surprising that this portrait regularly appears in Mendelssohn biographies and even occasionally on the covers of historical fiction.

“Fanny Hensel” t-shirt?

Cécile is now turning up in an unexpected place. On the internet, she is often misrepresented as someone who was decidedly musical: Mendelssohn’s sister, the composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Not only have hapless arts organizations used Cécile’s portrait in their publicity for performances of Hensel’s music, but you can purchase a “Fanny Hensel” t-shirt, emblazoned with her image. The pun of the “Fanny pack” available on Etsy is ruined, since the image on it is again Cécile.*

One cannot help but wonder how this mistake took place. Of course, the algorithms that rule the internet have been wrong before (Google once boldly identified the nineteenth-century Irish composer John Field as the author of the 2016 children’s book, Why Is That Emu Wearing One Red Shoe?). The recognition of Fanny Hensel as an important composer is a relatively recent development. Most of her compositions were not published during her lifetime and have only been rediscovered in the last few decades. Thus it might seem reasonable that it would be hard for anyone to know just what she looked like.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel drawn by Wilhelm Hensel

However, Fanny’s husband was the painter, Wilhelm Hensel, who left many images of his wife. His drawings were widely reproduced from the late nineteenth century onward. Fanny even once quipped that Wilhelm had painted her with vine leaves in her hair so many times that people would think that they grew there. Wilhelm’s portraits of his wife and her family idealize them—the Mendelssohns joked that everyone looked decades younger than they were—yet Fanny does not resemble Cécile. The replacement of Fanny by the image of her sister-in-law reminds us of the perpetual expectation that, no matter what their accomplishments, women are supposed to be acceptable to the male gaze. Faced with an internet’s worth of imagery, we choose beauty over accuracy. Fanny Hensel the composer of over four hundred works becomes Fanny Hensel the beautiful woman.

Fanny Hensel painted by Moritz Oppeheim, Jewish Musesum, New York City

Substituting Cécile’s portrait also provides a less “Jewish looking” Fanny. Many historical images of Fanny’s brother downplayed his Jewish features, and in descriptions of him his contemporaries often felt the need to somehow account for them, as if they were a disability that the composer had overcome. Moritz Oppenheim’s painting of Fanny, held by The Jewish Museum in New York City, reinforces the possibility that viewers of both Mendelssohn siblings would prefer not to be reminded of their Jewish heritage. Another recent Google image purporting to be Fanny is also not Jewish looking. This “Fanny” has light brown hair and is far skinnier than any contemporary image of the composer. Perhaps some other woman from the 1840s may yet usurp Cécile’s growing position as the image of Mendelssohn’s sister. That musicians of the twenty-first century cannot recognize Fanny Hensel suggests how far she and her music still have to go to achieve a place in our musical world.

Google’s algorithms at work, 50% correct

Further Reading: I’ve written about Cécile and her role in Mendelssohn’s biography and about Jewishness in Felix’s portraiture here:

“Mendelssohn’s Wife: Love, Art and Romantic Biography.” Nineteenth Century Studies 6 (1992): 118.

“Never Perfectly Beautiful: Physiognomy, Jewishness, and Mendelssohn Portraiture.” In Mendelssohn Perspectives, 930. Edited by Angela Mace and Nicole Grimes. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012.

On the relationship (and drawings) of Felix and Cécile Mendelssohn see The Mendelssohns on Honeymoon.  Edited and translated by Peter Ward Jones. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. 

*The owner of the Etsy site is now planning to update the image.

Taking Women Seriously: a Podcast with Will Robin

I really enjoyed the conversation I had with Will Robin on his exciting new podcast, Sound Expertise. We talked about the history of spoken word and its forgotten performance practices, women’s roles in American music, and the problems with “rescuing” female composers. You can listen to the full episode here: Check out Will’s rapidly growing list of of fascinating guests talking about all kinds of music. The reviews have been enthusiastic! Here’s my favorite:

Grecian Urns in The Music Man

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Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn and her less-than-graceful entourage of “Grecian urns” are one of the delights of Meredith Willson’s musical, The Music Man. I’ve just discovered the article I wrote several years ago for Iowa Heritage Illustrated about the real Iowa women who tried Delsarte posing is available free online. It’s got great old photographs of real Iowans posing in their white gowns and explains that there were actually no urns involved! Check it out here: “Iowa’s Nymphs, Naiads, and Graces: Performing Delsarte for the Masses.

