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American Women: Resources from the Performing Arts Collections

In Search of the Woman Composer: Finding Music by Women

Women Composers. Washington, DC. April 23, 1924. National Photo Company Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

When the eminent psychologist Carl E. Seashore published his now-famous article “Why No Great Women Composers?” (PDF) External in 1940, he was continuing a long tradition espousing the inferiority of women in music. As far back as 1880, music critic George P. Upton argued in his book, Woman in Music, that “it does not seem that woman will ever originate music in its fullest and grandest harmonic forms. She will always be the recipient and interpreter, but there is little hope she will be the creator.” Seashore concurred, theorizing that “woman's fundamental urge is to be beautiful, loved, and adored as a person; man's urge is to provide and achieve in a career.” 

Women's defenders frequently mentioned the lack of training available to women and lamented that women were too quick to support men's efforts at their own expense. Pianist Amy Fay (1844-1928) wrote in 1900 that “[w]omen have been too much taken up with helping and encouraging men to place a proper value on their own talent, which they are too prone to underestimate and to think not worth making the most of.” ("Women and Music," Music [Chicago], October 1900: 506.) And English composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), in her Female Pipings in Eden, proclaimed “there is not at this present moment (1933) one single middle-aged woman alive who has had the musical education that has fallen to men as a matter of course, without any effort on their part, ever since music was!”

Today the field of women and music is a thriving branch of women's studies. Research has shown that women have been composing music through the ages just as their male counterparts have, and the scores collection at the Library of Congress bears this out. Music scores make up the largest portion of the Music Division collections, and women's works are amply represented. From new editions of chant by Saint Hildegard (1098-1179) and first editions of piano pieces by Amy Beach (1867-1944) to original copyright deposits of songs by blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939), the scores collection is rich with the music of women.

Music scores are cataloged and classified according to genre and medium of performance and the composer's name. Although the subject heading “Music by women composers” exists, it is used only when gender is mentioned as a significant aspect of a work. Thus, the New Historical Anthology of Music by Women, edited by James R. Briscoe, receives this subject heading, but Clara Schumann's Ausgewählte Klavierwerke is assigned only the heading “Piano music.” Obviously, the vast majority of pieces by women composers are not represented by a subject heading that denotes gender.

Music copyright deposits are another important source for research. The copyright law of 1870 brought eighty years of copyright records and deposits to the Library of Congress and ensured that all future registrations and deposits would come directly to the Library. Copyright deposits are the reason the music collections are so strong in holdings of music from the United States and account for the extensive number of popular songs. Popular song is less well represented as notes on paper from 1978 on owing to a change in the copyright law that allows music to be submitted for copyright in recorded format. Much popular music is registered this way today and becomes the custody of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Researching copyright records can be tedious and time consuming (see Using the Collections), but it can reap real rewards. Unpublished manuscripts of African American composer Florence Price (1888-1953) have been discovered in this way, as well as original copyright deposits of songs by blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937) and jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981).

Print Materials Referenced

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.