Talking About Women’s History: Four Questions and an Answer with Michael Cooper

Here’s the official bio: Dr. Michael Cooper, the Margarett Root Brown Chair in Fine Arts, has had research interests in 19th-century music, source studies, historiography and political history, specializing in Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, and Richard Strauss. He has also spent the last three decades in research of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, and is a leading editor of the music of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.

Here’s the passion behind it:  “I’m a musician. I’m a teacher. I’m a scholar. I have a passion for social justice. I believe that the most important thing we can do — for ourselves, our understanding of who we are, our history, our future — is to learn music and understand how it serves as a lens into the world that produces it and a lens into who we are. Music is the key to understanding ourselves in all the diverse beauty and complexity of the human condition. And it is the key to making our world a better world.

The most important thing, though? That is to learn the music that we do not already know — the musical voices that others are not already telling us to listen to, the voices and works that have been erased from our collective history. “

My guess is that’s a mission statement that all the Marginalia  can get behind.

Take it away, Michael!

What path led you to Florence Price and Margaret Bonds? And why do you think it is important to tell their stories today?

This is a story both professional and deeply personal for me. I was in my mid-twenties when I first heard Price’s Songs to the Dark Virgin and Bonds’s Three Dream Portraits, and I was thunderstruck – I remember nothing else about the program, but the experience of those two works was like nothing known to me before. I immediately tried to find more music by these two obviously marvelous composers – but could only get to a tiny handful of other works, even though both Bonds and Price were reportedly quite prolific. A quarter-century later, the situation was the same: a very small body of works by Price and Bonds (4-10 pieces each) kept being recycled. What were the other hundreds of pieces, and what were they like?

I wanted to know, needed to know: it was like a burning question that had been simmering unanswered for a quarter-century. By then I had dealt with most of the contractual obligations that had kept me from addressing it for so long. I had also learned how to understand musical manuscripts and conduct archival research, and seen that the music suppressed by our world’s obsession with genuflecting before canonical “Great Men” was usually far worthier of mainstreaming than canonical works are. So when pianist Lara Downes (whose 2016 recording of Price’s First Fantasie nègre contributed much to the momentum of the current Price renaissance) encouraged me to follow through on the notes I had been taking over the years about those “missing” (unknown = marginalized and suppressed) compositions, I decided to go for it. I plunged headlong into the thousands of pages of manuscripts of both Price and Bonds – and I was stunned by what I found there, by its consistent beauty, by its eloquence and power, ceaseless originality. I started inputting the content of those musical autographs into my computer (editing the works), and so got to know the music from the inside out, putting one note at a time onto the pages, one bar at a time. It was so beautiful and amazing, each work so different from every other even though all clearly came from the same springs, that I couldn’t stop. By today, because of that work, the voices of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price have gifted me a huge musical universe of dazzling beauty, intensity, and originality. My musical universe has been enriched and transformed by their legacies. That long-unanswered question has been addressed, its fire supplanted by light.

I think we need to tell the stories of Bonds, Price, and countless other composers who have been marginalized because of their sex and/or their race partly because of the wonders that they left to our world, legacies without which the world is poorer. Beyond that, it’s impossible to understand any history if we hear only one group of its voices (by which I mean male voices, most of them White and most of these European). That’s like looking at a few pixels and pretending you’ve seen the picture. Most important, though, is the general principle that the marginalization and suppression of women and persons of color is, to put it plainly, wrong. We have to choose whether we accept that wrong and go on about business as usual, or call it out for what it is (wrong) and resist it with every fiber of our being. That path of resistance – the path of listening to voices silenced and suppressed – is the only conscionable way forward, the only way to make it possible for future generations to know a better, richer, more just world than we do.

Are there special challenges to researching women of color, who in some ways have been doubly erased from history?

“Doubly erased” is an apt term – and it’s an important one for me, a White male, to keep in mind as I approach the powerfully expressive art of two Black American women, one of whom (Price) was nearly ten years dead before I was born. As we all know, the tendency of White historiography and male historiography is to portray history and its art through White male eyes, thus perpetuating the very same White and male gaze that marginalized women and people of color to begin with. That approach to history not only marginalizes women and people of color; it also inevitably – and worse – misses the point of what they saw in their art, and wanted others to see there.

While it’s true that I feel obligated (having watched the musical world stand idly by for decades while the very music by Price and Bonds that it’s interested sits in the libraries and archives, unheard, unstudied, untaught) to do my best to help get that music and other aspects of those composers’ lives out into the public, I have to respect the challenge for me to, in some senses, suppress my own perspective, White and male as it is. Because it seems to be the historian’s nature to speak with authority, the challenge that researching women of color poses for me, and for all of us, is to remain humble rather than asserting authority, to listen more than we talk.

What can we learn when we use music as a historical source?

