Susan McClary

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Susan McClary
Born (1946-10-02) October 2, 1946 (age 74)
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
EducationSouthern Illinois University (BA)
Harvard University (MA, PhD)
SubjectMusic, feminism
Notable worksFeminine Endings: Music, Gender, & Sexuality
SpouseRobert Walser

Susan Kaye McClary (born October 2, 1946)[1] is an American musicologist associated with "new musicology". Noted for her work combining musicology with feminist music criticism, McClary is professor of musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

Early life and education[edit]

McClary was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and received her BA in 1968 from Southern Illinois University. She attended graduate school at Harvard University where she received her MA in 1971 and her PhD in 1976. Her doctoral dissertation was on the transition from modal to tonal organization in Monteverdi's works. The first half of her dissertation was later reworked and expanded in her 2004 book, Modal Subjectivities: Self-fashioning in the Italian Madrigal. She taught at the University of Minnesota (1977–1991), McGill University (1991–1994), University of California, Berkeley (1993), and University of California, Los Angeles (1994–2011), before becoming a Professor of Musicology at Case Western Reserve University. She has also held a five-year professorship at the University of Oslo (2007–2012).


One of her best known works is Feminine Endings (1991). ("Feminine ending" is a musical term once commonly used to denote a weak phrase ending or cadence.) The work covers musical constructions of gender and sexuality, gendered aspects of traditional music theory, gendered sexuality in musical narrative, music as a gendered discourse, and discursive strategies of women musicians.[2][3]

McClary suggests that sonata form may be interpreted as sexist or misogynistic and imperialistic, and that, "tonality itself – with its process of instilling expectations and subsequently withholding promised fulfillment until climax – is the principal musical means during the period from 1600 to 1900 for arousing and channeling desire." She interprets the sonata procedure for its constructions of gender and sexual identity. The primary, "masculine" key (or first subject group) represents the male self, while the allegedly the secondary, "feminine" key (or second subject group), represents the other, a territory to be explored and conquered, assimilated into the self and stated in the tonic home key.[dubious ]

McClary set the feminist arguments of her early book in a broader sociopolitical context with Conventional Wisdom (2000). In it, she argues that the traditional musicological assumption of the existence of "purely musical" elements, divorced from culture and meaning, the social and the body, is a conceit used to veil the social and political imperatives of the worldview that produces the classical canon most prized by supposedly objective musicologists. But McClary does not ignore the "purely musical" in favor of cultural issues, incorporating it into her analysis. She examines the creation of meanings and identities, some oppressive and hegemonic, some affirmative and resistant, in music through the referencing of musical conventions in the blues, Vivaldi, Prince, Philip Glass, and others.[dubious ]

While seen by some as extremely radical, her work is influenced by musicologists such as Edward T. Cone, gender theorists and cultural critics such as Teresa de Lauretis, and others who, like McClary, fall in between, such as Theodor Adorno. McClary herself admits that her analyses, though intended to deconstruct, engage in essentialism.[4][5]

"Constructions of Subjectivity in Franz Schubert's Music"[edit]

"Constructions of Subjectivity in Franz Schubert's Music" first appeared as a paper delivered at the American Musicological Society in 1990 and then in a revised version as a symposium presentation during the 1992 Schubertiade Festival in New York City. At the time McClary was influenced by Maynard Solomon's claim in his 1989 paper "Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini" that Schubert was homosexual. McClary's paper explored the relevance of Solomon's research to what she termed the uninhibited, "hedonistic" luxuriance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. The symposium paper elicited in some mild controversy.[6] Following evidence that Solomon's conclusions may have been flawed[7] and largely based on his own psychoanalytic reading of a dream narrative Schubert set down in 1822,[8] McClary revised the paper again. Its definitive version was printed in the 1994 edition of the book Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, Gary Thomas.

