2022-2023 Dean's Essay Prize Winners

First Prize: Shanti Nachtergaele
Essay: “A Performance Matrix for Double Bass Tunings”
Prize: $1,000.

My essay is a sample chapter from my dissertation, which is tentatively titled “A Sociomaterial History of the Professional Double Bassist, 1760–1890.” The dissertation as a whole explores the sociomaterial entanglement of performers and their instruments, and investigates how this entanglement shaped identities of the double bass and double bassists. The first part centers on material identities of the double bass––that is, the instruments themselves. I focus on different regional identities and their association with four common tuning variants in use in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (German, French, Italian, and Viennese), as well as on the processes through which an international standard tuning was ultimately established by c. 1900. Since the coexistence of several varieties of double bass makes it difficult to pin down the materials involved in the sociomaterial entanglement, I introduce tools from the field of behavioral archeology to help define these materials more clearly.

One of these tools is the performance matrix, which is the subject of this chapter. Performance matrices allow one to investigate competing variants of a technology by analyzing which of its features and capabilities were prioritized in the different contexts in which it was used. The performance matrix for four regional double bass tunings that I construct in this chapter highlights a shift in priorities related to the double bass’s orchestral role in the nineteenth century, and further guides an examination of the institutional influences that contributed to the gradual spread of German tuning as the international standard. My analysis draws on my own experience playing the four tunings and on historical accounts, including two documented debates on double bass tuning––the first of which unfolded between 1827 and 1832 at the Paris Conservatoire, and the second at the 1881 Congress of Italian Musicians held in Milan. Whereas existing literature provides only brief explanations for the decline of Viennese, French, and Italian tunings, my analysis yields a more nuanced discussion of the compromises and shifting priorities that were involved in this extended process.

Second Prize: Sofia Yatsyuk
Essay: “Women composers and their cities in the era of first-wave feminism: gender and the classical music canon in Britain, 1850-1950”
Prize: $500.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, discriminatory gender ideologies in Western art music paved the way for critics to attribute both merits and shortcomings of women’s compositional works to their gender. Qualities such as ‘charm’ and ‘grace’ were qualified as feminine traits, while masculine-perceived traits were considered superior, and the highest praise a music critic could offer. By depicting women’s music as inferior, critics used discriminatory gender ideologies to justify its omission from the canon. To date, limited research has been conducted on the critical evaluation carried out by female music critics. Were female music critics being employed in the era of first-wave feminism? If so, how do their reviews compare to those of their male counterparts, and did they impact the reception of women composers navigating discriminatory gender ideologies? This paper addresses the questions posed above, exploring the feminist press and how the critical establishment’s use of gendered analysis may have confined a woman composer’s creativity. I demonstrate how reviews by male critics often differed greatly from those by female critics, having highly divergent impacts on the reception of women composers in the era of first-wave feminism. As a case study, I evaluate unique, unpublished archival documents of two upper- middle class women composers, who lived in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979). In their day, these composers were influential pioneers in their field; now they are ghostly presences in our music histories, on the margins of the classical canon. Exploring how critics’ use of gender- coded analysis may have confined the creativity of women composers enables us to better interpret the music of these revolutionary women, enriching our understanding of their work and ensuring a brighter future for their music in our concert halls.

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