Research Seminar: 'Old, wise and furiously heretical: Women and music after 50'

Wednesday 28 November 2012, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Sophie Fuller (Head of Postgraduate Studies Trinity Laban Conservertoire of Music & Dance)

In 1949 at the age of 42, the Welsh composer Grace Williams wrote to a friend: ‘There does seem something revolting – and perhaps a bit pathetic – in the thought of a symphony by a woman of 50’. Over 40 years later, at the age of 47, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell sang with resignation ‘Must I surrender / With grace / The things I loved when I was younger… What do I do here with this hunger… Oh I am not old / I'm told /But I am not young / Oh and nothing can be done …’ (Mitchell, ‘Nothing Can Be Done’ from the 1991 album Night Ride Home).

The worlds Williams and Mitchell occupied, like the world that I am living in today, had, and still has, little place for older women, who are mostly invisible and rarely recognised as artists with creative force and potential. The stories and creations that post-menopausal women tell and make are not ones that anyone, male or female, young or old, seems to want to hear.

But for many creative women, the age of 50 and beyond turns out to be a pivotal moment which ushers in a period of freedom and potential. Scholar Jacqueline Zita has written:

To deconstruct the meanings of menopause in a male gerontocracy is to construct a social and cultural space for the empowerment of crones. … My hope is that more powerful and unruly women will emerge from this conceiving – old, wise, and furiously heretical.

(Zita, ‘Heresy in the Female Body’ in The Other Within Us: Feminist Explorations of Women and Aging ed. Marilyn Pearsall (Colorado: Westview Press, 1997) 110)

In On Late Style (2006), Edward Said explores artistic lateness as ‘intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction’ in the works of various writers and musicians – all men. In this paper I will explore and celebrate the unruly and defiant musical creativity of the older woman, including Joan Armatrading, Diamanda Galas, Minna Keal, Madonna, Patti Smith, Maude Valerie White and Grace Williams.

Sophie Fuller is currently acting Head of Taught Postgraduate Programmes at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Forthcoming publications include an article on the significance of the Macnaghten Lemare concerts in the 1930s (JRMA 2013) and an edition of the letters between composers Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams. In the longer term she is working on salon culture in London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Location: I/D003