Back in 1987, I was in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, researching the music of John J. Becker in the Americana Collection. It was by chance that I noticed, and then became immersed, in the work of the composer in the Collection who followed Becker alphabetically: Johanna Magdelena Beyer. Beyer had a catalog of over 50 manuscripts of works composed in the 1930s and ’40s, and the more I got to know them and put some of the pieces of her life together, the more I realized that here was a composer of great significance whose work had been completely neglected. In dating the works, their performance history, and the circle in which she interacted, it became clear that some of Beyer’s music predated and influenced work of John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and others (all of whom were exposed to her music).
While Beyer died at the relatively young age of 55 in 1944, it seemed certain that her obscurity and lack of regard was also predominantly due to one factor: her gender. It was terribly poignant to me that she signed her scores, as well as letters she wrote to conductors and other performers, “J.M. Beyer.”
Is the fate Johanna Beyer suffered a thing of the past? I know that as a presenter, even ten years ago, I was very conscious of programming the music of women; attention was paid to ensure it happened, and all involved made certain to point this out to audience and grantmakers. It was not unusual to see, on occasion, a concert billed as “music by women composers.” Perhaps this was a byproduct of the political correctness of the ’80s and ’90s, and the sense that everyone and everything needed to have labels of origin attached. Perhaps we needed that self-consciousness to progress to a place where new habits could emerge.
Today, I hardly think about gender as I select works for presentation, and as I look at the music I’ve conducted or programmed in the past year, much of it happens to be by women. My sense is that my obliviousness to the composer’s sex is an indication of a very positive shift. It just so happens that much of the wonderful music being written today is by women, and gentlemen, they have us surrounded!
Nevertheless, I know that gender-blind equality is probably a fantasy in this culture. There are young women today who do not know what the ERA is. As the father of two young daughters, I am already fighting equal rights battles on their behalf, if only on the playground. And yet like any proud daddy, I want every opportunity for them to succeed—to be able to take their aspirations to places J.M. Beyer couldn’t.
Ladies and gentlemen, how does today’s climate of equality feel to you? And what can we do as musicians to help stimulate a sense of greater equality in our culture as a whole?