Assistant Professor of Music Charity Lofthouse will discuss contemporary nun composers, exploring their many works for how they illuminate attitudes about women composers, sacred music, feminism and professionalism. Her talk, “Eternal Novices? Professionalism and American Women Monastic Composers,” will take place on Thursday, March 27, from 5 to 6 p.m. as part of the Sentiments & Declarations lecture series hosted by the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in conjunction with the Colleges.
Lofthouse will explore questions of compositional professionalism through the work of contemporary nun composers, examining the complicated characterization of their musical activities as “professional” or “amateur.”
“By depicting their performance activities in older genres as ‘professional,’ the contemporary compositions of nuns are then positioned as amateur,” contends Lofthouse. “This gendered comparison derives from postwar musical egalitarianism and expressions of feminism, as well as perceptions of nuns’ compositional aims and what it means to take part in a vocation or profession.”
Whereas the idea of musical nuns is familiar, they are often depicted performing ancient repertoire that carries exoticism of past tradition. Catholic and Episcopalian nun composers create music for daily and weekly worship in conditions similar to those of the Renaissance through Bach and beyond, notes Lofthouse.
“Yet their current output is extremely diverse, ranging from chant to protest songs and popular music to feminist liturgies,” she says. “Despite recent attention to their performance successes, including the 2012 commercial success of a Missouri convent’s recording and the 2010 signing of a French convent to Lady Gaga’s record label, there are no anthologies of contemporary nuns’ musical works, which still largely reside within convent archives.”
Lofthouse also takes the position that nuns represent a cultural outgroup-their otherness includes homosocial living and perceived exclusion from musical professional exchanges-and contemporary nun composers and their music are virtually unknown. Large-scale works, traditional styles, and conventional texts are markers of sacred-musical professionalism, or suitability for engagement by professional musicians in formal settings.
“Nun composers are often afforded a secondary amateur status as composers, owing to the feminization of their music and its perception as vernacular, private, intended for non-musicians, and/or feminist,” argues Lofthouse. “Conversely, their comparative traditionalism and religious affiliation exclude them from more experimental professional composer groups.”
She provides as case studies three composers whose work has remained unexplored by scholars-Theophane Hytrek, Miriam Therese Winter, and Elise, CHS. Their music spans genres from chant to feminist songs to traditional liturgies.
“Illuminating the works of nun composers allows exploration of attitudes about women composers, vocation, sacred music, feminism, and professionalism,” explains Lofthouse.
She joined the Colleges in 2011. She received her B.M. from Oberlin College and a Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center. Prior to joining the Colleges, Lofthouse served as a visiting assistant professor of music theory at Oberlin College Conservatory, where she taught courses such as “Music Theory II” and “Music Theory III.” She also acted as an adjunct instructor at Hunter College. Lofthouse has performed extensively in operas and scene programs in Oberlin, Philadelphia and Italy, has performed solos at a number of churches and has played as a collaborative pianist.
The lecture, which is open to the public, will be held in the Guntzel Theatre at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls.
Sentiments & Declarations events are co-sponsored by the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Women’s Studies, the Offices of the President and of the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Vice President for Student Affairs, Hobart and William Smith Colleges.