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Discrimination against women in music goes back centuries to the all-male chapel choir with its ecclesiastical injunction: "Women must be silent in church." Unsung: A History of Women in American Music discusses the place of women in every musical field, their successes and failures, and most especially the obstacles they have always faced--and still face--in gaining artistic recognition and professional acceptance, and what they have done to overcome and circumvent them. First published in 1980, now revised and expanded, this is an excellent, comprehensive survey of an all-too-little-known aspect of American music from the times of the Puritans to the present.
Ammer writes in a clear, lively, often ironically humorous, and very readable style, displaying impressive knowledge of a great variety of techniques and instruments, including electronics and beyond. Thoroughly researched, scholarly but never dry, the book is admirably inclusive, but it almost overwhelms the reader with names, facts, and figures. We do not really have to know the date, place, program, and reception of every concert and premiere performance. There are also too many "firsts" gained by women: appearances, awards, prizes, etc. However, Ammer makes her subjects' stories moving and absorbing. Her account of the composers of the New England school reveals that, sadly, most of the women, though quite successful during their lifetimes, have been totally forgotten.
Ammer sometimes takes feminism too far: surely, it cannot be denied that the greatest composers have been men, even if only for reasons of social convention. She quotes composer Libby Larsen's complaint that "kids in school are still taught that Beethoven is the greatest composer" and that "the compositional canon" in the school orchestras "is overwhelmingly male." But she also quotes conductor Margaret Hillis: "There is only one woman I know who could never be a symphony conductor, and that's the Venus de Milo." She proves that the best, most prestigious orchestras still hire the fewest women, and that far fewer women than men receive foundation support. In conclusion, Ammer acknowledges a slow but significant improvement in the status of women musicians, crediting both changing social conditions and their own determined, vigorous activism. --Edith Eisler [via]