Miss [Jane?] Austen Plays Pleyel


Jane Austen

Discovering lost pieces of music in dusty archives is what most people think musicologists do. We only make the news if someone finds an unknown manuscript by a famous composer buried in a library. It’s true that the most rewarding part of my job is getting to hold centuries-old letters, scores, and concert programs in my hands and to imagine their earlier lives. But “dusty archives”? No, thanks to the Rita Benton Music Library’s digitization of rare scores, I made my biggest discovery on the internet: a volume of sonatas that may have belonged to the family of the novelist Jane Austen.

This story starts a few years back when George McTyre, a doctoral voice student, took me out for coffee. He had one more music history requirement, and he wanted me to offer an interesting class. By the time I’d finished my cappuccino, I’d agreed to teach “Music in the World of Jane Austen.” Designing the course was not exactly a challenge for me. I confess that I’m a “Janeite”—I’ve read all of Austen’s novels multiple times, have seen the movie adaptations, and own a plastic Austen action figure. I even have the voice of Mr. Darcy greeting callers on my cell phone.


Ignaz Pleyel (1758-1831)

In addition to being a writer, Austen was an amateur pianist who practiced every morning before breakfast. The music manuscripts she copied by hand survive, as do many published pieces that belonged to her and to other women in her family circle. These compositions became my class’s “textbook,” as students learned about music making in England during Austen’s lifetime. The Rita Benton Music Library owns many eighteenth-century scores similar to those the writer might have played. When we moved into the Voxman Music Building in 2016, I decided to offer a class based entirely on rare materials in the Library’s Arthur and Miriam Canter Rare Book Room. Featured prominently would be the extensive collection of historic scores by composer Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831). The compositions of Pleyel, a contemporary of Franz Joseph Haydn, were popular throughout Europe. Rita Benton was the leading scholar of his music, and the Music Library’s Pleyel collection is unparalleled.

Miss Austen

To whom did this volume of Sonatas belong?

naamloos copy

Elizabeth Bridges Austen Knight

Late one night I was perusing the virtual Pleyel scores available online through the Iowa Digital Library. I found a set of six sonatas bound in a volume labeled “Miss Austen.” I emailed librarian Katie Buehner and joked about my “discovery.” But then I looked more closely. Iowa’s sonatas have penciled-in fingerings that resemble the fingerings in another copy of Pleyel’s sonatas, this one owned by Jane Austen’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knight. Here things get a little complicated. Elizabeth was the wife of Edward Austen. Edward had been adopted by the wealthy Knights, and he later changed his own family’s name when he received his inheritance. Thus his wife was “Mrs. Austen” or “Mrs. Knight,” never “Miss Austen,” so it’s not clear that Iowa’s Pleyel sonatas could have belonged to her. Another possible owner of the sonatas is Elizabeth’s daughter, Fanny Austen, Jane’s favorite niece, who played the piano very well. Of course, one cannot help but wonder if the volume ever found its way to Jane’s sister, Miss Cassandra Austen or to Jane herself.

Fanny Austen

Fanny Austen Knight

I’ve explored the possibilities for the provenance of Iowa’s Pleyel Sonatas in an article for Fontes artis musicae, the journal of the International Association of Music Libraries. I wish I could say I have positive proof that an Austen performed from this particular score. Unfortunately, the complete origins of the “Miss Austen” volume remain a mystery. Still, we can imagine that while taking a break from working on Pride and Prejudice or Emma, Jane Austen enjoyed a rendition of a Pleyel Sonata performed by her talented niece or sat down at the pianoforte and played from the score herself.

Read more about it
Marian Wilson Kimber, “Miss Austen Plays Pleyel: An Additional Source for the Jane Austen Family Music Collection?Fontes Artis Musicae 67, no. 1 (January-March 2020): 1–17.