Because of music’s pervasive presence in cultures worldwide throughout history and its universally acknowledged position among the arts that are natural expressions of the mathematical order of the cosmos (Boethius’s quadrivium) as well as created through human imagination, music has an extraordinary capacity for serving as a lens into the ideas, issues, ambitions, and questions of the worlds of its historical composers and performers and their audiences. For the same reasons it’s also been an agent of change and social discourse. What’s more, historical music has an amazing ability to kindle emotional responses, to stimulate the intellects and imaginations, of historical observers. The chants of Hildegard of Bingen, the violin works of J.S. Bach, the symphonies of Louise Farrenc, the fantasies nègres of Florence Price – all these can speak to modern performers and listeners with an immediacy fully equal to that with which they addressed themselves to their contemporaries. They can connect us directly to those long-dead composers, and thus make their worlds more approachable than they might be otherwise. Music thus has a remarkable ability to connect us to a past that might otherwise be hopelessly remote; to articulate the voices of composers that are otherwise now forever silent; to share the ideas, questions, and inspirations of their creative imaginations with us with an immediacy that makes it perhaps every bit as powerful as a source of inspiration and agent of change today as it was in its own time.

Do you think Women’s History Month is important and why?

Women’s history month is incredibly important as a thing in itself, but even more so as a first step toward an eventual future where women’s history is no longer regarded as something that could possibly be celebrated in just thirty days. That future must come. For now, Women’s History Month acknowledges that 50%+ of the population and their myriad creations and contributions to history deserve to be celebrated not just as counterparts to men (as is usually the case) and not just as tokens in a male-dominated and resolutely male-chauvinist world, but on their own, and (more importantly) on their own terms.

We all know that the current thirty-one-day span will see more public and scholarly celebration of women’s history than the next 334 days will. That needs to change, has to change. Women’s history month is one small step in the right direction, and it’s important to me as an opportunity to drink deeply of the wealth of ideas and inspirations created by women throughout history and get a sustaining dose of those legacies – legacies that will be shamelessly marginalized and tokenized until the next Women’s history month. I look forward to March, 2023.

(Reminder:  If you are reading this in your email, you probably need to click over to your browser to view, and more importantly listen to, these video clips.

A question for Pamela: Correcting the erasure of women’s voices by restoring their presence in historical narratives is essential work, but wholesale erasure is only one of the techniques by which women have been marginalized and women’s contributions diminished. Another is historians’ tendency, when writing about women, to go out of their way to emphasize historical women’s attachments to men who are already recognized as important: commentators on Florence Price attach her to George Chadwick more than they need to and ought to; commentators on Margaret Bonds overly rely on her relationship with Langston Hughes; historians discussing Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel or Clara Wieck Schumann seem unable to discuss them as composers and musicians in their own right without making them indebted to Felix Mendelssohn or Robert Schumann in ways that, for these historians, do not seem to be reciprocated by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. The list goes on and on – and its ultimate result is that the women who are discussed emerge as exponents of, or pendants to, “Great Men,” while male-centered narratives treat women as footnotes or incidental. The imbalance is a historiographic artifice that’s insidious in its undermining of the progress made by restoring women’s presence in historical narratives from which they’ve traditionally been erased.

The question, then: what do you think about this problem? And, more to the point, do you have suggestions about how to most effectively address it?

First, I think it is a very real issue. Every year in this series, I ask about the special challenges of writing about someone who is best known as the “wife of” someone or who is otherwise overshadowed in the literature by a man in their lives. And every year, I get interesting answers to the question.

I think one of those answers gets to the heart of how to address it. Music historian Angela Mace Christian  said that the biggest problem she has in writing about women like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel is her own thought process:

I find myself consistently needing to stop and think carefully about if what I’m thinking is based on a long-held assumption about the relationship of a female artist to her brother, or whether what I am thinking is an objective analysis of evidence. I find that this issue crops up frequently when analyzing the music. It is incredibly tempting to compare the music of Felix and Fanny, because it truly does share a sort of genetic fingerprint. I find that many of us also fall into the habit of comparing composers to everyone who came before them; it’s hard not to, especially when a composer like Beethoven was very much alive and working when Felix and Fanny were teenagers. It can even be completely appropriate for some works, such as Fanny’s “Easter” sonata. But what if we didn’t compare them? What if we dug into the music of Fanny, just like we dig into the music of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms? What could we find that we’ve missed? What happens if we truly level the playing field, take gender and kinship out of the equation, and approach the work of art head on, regardless of its composer?* That’s incredibly difficult for me, since I do primarily write on the social context around Fanny, with a special interest in kinship, but it might be the best way to overcome those inherent biases in our minds and the historical record.

In short, we need to constantly wrestle with the opinions we hold so deeply that we don’t even know they are opinions, whether we are talking about race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. (And there are probably other things that ought to be on that list that I am not thinking of right now.) Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and exhausting. But I believe it’s important.

(FYI: Social psychologist Dolly Chugh has a book coming out in October that will be dealing with some of these issues head-on : A More Just Future: Psychological Tools for Reckoning with Our Past and Driving Social Change. I am eager to read it. In the meantime, I strongly recommend her newsletter, Dear Good People for evidience based and delightful discussion of these topics. You can subscribe here:


Want to know more about Michael Cooper and his work?

Check out his website:
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Come back tomorrow for three (or six, depending on how you count) questions and an answer with Olivia Meikle and Katie Nelson, hosts of the What’s her Name podcast, talking about their newest project The Book of Sisters.


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