According to McClary, Schubert, in the second movement of his Unfinished Symphony, foregoes the usual narrative of the sonata form by "wandering" from one key area to another in a manner which does not consolidate the tonic, but without causing its violent reaffirmation:

What is remarkable about this movement is that Schubert conceives of and executes a musical narrative that does not enact the more standard model in which a self strives to define identity through the consolidation of ego a Beethovian world such a passage would sound vulnerable, its tonal identity not safely anchored; and its ambiguity would probably precipitate a crisis, thereby justifying the violence needed to put things right again.[9]

While maintaining that attempting to read Schubert's sexuality from his music would be essentialism, she proposes that it may be possible to notice intentional ways in which Schubert composed in order to express his "difference" as a part of himself at a time when "the self" was becoming prominent in the arts. Schubert's music and often the man himself and the subjectivity he presented have been criticized as effeminate, especially in comparison to Beethoven, the model and aggressive master of the sonata form (Sir George Grove, after Schumann: "compared with Beethoven, Schubert is as a woman to a man"; Carl Dahlhaus: "weak" and "involuntary").[10] However, McClary notes: "what is at issue is not Schubert's deviance from a "straight" norm, but rather his particular constructions of subjectivity, especially as they contrast with many of those posed by his peers."[11]

Some of the ideas about composition as subjective narrative proposed in "Constructions" were developed by McClary in her 1997 article, "The Impromptu that trod on a loaf", which applies this analysis to Schubert's Impromptu Op. 90, Number 2.[12] "Constructions of Subjectivity in Franz Schubert's Music" and the ideas in it continue to be discussed, sometimes critically.[13] However, the article influenced a number of queer theorists,[14] and in 2003 was described by the musicologist, Lawrence Kramer, as still an important paper in the field.[15] The paper, and the reactions to it are also discussed in Mark Lindsey Mitchell's Virtuosi: A Defense and a (sometimes Erotic) Celebration of Great Pianists.[16]

The Beethoven and rape controversy[edit]

In the January 1987 issue of Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter, McClary wrote of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:

The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.

This sentence elicited and continues to elicit a great range of responses. McClary subsequently rephrased this passage in Feminine Endings:

'[...] [T]he point of recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music. The problem Beethoven has constructed for this movement is that it seems to begin before the subject of the symphony has managed to achieve its identity. (128)

She goes on to conclude that "The Ninth Symphony is probably our most compelling articulation in music of the contradictory impulses that have organized patriarchal culture since the Enlightenment" (129). The critiques of McClary discussed below refer primarily to the original version of the passage.

Readers sympathetic to the passage may be connecting it to the opinion that Beethoven's music is in some way "phallic" or "hegemonic," terms often used in modern feminist studies scholarship. These readers may feel that to be able to enjoy Beethoven's music one must submit to or agree with the values expressed, or that it requires or forces upon the listener a mode or way of listening that is oppressive, and that these are overtly expressed, as rape, in the Ninth.

Several commentators have objected to McClary's characterizations. Examples include:

  • "Painter Jailed for Committing Masterpieces" by Robert Anton Wilson (also Wilson, Robert A. (1998). Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups, p. 64. ISBN 0-06-273417-2.)
  • Historical Review Press: "The Godfather of the Multi-Cult Nightmare" by Robert Stacy McCain
  • "The Feminist Interpretations Debate, Concluded" by Glenn Lamont.

Leaving aside readers whose main interest is political, there are other reasons readers might take offense at McClary's sentence. The passage could be construed as unfair to Beethoven if one assumes that the "throttling murderous rapist's rage" putatively expressed in the music is supposed to have come from Beethoven's own habitual thoughts and feelings, which McClary does not suggest. Scholars and historians have found no evidence that Beethoven ever committed a rape or harbored an intense urge to do so.