Pleyel’s Sonatas were “accompanied” with an optional violin part. Some editions had a cello part as well, as you can hear in this lively performance of the first Sonata, Benton 431.

For more information, see Kathryn Libin, “Daily Practice, Musical Accomplishment, and the Example of Jane Austen,” in Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety, and Harmony (Lehigh University Press, 2013), and Jeanice Brooks and Samantha Carrasco, “A Chawton Family Album.” The Austen Family Music Books have been digitized by the University of South Hampton.


Waking up to ourselves: two presents for Eleanor Roosevelt

In Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence, there is a short story entitled “Eleanor for President.” It was sent to her in 1945 by an admirer, a Miss Harris from Defiance, Ohio. The carefully typed pages describe a pair of women sharing a coffee and cigarette break. Both of their husbands are away in the war, and Margie tries to console Mary, who is distraught that hers may not come back. Their conversation turns to a recent article by the First Lady urging women to enter government. “Do you think we will ever have a woman President?” asks Mary. Margie responds, “Sure we will someday. When women wake up to themselves.” Her choice for chief executive is, of course, Eleanor. She proclaims, “Do you think for one minute, F.D.R. would be where he is today, if it weren’t for her?”

ER Button

Wilkie campaign button

This little story strikes me as unusual. Although Roosevelt’s correspondence is full of admiring letters from women across America, her public activities were often controversial, including the numerous political stances she took that differed from her husband’s. When Wendell Wilkie ran against FDR in 1940, his campaign had buttons that read “We don’t want Eleanor either.” My own grandfather was known to refer to Roosevelt disparagingly, as “THAT woman!” In spite of Margie’s optimism, the author of the tale recognizes what bold statements her fictional character has made, adding, “She sure had been laying it on the line.” Eleanor herself had suggested that a woman president was unlikely in a column she wrote for Cosmopolitan in 1935. Over seven decades later, there are multiple women running in hopes of winning the 2020 election, yet America has still not had a female president, not even another controversial First Lady.


Theodore Bilbo, Mississippi Senator

The next item in Mrs. Roosevelt’s correspondence, filed immediately after the story, is a handwritten song entitled “The Bilbo Bill,” sent by a man from Washington, D.C. The song supports the 1939 bill by Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo to have African Americans removed to Liberia. Although Bilbo associated with African American activists who supported similar ideas, he was a member of the KKK, and his ultimate goal was to create a white America. The song’s chorus reflects the Senator’s ideology:

Black will be Black—White will be White
But that don’t mean that they must fight.
The U.S.A. is not the place
In which to breed a mongrel race.

The music, which resembles a Stephen Foster minstrel tune, by is marked “With pep (Hill-billy style).” The songwriter was undoubtedly an amateur, as his lyrics are overly repetitive—the word “mongrel” appears three times. They are in no way as clever as those for the song “Listen, Mr. Bilbo,” written by Robert and Adrienne Claiborne in 1946 (sung here by Pete Seeger), critiquing the Senator’s nativist stance:

Yes, you don’t like Negroes, you don’t like Jews;
If there is anyone you do like, it sure is news.
You don’t like Poles, Italians, Catholics, too;
Is it any wonder, Bilbo, that we don’t like you!

Listen, Mr. Bilbo, listen to me
I’ll give you a lesson in history
Listen while I tell you that the foreigners you hate
Are the very same people made America great.

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Eleanor Roosevelt with Marian Anderson

No letter survives to explain why “The Bilbo Bill” was sent to Eleanor, who was known for her egalitarian ideals and had joined the NAACP in 1934. For musicians, the most famous example of Roosevelt’s putting her beliefs into practice was her resignation from the DAR when it denied its concert hall to renowned soprano Marian Anderson. Bilbo had backed the New Deal, but he was publicly critical of Eleanor. Around the time the song was written he suggested that she be sent to Liberia to be the leader of the African Americans he wanted to deport. Perhaps the song’s composer merely wanted to rub this in the First Lady’s face. Later, when Harry Truman nominated Roosevelt for the United Nations, Bilbo cast the only vote opposing her. After accusations that Bilbo had prevented African Americans from voting when he was reelected in 1946, the Senate refused to seat him, but he died before the matter was resolved.

