Purity and Whiteness in Early Music

It is pretty standard still to hear early music singing voices described as pure or clear. Purity is a selling point (see, for example, The Pure Voice of Emma Kirkby [1998/99]). In this article, I explore the use of the discourse of purity to adjudicate belonging in British early music practices–to claim some voices and reject others. Critics employ purity logic to police the boundaries of early music singing. Donald Grieg has already explored the relationship between class, gender, institutional belonging and valued ensemble singing skills; I add the dimension of race and whiteness. I argue that the style of singing developed and embodied by Dame Emma Kirkby was embraced as pure and rhetorically aligned with familiar vocal sounds from Anglican worship as part of the conservative turn of the late 1970s.

Melanie L. Marshall, ‘Voce Bianca: Purity and Whiteness in British Early Music Vocality,’ Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 19 (2015), 36–44.
Available on Project Music (subscription required)

My thanks to Emily Wilbourne for inviting me to contribute to this special issue of Women and Music dedicated to Suzanne Cusick.

Prof. Ellie Hisama and Prof. Wilbourne will launch the special journal issue at a symposium in December, Women Music, Power: A Celebration of Suzanne G. Cusick’s Work.

1 thought on “Purity and Whiteness in Early Music

  1. This looks very interesting! It is really great that someone is writing about the use of these terms “purity” (and another one not so widely-used nowadays like “authenticity”). Hope I can manage to get the paper.
    all best,

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