Numerous musicological academics, however, have raised more serious and substantial objections to McClary’s scholarship, including (but not limited to) her notorious remark about rape. Four examples are:

  • Music theorist Pieter van den Toorn has complained that McClary's polemics negate the asocial autonomy of absolute music; he is concerned with Schenker-style formal analysis. Van den Toorn complains, for example, that "Fanned by an aversion for male sexuality, which it depicts as something brutal and contemptible, irrelevancies are being read into the music."[17] Van den Toorn's complaint was rebutted by musicologist Ruth Solie.[18] Van den Toorn responded with a book on these issues.[19]
  • Composer Elaine Barkin, in another extended critique, complained that "McClary's voice tone, language, attitudes all too resoundingly perpetuate and reinstantiate those very 'patriarchal practices' she is deploring."[20] McClary briefly dismissed Barkin's critique as "a caricature."[21]
  • Musicologist Paula Higgins, in another robust critique of McClary's work, has observed that "one wonders ... if [McClary] has not strategically co-opted feminism as an excuse for guerrilla attacks on the field."[22] Higgins complains of McClary's "truculent verbal assaults on musicological straw men",[23] and observes that "For all the hip culture critique imported from other fields, McClary has left the cobwebs of patriarchal musicological thought largely intact."[24] Higgins is also critical of McClary's citation practice as it concerns other scholars in the area of feminist musical criticism.
  • Ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury has criticized McClary’s inattention to the Friedrich Schiller poem set in the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony; he also lists numerous works by Beethoven and Schubert that he says contradict McClary’s claims regarding violence in Beethoven as well as her argument about the construction of gender in music.[25]

Another source of controversy is the possibility that McClary's passage trivializes the experience of rape victims by reducing it to mere metaphor. Even readers sympathetic to criticism of Beethoven's music may find that pinpointing a vague, unintended colonial program as "rape" is inaccurate.[citation needed]

The pianist and critic Charles Rosen has also commented on the famous passage. He avoids taking offense on any of the grounds mentioned above, and is willing to admit sexual metaphors to musical analysis. Rosen's disagreement is simply with McClary's assessment of the music:

We have first her characterization of the moment of recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:
The phrase about the murderous rage of the rapist has since been withdrawn [as noted above], which indicates that McClary realized it posed a problem, but it has the great merit of recognizing that something extraordinary is taking place here, and McClary's metaphor of sexual violence is not a bad way to describe it. The difficulty is that all metaphors oversimplify, like those entertaining little stories that music critics in the nineteenth century used to invent about works of music for an audience whose musical literacy was not too well developed. I do not, myself, find the cadence frustrated or dammed up in any constricting sense, but only given a slightly deviant movement which briefly postpones total fulfillment.
To continue the sexual imagery, I cannot think that the rapist incapable of attaining release is an adequate analogue, but I hear the passage as if Beethoven had found a way of making an orgasm last for sixteen bars. What causes the passage to be so shocking, indeed, is the power of sustaining over such a long phrase what we expect as a brief explosion. To McClary's credit, it should be said that some kind of metaphorical description is called for, and even necessary, but I should like to suggest that none will be satisfactory or definitive.[26]

McClary also notes that she "can say something nice about Beethoven",[27] saying of his String Quartet, Op. 132, "Few pieces offer so as vivid an image of shattered subjectivity the opening of Op. 132."[28]

Writing over thirty years after its publication, McClary observed:

People often ask me if I regret having written this essay. I have lived with the consequences for over thirty years, and no matter how much I publish on modal theory or Kaija Saariaho, I will always be identifed with this sentence, nearly always taken out of context. I hasten to mention that I have taught a course on Beethoven quartets every other year since 1980; unless a student has googled me and asked about the controversy, no one in my classes would have any inkling of my presumed hatred of this composer. But no, je ne regrette rien. I still stand by my argument and even my imagery after all these years.[29]

Personal life[edit]