While it’s tempting to portray the story proposing female political equality as on the right side of history and the bigoted song on the wrong, this would be an oversimplification. “Eleanor for President” has a third character, Julie, Margie’s African American servant. Julie is also excited by the prospect of having Eleanor as president, yet she is described with mammy stereotyping: “big black eyes popping out of her fat round face” and “big fat body wobbling back and forth as she walked.” Margie—or her creator—looks for change in the White House, but doesn’t recognize the need for it in her own fictional kitchen.

“The Bilbo Bill” may seem even farther away from 2019 than the smoking WWII wives, yet both offerings to Roosevelt reflect the white supremacist rhetoric ingrained in American culture, rhetoric which has been resurgent in the “send her back” chants. Eleanor told a friend that she believed that with sufficient power, Bilbo could be similar to the Nazis who created concentration camps.  She did not underestimate how dangerous a flamboyantly racist politician might be.


Not Distinguished Enough


Stairs I once climbed

Last year the chair at my undergraduate institution emailed to tell me I had been nominated for “distinguished alum.”  He requested my CV and asked if I was free on a particular date.  It has been decades since I’ve visited my former campus, so I began to envision what a trip back might be like.  After I said I was available, he wrote again to say, “Sorry, you weren’t chosen.”  So I’m not distinguished enough?  Well, okay.

I got a good education at the former women’s college that grew into a state university.  I remember those years as a period of guzzling down repertoire as fast as I could.  My friends and I would bury ourselves in the basement library, perched before turntables in a long, windowless room.  We listened as the records spun, handing off the gigantic padded headphones to each another when we heard sounds we wanted to share.  But I also came away from this education with a tremendous sense of failure and a huge amount of anger.  My major was composition.  I had written some music that had won small prizes in high school.  In college I was the only woman composer in the program.  In retrospect, I don’t think I fully understood the gender dynamics involved in my slow decline into being unable to write another note, culminating in my change to a music theory BA so that I could quickly graduate.  I was certainly no compositional wunderkind, and I don’t want to paint yet another story of a tragically repressed female composer.  Most of my professors seemed genuinely to want me to succeed.  I can’t recount many specific events that would clearly demonstrate discrimination.  I do recall taking two classes taught the same semester by my composition teacher: counterpoint and twentieth-century music.  After the two midterm exams, he passed me in the hallway and told me I had made “As” on both, adding “bitch.”

I am happy as a musicologist.  I do not mourn the composition career I did not have.  But I suspect my mission to research women’s musical lives must have come in part from the way my undergraduate experience played out.  As I think back, would it have helped me if any of the music my composition teacher recommended had been by women, or if I had studied women composers in my courses, or if works I played in the orchestra had been by women?  I believe yes.  I search my memory to think if I knew any pieces by women then.  I owned a recording of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet and an LP set of women composers’ pieces that I didn’t listen to, probably because they were not particularly well played.  I did encounter two living female composers.  Pauline Oliveros made a brief visit, but her musical meditations seemed as if they came from a completely different world, not the one I was trying to fit into.  When I met Marga Richter at music camp, she advised me to marry a man who would wash his own socks.  This was advice I eventually took, but long after I had abandoned composing.

It has been forty years since I was a freshman, and much has changed.  The photos of the composers now enrolled at my undergrad school include women.  A soprano voice narrates the video that describes the program’s “energetic and supportive community.”  But that the world of classical music is still dominated by concert after concert of music by men bothers me now more than ever.  Do I tell my colleagues that the recital they practiced for months and played beautifully causes me to rage silently?  That my school’s stunning concert halls are filled with sounds that say to half the population, “your voices are not welcome”?  When I try to describe the situation in music to professors in other disciplines, they refer to the culture wars almost nostalgically, as something long past.  It would be difficult to graduate from an English department without ever reading a novel by a woman, but many music majors never perform women’s music.

