Rebecca Cypess: Why WAM?

I stumbled backwards into the study of women in music. In the midst of writing a book about seventeenth-century Italian instrumental music, I received a question from a graduate student about salons in nineteenth-century Paris. Looking for an answer, I revisited articles that I had seen years earlier on the fascinating woman Sara Levy (1761-1854), a Jewish salon hostess and virtuosic keyboardist who lived in Berlin and was one of the key figures in the transmission of the Bach tradition in the decades after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach and before the public revival of his music by Levy’s great-nephew Felix Mendelssohn.

When I re-encountered Sara Levy, I was hooked. With my colleague at Rutgers, historian Nancy Sinkoff, I organized a conference entitled “Sara Levy’s World,” and we have co-edited a book of essays with the same title. I have written other articles about Levy as well–about her Judaism, her performance practices, her relationship to musical history and the process by which classical music became “canonized.” For me, though, the most important step was to join her as a performer–to play the music she played, to hear the sounds that she heard, to think through the music as well as about the music. Since then, I’ve expanded my research to incorporate other salon women of the eighteenth century as well. I’ve been thinking about their musical tastes, how and what they played, how they acted as patrons and taste-makers within their musical environments.

Some of these women composed and some (including Levy) did not. Even for those who were composers, the act of composition was not necessarily their first priority, nor was it the activity that was most remarked upon by their friends and onlookers.

Through my study of salon women, I have come to see how limited are our narratives about music. When we tell the stories of art music, are we telling it as a story of music–a lived, sounding experience–or are we telling it only as a story of composition? While some women have engaged in the act of composition, many more have exerted their musical agency through other means–as players, listeners, patrons, copyists, instrument builders, teachers, and more. As long as we limit our histories to histories of texts and compositions, we will limit the stories that we allow ourselves to tell about women.

For me, then, the question “Why WAM?” can be answered through reference to my understanding of music. I want to hear and understand music in all of its guises, including the stories of all of its voices. I feel incredibly fortunate to work with a dedicated team of student researchers who share my goals and whose dedication to this subject is a constant source of inspiration. I hope that the WAM web site will enable us to expand the stories that we tell about women’s participation in the history of art music.


Rebecca Cypess is Associate Professor of Music at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers Unviersity. For more about her work, see her faculty web page.