Women in Music: a biobibliography by Don L. Nixon and Don Hennessee

Scarecrow Press/ Bailey Bros.


The main work of this work of reference is reference to other works of reference. Down the ages and through the pages of some 50 musical dictionaries and encyclopedias, the two Dons have been tireless in their pursuit of women. When they find one, they solemnly write down her date and place of birth and death, add a word or two of description (e.g. “pianist, teacher”), and then list each of the 50 sources in which she is mentioned. The c6000 names on 279 pages are then rearranged under the descriptive headings, which yields another 70 pages. In some ways all this can be time-saving and not just time-serving. For example if you are looking for Balls (Eliza; music publisher), you need go no further than Grove 5. Again, scholars in quest of that rare bird the classical woman concertina player might otherwise find Binfield (Louisa) quite elusive. But several far more famous and distinguished names (e.g. Christa Landon, Valerie Tryon) are not mentioned at all.

     As to accuracy, you might think that it shouldn’t be all that tricky just to transcribe the relevant facts. But no: “in any volume of this type”, we are admonished, “errors are inevitable”. I see that the book claims copyright: perhaps it should also have claimed copywrong, just to be on the safe side. The “authors” (i.e. compilers) also undertook “research” (i.e. consulting reference sources outside the selected 50). This was imposed upon them by the occasional need for necrologies, which (as they astutely point out) are not given for subjects who are still alive. However, “time constraints prevented an exhaustive search”. One sympathizes with their predicament, deafened as they must have been by the ceaseless clamour of a musical world desperate for its ladies’ directory.

    So what’s the use of it now we’ve got it? One interesting application remains unmentioned, namely as a guide to the extent of cribbing and blundering among the sources cited. The present compilers, disconcertingly but not surprisingly, find a great number of discrepancies: and for the most part just record them, without comment. Theirs not to reason why: theirs just to codify. The actual codifications however seem far too often designed to tell us what we already know or can readily ascertain, for example that Clara Schumann was a pianist etc who is always mentioned in all the places one expects and never in those one doesn’t (e.g. non-German national reference books). Personally I see little future for a work of reference the usefulness of which is in inverse proportion to the fame and stature of its subjects. Perhaps there was room for an abridged version. entitled “Musical women so obscure as otherwise to be practically unheard of”, on the model of that legendary box found in the Kentucky farmstead attic, carefully labelled “String too short to be saved”.        


The Musical Times, Nov. 1976 (p. 912) © the estate of eric sams