The chair at my alma mater recently turned up as an applicant to head the music school where I now work.  An affable fellow, he acknowledged some faculty members’ concerns about diversity, but assured us simply that we should be striving for excellence.  I was incredulous when he suggested there aren’t any issues with the canon or, as one of my students paraphrased, “the repertoire is not the problem.”  I wonder how the young composition students under his charge would feel about his comments.  Noncanonic music—the realm where women’s music still resides—is apparently not distinguished enough.

The Women Who Do the Work

Pen Women

National League of American Pen Women Executive Board, 1934

My article, “Women Composers at the White House: The National League of American Pen Women and Phyllis Fergus’s Advocacy for Women in American Music,” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music.  It describes how Fergus, a Chicago composer, came to organize concerts of music by women in the East Room of the White House in 1934 and 1936, events that were attended by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  My original interest in Fergus stemmed from her creation of comic spoken-word compositions in the teens and twenties.  Her career and music are covered in my book, The Elocutionists, and I’ve enjoyed performing her clever pieces.  When I initially contacted Fergus’s daughters about their mother years ago, I had no idea that she had also played a national role in promoting women’s music.  Fergus was certainly capable of self-promotion, but like many women who work for others, her efforts have not been recognized.

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Phyllis Fergus in JSAM

During my first visit, Fergus’s daughters brought out laundry baskets of their mother’s music and four remarkable scrapbooks for me to see.  One scrapbook documented a women composers’ concert Fergus organized in Chicago in 1933 during the Century of Progress World’s Fair—complete with detailed receipts for hiring the Women’s Symphony Orchestra and for the coffee, frappé, and punch she ordered for the reception.  Another book contained news clippings about the first concert at the White House and Fergus’s promotion of composer Amy Beach.  Almost a decade later, after acquiring materials from a dozen or so archives, I’ve been able to piece together the story of Fergus and other women, working together as part of the National League of American Pen Women to support women’s music.

Copthorne badges copy

Frances Copthorne’s NLAPW badges, Sibley Library, Eastman School of Music

Along the way, I’ve seen bits and pieces of women’s history that mostly don’t make it into the books: not only Fergus’s receipts, but Pen Women’s souvenirs, such as the delegate pins of Frances Copthorne. Copthorne was not internationally known like Beach, but a composer whose music was nonetheless heard at the White House.  The current Pen Women’s president graciously allowed me to stay in Pen Arts, their Victorian headquarters in Washington, D.C., and to explore their archives, which literally meant going through their closets. I also got to dive into the voluminous correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR Library, where it was virtually impossible not to be star-struck by one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century.


Eleanor Roosevelt, Malvina Scheider, and Edith Helm

In the archival folders at Hyde Park, Mrs. Roosevelt’s correspondence is organized from the bottom up: first a letter, inevitably asking her to appear, speak, donate, or write.  Sometimes a few words as to the appropriate response are scrawled by the First Lady on the letter.  The top layer is always the carbon copy of the reply that was sent by Mrs. Roosevelt’s staff, most often Malvina (“Tommy”) Scheider or Edith Helm. I came to have deep respect for these women and their unerringly typed, unfailingly polite and respectful responses, perfect every time, like haiku (“Mrs. Roosevelt thanks you for your. . . ,” “Mrs. Roosevelt regrets she is unable to. . .”).  Thousands upon thousands of these little letters fill box after box, writing back to the American people.  When the Pen Women asked the First Lady, who became a member due to her role as an author and newspaper columnist, to write an article for them about “how she does it,” her eventual response stressed that she didn’t “do it all”—she had a staff.

Perhaps it’s easy, when we write histories of “great women,” to forget how much activity by others had to surround them in order to make their achievements happen. Malvina Scheider, who I cannot envision apart from her typewriter, is overshadowed by Eleanor Roosevelt, her brief typed missives individually insignificant, but collectively powerful. Phyllis Fergus is unknown compared to Amy Beach, who was the “star” of both White House concerts.  My article not only tries to recover Fergus’s work for the historical record, but that of the other Pen Women who made it possible for large numbers of women composers to hear their music.