Dr. Damjana Bratuz
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International Conference
Representing Gender in the Performative Arts
University of Groningen

November 12 – 13, 2009
Groningen, The Netherlands

The Feminine Side of the Musical Mind
[Plenary Lecture]

By Damjana Bratuž
The University of Western Ontario, Canada


In this exploration of the musical world of composers Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931), Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) and Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), I take three themes as a guide: a) the mystery and the power of invention, b) the effect of external impediments on the musical mind, and c) the conceptual foundation of each composer’s oeuvre.

It is in a few pages of a male composer’s journal that these three themes illuminate the workings of a musical mind; French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) describes in them the appearance, in a dream, of a symphony, and his voluntary renunciation to remembering it and writing it down, due to unfortunate family circumstances [La Symphonie rêvée et oubliée]. He gives a passionate defense of his decision. Unfortunate circumstances and the sacrifice of artistic creation are a destiny more commonly attributed to the lives of talented female musicians.

And yet Sofia Gubaidulina - with her Russian/Tatar roots, educated in an isolated region, later enduring the oppressive Soviet climate and the endless obstructions - was blessed with a mind that “had consumed all impediments,”  to use Virginia Woolf’s words. Several examples are used in this presentation to demonstrate the mastery of her instrumentation, the originality of invention, and her deep spirituality.

There is a great deal of literature that has explored the social and cultural mechanisms which have hindered musical creation by women, a creation that never became equivalent to their achievement in literature, poetry and the fine arts. My suggestion is that there may be also hidden forces that determine the timing for the flourishing of certain types of art: why did the Symphony of the Baroque times vanish in Italy and composers only wrote operas? Glenn Gould called attention to the fact that great theatre/drama disappeared after Shakespeare only to return in the form of the classical Sonata and the Symphony.
Perhaps the time for ‘great’ women composers has come.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has broken the prejudice that sees female invention excelling only in small forms, by presenting her operas internationally to great acclaim. Her masterful use of electronic sounds has captivated audiences. A CD-ROM she has ‘composed’ with her husband, an engineer, permits one to improvise and explore the vast range of her skills and poetic imagination, and is used in my presentation.

In the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen’s musical energies survived St. Paul’s admonition “Mulier in ecclesia taceat” (Let women keep silence in church). It was in the early 1980s that the ‘visions’ of Hildegard of Bingen were resurrected and she became both a ‘presence’ with the recordings of her exquisite compositions, and a great female example of a polymath.

The film ‘Vision’ presented at the September 2009 Toronto International Film Festival  splendidly portrays the life of Abbess Hildegard, the times, the sounds, the pace. The director, Margarethe von Trotta, used only original texts and music. Some scenes from this film will conclude my presentation.


My suggestion to revisit, to update, and to expand the ideas I had first presented at the 1989 conference on Women and Reason, held at the University of Western Ontario,   was very warmly received by the organizers of the Groningen conference on Gender in the Arts. In that brief paper I had explored the art and science of composition as manifested by female musical minds. The title had referred to ‘Athena and Euterpe,’ respectively the goddess of wisdom and the Muse of musicians, and I examined not the famous talented ‘victims’  (Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Alma Mahler) who struggled in an androcentric musical environment, but women composers who had received excellent training together with encouragement and recognition (Pulitzer Prize, Prix de Rome, etc.)

The letter of invitation from Groningen University acknowledged my ‘pioneering efforts’ at a time (from my 1967 appointment onward) when in my field an ‘interdisciplinary’ approach did not yet enjoy academic recognition. To revisit my old ideas now, in 2009, means to be able to present musical examples with today’s miraculous technology that makes it possible to weave sound, images, and narrative simultaneously, in an imaginative and persuasive way that was never possible to achieve before.

I anticipated that after my speech discussion would focus on still existing social/cultural  ‘impediments,’  on the crucial educational environments, and on media support. My contribution comprised the following information:

In 1989 the name of Sofia Gubaidulina had appeared for the first time in Canada on a CBC orchestral program from Montreal, with violinist Gidon Kremer premiering her Offertorium. With some taped examples from it, at the Women and Reason conference I introduced the audience to this extraordinary new voice, belonging to one who in her artistic development had surmounted hardships unimaginable to her North American colleagues. The international admiration Gubaidulina’s work has enjoyed since, the numerous awards she has received, challenge the persistent view of female compositional genius being still hindered and diminished by various social mechanisms. [This view was taken up and developed at the Groningen conference, albeit effectively and charmingly, by two American scholars whose session I chaired].

One aspect of Kaija Saariaho’s musical development concerns her early training in the superior music education programs enjoyed by all Finnish school children. The wisdom and far-sightedness of the cultural and political leaders who established this system has enriched the musical world with all the artists (conductors, performers, composers) that have emerged during the last decades in such a small nation. It has also provided the musicians in Finland with an audience of well-informed interlocutors. In my life as an educator in Canada, it was a similar vision that I had advocated, through the years, across the country.

Part of today’s technological miracles was the possibility to include and discuss in my presentation some scenes from the film ‘Vision’ on the life of Hildegard of Bingen that was presented at the September 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.



  Damjana Bratu TOP

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