Purity in Early Music

Following the Women, Music, Power conference, I received an email from Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, a freelance arts journalist who contributes regularly to the New York Times. She saw an interesting story in my work on purity and early music vocal practice in the disconnect between the way early music singers describe singing and the sound they make, and the way critics describe early music voices. She took the idea and ran with it, interviewing numerous singers and directors, as well as me, and the result is a rich and critical investigation. ‘Early-Music Ensembles: Praised as Pure, but Seeking More’ is a really thoughtful exploration of purity as the main adjective to describe women singers of early music. The article is published online already (link above), and will be in the print version of the New York Times on Saturday, 23 Jan. 2016.

As da Fonseca-Wollheim notes, ‘The lexicon of praise for female singers of early music can be narrow, with purity a recurrent concept’. I hope that this lexicon will now become richer.

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.