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.

Musicological Conformities and Whiteness in Modern Early Music Performance

No, I’m not quite done with my posts following on from the American Musicological Society meeting in San Francisco yet! As with any productive conference, I have plenty of thinking to do as I work through new ideas and revise my own in response to comments and questions.

My paper was in an evening session organized by the AMS Committee on Women and Gender. Bonnie Gordon and Laurie Stras put together a fabulous panel, chaired by Jane Bernstein, considering Musicological Conformities. The idea was to think about gender, race and class from within marginal groups. (The abstract is on page 69 of the conference book [PDF].) Craig Monson interweaved entertaining and sobering stories of seventeeth-century convent choirs with thoughts on the family networks and with readings of the visual, textual and musical environment. Musical networks included competing family groups of musicians—aunts and their nieces might try to have a monopoly on certain types of music-making (the organists stuck in my mind). Emily Wilbourne opened her paper with an arresting account of stalking her subject (Virginia Andreini) through the archives. (Archival research has a creepy element. To be honest, I love reading [dead] people’s private correspondence.) Sindhumathi Revuluri brilliantly highlighted the colonial treatment of folksongs in her paper on “Civilizing Harmonies: Folksong Collection in Fin-de-siècle France”.

My paper considered whiteness in British early music vocal performing practice. Is it operating? If so, how? Is it in the sound? There’s a substantial body of scholarship demonstrating that, for example, the early music movement is about modernity (e.g. Richard Taruskin, John Butt), the British early music vocal sound comes from the Anglican cathedral and Oxbridge choral traditions (e.g. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, John Potter, Christopher Page, Donald Grieg), and that there are significant gender and class issues too (e.g. Kirsten Yri, Don Grieg). My contribution is to consider the operation of whiteness in this, particularly in relation to vocal conformity. Yes, it’s elite in terms of class, as Grieg and Page have demonstrated.  All I’m doing is considering the possibility that the practice in Britain is racialised as white, in part because of the history of institutional racism and the “possessive investment in whiteness,” to quote George Lipsitz’s book title, that has meant that the sound has been developed in particular ways.

I’m not going to recap my paper here. All I’m doing is briefly recording some of the directions for further research that came up in discussion and conversation. (I’m working the paper up for publication, and in due course a version will be available via my institutional open access repository.)  Some people shared personal stories that shed further light on British vocal culture in the mid-20th century. One person generously said I’d explained her childhood vocal training. Others talked of how they had felt excluded in Britain—even people who came from privileged backgrounds in the US and Canada found that they didn’t have the “right kind” of whiteness in Britain: their gender, ethnicity or religious heritage meant they didn’t quite fit. This does not mean that the whiteness angle is null and void, rather it highlights how whiteness operates differently in different times and places—it is not a cross-cultural constant, and needs to be considered with intersecting axes of difference. (Gwen Sharp posted a great discussion of this at Sociological Images.)

Some took issue with the idea that early music is racist. That is not precisely what I claimed: I was not insinuating that musicians who participate in early music deliberately discriminate against those who do not fit the current cultural ‘definition’ of white. Rather, there is a history of structural discrimination (perhaps better known in Britain as institutional racism) and the sound that now dominates British early music vocal performance originates in those very institutions. The sound cannot be entirely divorced from the social contexts which developed it.

I am concerned that the discourse of purity and simplistic ideas of authenticity are often based on an understanding of an imagined European past that was entirely Christian and white and in which the musicians were male. This denies the diversity and complexity of the past and it denies the diversity and complexity of the present, too.