McClary is married to musicologist Robert Walser.[30][31]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • McClary, Susan (1987). "The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during Bach Year". In Leppert, Richard; McClary, Susan (eds.). Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press. pp. 13–62. ISBN 0521327806.
  • McClary, Susan (1989), "Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition", Cultural Critique, 12 (12): 57–81, doi:10.2307/1354322, JSTOR 1354322
  • McClary, Susan (1992). Georges Bizet: Carmen. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521398978.
  • McClary, Susan (2002). Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, & Sexuality (2nd ed.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816641895.
  • McClary, Susan (2006), "Constructions of Subjectivity in Franz Schubert's Music", in Brett, Philip; Wood, Elizabeth; Thomas, Gary (eds.), Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, New York: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-97884-X
  • McClary, Susan (2000), Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form, Ernest Bloch Lectures, Berkeley, California: University of California, ISBN 0-520-23208-9
  • McClary, Susan (2004), Modal Subjectivities: Self-Fashioning in the Italian Madrigal, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California, ISBN 9780520234932
  • McClary, Susan (2012), Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California, ISBN 9780520247345


  1. ^ Pasler, Jann. "McClary, Susan (Kaye)". Grove Music Online. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.46978.
  2. ^ Sayrs, Elizabeth (1993). "Deconstructing McClary: Narrative, Feminine Sexuality, and Feminism in Susan McClary's Feminine Endings". College Music Symposium. 33/34: 41–55. ISSN 0069-5696. JSTOR 40374248.
  3. ^ "Feminine Endings". University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved 2020-04-03,, citing a review from The Village Voice.
  4. ^ Sayrs, Elizabeth. "Deconstructing McClary: Narrative, Feminine Sexuality, and Feminism in Susan McClary's Feminine Endings – College Music Symposium". Retrieved 2020-04-03.
  5. ^ Taruskin, Richard (2009). "Material Gains: Assessing Susan MCclary". Music & Letters. 90 (3): 453–467. doi:10.1093/ml/gcp049. ISSN 0027-4224. JSTOR 40539033. S2CID 191466798. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ See, for example Horowitz (1992); Rothstein (1992); Holland (1992))
  7. ^ Summarized in Tellenbach (2000)
  8. ^ Horowitz (1992).
  9. ^ McClary (1994) p. 215[incomplete short citation]
  10. ^ Quoted in McClary (1994), p. 214[incomplete short citation]
  11. ^ McClary (1994) p. 214[incomplete short citation]
  12. ^ Originally published in the journal Narrative, 5 (1), January 1997 reprinted in Bal (2004)
  13. ^ See for example, Ross (1994); Tommasini (1995); Rothstein (1995); Tellenbach (2000); Hatten (2004)
  14. ^ Tommasini (2004); Peraino (2006), p. 256
  15. ^ Kramer (2003), p. 99.
  16. ^ Mitchell (2000), pp. 113–114.
  17. ^ "Politics, Feminism, and Contemporary Music Theory", The Journal of Musicology volume IX/3 (1991) pp. 275–299. [p. 293][author missing]
  18. ^ "What Do Feminists Want? A Reply to Pieter Van den Toorn", The Journal of Musicology volume IX/4 (1991) pp. 399-410[author missing]
  19. ^ Music, Politics, and the Academy, University of California Press, 1995[author missing]
  20. ^ "either/other", Perspectives of New Music, vol. 30/2 (1992) pp. 206–233, [p. 219]
  21. ^ "A Response to Elaine Barkin", Perspectives of New Music, vol. 30/2 (1992) pp. 234-38
  22. ^ "Women in Music, Feminist Criticism, and Guerrilla Musicology", 19th-Century Music, vol. 17/2 (1993) pp. 174–192 [p. 178]
  23. ^ ibid., p. 176
  24. ^ ibid., p. 178
  25. ^ Sexual Politics, The New Musicology, and the Real World Archived 2011-03-21 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Rosen (2000), Chapter 15.
  27. ^ McClary, 1991, p. 119[incomplete short citation]
  28. ^ McClary, 2000, p. 119[incomplete short citation]
  29. ^ McClary (2019), p. 16.
  30. ^ "Susan McClary – Department of Music". Retrieved 2020-04-03.
  31. ^ "Susan McClary – MacArthur Foundation". Retrieved 2020-04-03.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]