Report: Women and Gender in Art Music of the Eastern Bloc: Current Perspectives, Future Directions

Royal Musical Association Online Study Day(s)
April 1-2, 2022

When I received the invitation to take part in the RMA online study-day „Women and Gender in Art Music of the Eastern Bloc: Current Perspectives, Future Directions“, I was very happy, because the topics of the sessions organized by Barbora Vacková (University of Huddersfield) and Marta Beszterda (McGill University) represent a rare research direction in musicology. Already in the welcoming speech a high level of motivation and energy could be felt, which undoubtedly inspired all forum participants. The focus chosen by the organizers, on specifics of the music of Eastern bloc countries, set both the geographical and historical (mid-20th century) framework of the presented examples, and, of course, determined the aspects of the analysis for the presented musical or socio-cultural phenomena and personalities. Thus, the geography of the papers, presented predominantly by early career and student researchers, during the two study-days includes the German Democratic Republic (GDR), several countries of the former Soviet Union Soviet Union (Russia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Moldova), as well as Croatia, Hungary, Poland, and the United Kingdom.

The fundamental topic of the study day was gender as a specific historical discourse, and its change, with special emphasis on women’s creativity. What is a female composer and how was this discourse expressed by contemporaries? What social phenomena influenced the perception of women musicians, women actors, women composers, and the image of women in music and theatre in general? Finally, we tried to understand how culture and gender functioned under socialism. The emphasis of the event centred around the shared political history of socialism in these regions and all these questions were explored in depth during both the presentations and the panel discussion. It is noteworthy that, geopolitically, some studied countries no longer exist (or exist in different forms), nor do several social and political systems of the set framework.

In total, there were six thematic sessions: “Gender, Art, and Propaganda”; “Music, Gender, and Identity in Late Soviet / Early Post-Soviet Era”; “Retrieving Forgotten Figures“; “Gender Roles and Stereotypes Under State Socialism”; “Between East and West”; and “Women in Polish Music”. The presentations and discussions took place in a very friendly atmosphere, which was conducive to a productive scientific international exchange.

As with all historical research, understanding the context of existing narratives was highly important for the presenters. In her keynote lecture, Nina Noeske (Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg) looked at three women, as well as the context of their life and work. She described the specifics of “female creativity” in the GDR using the examples of composer Ruth Zechlin, choreographer Ruth Berghaus, and singer Roswitha Trexler, showing excerpts from the period press, as well as scientific publications. Allison Brooks-Conrad (University of Pennsylvania) followed a similar approach to analysing the gender construct by looking at the narratives produced by the popular Soviet newspaper Rabotnitsa. She gave the example of the popular opera singer Lyubov Kazarnovskaya, and showed which aspects of her character, life and work were extolled in the newspaper. The presenter paid particular attention to the question of which mechanisms direct the allocation of a ‘talent’ to a woman in music.

In other papers, attention was paid to the question of female biographies, and how we can reconstruct approaches to composition and motifs in women’s musical works. Johanna Yunker (University of Massachusetts Amherst) spoke about the specifics of Ruth Zechlin’s education and work; she elaborated on her compositional style, reception, and her position in existing research.

Post-Soviet reflections on the composers’ work was also the focus of the conference. Sam Riley (University of Birmingham) presented Estonian composer Valentina Goncharova; Natia Beraia and Lika Khorbaladze (Tbilisi State Conservatoire) portrayed two Georgian composers, Meri Davitashvili and Natela Svanidze. Problems covered included: What did it mean for these women to create under the Soviet system? How can the relationship between “Soviet” and “national” musical languages be analysed?

Moreover, the study day presented different approaches to critical analysis of musical works. Phoebe Robertson’s (Manhattan School of Music) analysis of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Music for Flute, Strings, and Percussion explored the harmony and form, as well as the composer’s creative principles. Phoebe posed the question of how the composer’s worldview, and her views on the feminine and the masculine, or on religion, manifest themselves in the work. Meanwhile, Joanna Bullivant (University of Oxford) used the example of Alan Bush’s operas, to explore how gender as performance could be analysed and demonstrated by evaluating its presentation on the stage.

There were many papers presented, all representing current trends in musicological research on gender in the Eastern Bloc. I have mentioned here the ones that I found to be most interesting and inspiring. Talking about the theme of study day, as we have seen from these presentations, one cannot ignore the social and political aspects of women’s existence in the given geographical and historical framework. There currently exists many white spots of the male-dominated canon in the history of music and here we took the first step to challenge this by amplifying the identities that existed within patriarchal system of music, specifically in the Eastern Bloc. Future steps of research that would be interesting include drawing up something like a mind map of “the worldview of women composers” and finding interconnections and parallels in this part of women’s musical history. As would delving deeper into the expression of gender in the sonic arts and the gender stereotypes in the musical, patriarchal and Soviet general system.

The questions raised in the panel discussion “Researching Women and Gender in Art Music of the Eastern Bloc” with guest speakers Elaine Kelly (Edinburgh College of Art), Joanna Kwapień (Glissando Magazine, University of Wrocław), and Nina Noeske (Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg) on the methods and perspectives of gender studies under socialism were the basis for the launch of a new network, “Women and Gender in Art Music of the Eastern Bloc” initiated by the conference organizers. Such a network will help us stay connected and foster further research in the field, which I am very much looking forward to.

Elizaveta Willert


About the author:

Elizaveta completed her master’s degree in musicology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Since 2021, she is a PhD candidate at the musicological seminar at the University of Paderborn/ Musikhoschule Detmold and works as a project assistant in the association Netzwerk Junge Ohren (NJO e.V.). In her doctoral project she reconstructs the history of children’s radio music theatre in the USSR on the basis of the musical and musicological activities of several composers and musicologists with the aim of presenting children’s radio theatre as part of acoustic cultural memory and auditory knowledge. Since 2018, she has been actively involved in networking the (music)-scientific landscape within the umbrella organisation of musicology students (DVSM e.V.) and, in this context, founded the research group Music and Intermediality. Her research interests are: contemporary radio play, gender research, experimental sound research, intersectionality, and Soviet and Russian radio art. She can be reached at: info@dvsm-verband.de & e.willert@jungeohren.de.

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