Much ado about nothing: searching for scores by women composers

This is the only known score of Etelinda, an opera in three acts by Mildred Marion.

Front cover of Ethelinda, the English vocal score of Mildred Marion Jessup's opera Ethelinda

Mus 742.902.601, Merritt Room

First performed in Florence in 1894, it was published in this vocal score version the following year. The libretto has been translated into English, and in the Music Library’s copy a second version of the finale laid in at the end is annotated, the Italian text restored by hand in red ink.

An alternate finale is laid in, annotated in red ink with the original Italian libretto.

Mus 742.902.601, Merritt Room

The score appears to have been self-published, as there is no publication information on the title page. It is enclosed in what is known as a publisher’s binding. The cover is paper, as opposed to the leather more commonly used in the first half of the nineteenth century for covering self-published scores. The composer’s name and the English title, generically stylized, ornament the front. As there are no other known copies of this score in library catalogues one wonders whether a small number were created for the composer and librettist to present as gifts; this copy is inscribed A’l Maestro Commendatore Tomagno avec les homages de A.E. Jessup. It was given in 2002 by Professor Emeritus John M. Ward.

Ethelinda title page inscribed by librettist.

Mus 742.902.601, Merritt Room

We happen to know a bit about both the librettist and the composer. The composer’s full name was Mildred Marion Jessup, previously Lady Mildred Marion Bowes-Lyon. She lived from 1868 to 1897, was raised in a musical family and in 1890 married Augustus Edward Jessup, an American businessman (and the librettist for Etelinda). She is listed in the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women.

There are no parameters for searching library catalogs which reliably bring together musical works by women. Library of Congress Subject Headings does include the term Women composers but this is meant to be used to describe books which address music by women specifically, for example the excellent bibliographies in the Greenwood Press Music Reference Collection (see here for Helen Walker-Hill’s Piano Music by Black Women Composers then click on one of the subject headings at the end of the record, such as African American women composers or Women composers, Black to browse more subdivisions of this heading). Other subject searches that yield secondary literature are Feminism and music and Music by women composers (right between Music by Sultan composers and Music, Byzantine).

How, then, might we tease scores of music by women composers out of library systems? The absence of a publisher or a place of publication can be a clue. To take this record for Etelinda as a starting point, one technique would be to target these self-published or privately published scores. The terms s.l. and s.n., abbrevations of the Latin terms sine loco and sine nomine, were until 2013 used by Harvard Library catalogers to signal that no place of publication or publisher’s name could be seen or inferred. We now use the English-language terms place of publication not identified and publisher not identified in these situations. If there is a likely place of publication or publisher, then that is supplied in brackets, sometimes followed by a question mark, so any score upon which such research has been performed already by the cataloger would have escaped receiving an s.l. or s.n. or the English equivalents.

And, if we associate this sort of binding with the sort of composer who may not have achieved commercial prominence, we can further infer that a keyword search for binding, limited to scores, will generate at least a few interesting results. The complete results of that search are 33 items, of which four have female authorship (two composers, two compilers).

The sombre opening chords of Etelinda.

Mus 742.902.601, Merritt Room

It is likely that we will soon be able to search library catalogs and other databases by the gender of the composer and in fact the gender of any other person affiliated with a work.

RISM, the online inventory of musical sources, includes this information in its name authority records. Catalogers working in the back end of the database can filter search results by the gender of the composer (the choices are male, female and unknown). This filter isn’t available to users searching in the public interface but the data are there and theoretically actionable. Earlier this month, RISM made available a spreadsheet listing all 803 known women composers in the database.

The beginning of Act II, an intermezzo in G major.

Mus 742.902.601

The Linked Jazz Name List includes gender information, as well. And Resource Description and Access, the cataloging standard now in use at most American repositories, gives these instructions in its section 9.7.1.3, Recording Gender:

“Record a gender of the person, using an appropriate term in a language preferred by the agency creating the data.  Select a term from a standard list, if available.”

The third act, "organ within."

Mus 742.902.601, Merritt Room

A last, difficult but effective way to discover scores by female composers in a library catalog is simply to cross-reference between a list of known female composers and the catalog, painstakingly searching one name at a time. Here, for example, is IMSLP’s Women composers category.

But nowhere on this list do the names Marion, Bowes, Lyon or Jessup appear (although there is another Mildred).

Isham Memorial Library is the special collections unit within the Loeb Music Library. Many of its materials are in open stacks, with rare and unique items held in the locked Merritt Room. To view Merritt Room materials, use your Special Collections Request Account. As Isham is not always fully staffed it is advisable to wait for a confirmation message from a staff member before you plan your visit.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing! It is so good to read about composers and their work!

  2. I miss the “Archiv Frau und Musik” (Frankfurt/(Main, Germany) in this important article – it’s the world’s oldest (since 1979), biggest, and most important archive for women’s works with more than 25,000 media units (over 3,500 CDs/DVDs, 40 unresearched estates, grey literature etc., sheets, prints and handwritten sheets) of ca. 1,800 women composers (and conductors) from 9th (!) to 21st century and from 52 nations. It has a ‘treasure chamber’ with some originals out of the 18th century.
    In Germany all (!) big sheet publishers has the option to search for “Komponist” (male composer) only (women composers included). It is very difficult or impossible to find women composers there if you don’t have a name for an overview of the repertoire. https://www.facebook.com/ArchivFrauUndMusik

  3. linklater

    March 21, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    Great tip, Susanne; here’s a link to the English version of their site: http://www.archiv-frau-musik.de/cms/?lang=en_us
    Interesting that there isn’t total overlap with the IMSLP list of female composers in their “Komponistinnen A-Z” list.

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