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Rediscovering the women who brought classical music and literature to small town Iowa

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Illustration by Angela Zirbes.

A century ago, the small towns of Iowa may have seemed to be a world away from the cultural centers of America, but throughout the state, groups of women formed philharmonic societies to help bring culture to their hometowns.

Marian Wilson Kimber, a professor for the University of Iowa School of Music, is dedicated to uncovering the lost history of women’s influence on music and culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

During research on a previous project, Wilson Kimber came across a group of 29 women in Tama, Iowa, who organized the Tama Philharmonic Society in the early decades of the 20th century. Wilson Kimber became fascinated with the ambition of these women who compiled music by Iowa composers to perform throughout the year.

Wilson Kimber received a grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa to study the Tama Philharmonic Society. In the course of her research on the music group in Tama, she discovered it was just one of many popping up all across Iowa during that era.

Wilson Kimber first became interested in these music societies while working on her 2017 book, The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word. The book focused on women who recited excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays and other dramatic or poetic speeches as part of concert programs. Their expressive speech, or elocution, would be accompanied by music.

“One of the reasons we don’t know about it now is because women were the people who primarily were elocutionists,” Wilson Kimber said.

Reciting literature was supposed to be more respectable than being an actress in the 19th century, Wilson Kimber said. “Your voice is the vehicle for you to interpret great literature,” she explained. But respectable or not, these elocutionists were still made fun of and faced enormous backlash. Eventually, their performances were forgotten.

After writing her book, Wilson Kimber decided that it was important to bring elocution back to life. She began to perform pieces by women that she had written about in The Elocutionists. Her performances began just over a year ago and Natalie Landowski accompanies Wilson Kimber’s speech on piano.

“I…uncovered pieces by women for spoken word and piano that I just thought were very clever and funny and really had a woman’s perspective,” Wilson Kimber said. “It was very interesting to me to find these pieces where I felt like women really had a voice.”

Such performances did much to bring culture to towns that otherwise had little access to world literature. And while elocution has faded from the scene, some of the music societies like the one Wilson Kimber is researching still exist, including one in Iowa City.

When the Iowa City Music Study Club (ICMSC) began, members and local musicians would perform, present papers or give lectures. Both women and men were in the club that totaled over 30 active members. Eventually all of their programs became musical performances followed by short social gatherings and business meetings.

John Muriello, a voice professor at the University of Iowa and a professional baritone with an international resume, has performed for the ICMSC a few times, most recently in May. Muriello said he thinks clubs like the ICMSC have a positive impact on the community. “They want to keep live music, particularly classical music, alive in the community,” says Muriello.

The tradition of women promoting musical arts that Wilson Kimber is researching aligns with Muriello’s observations about their efforts on an international scale.

“Women are…an effective promoter of the arts I think. This is, I would say, worldwide. This is not just indigenous to Iowa or even the United States,” Muriello said. “I think they play a profound role.”

That this “profound role” remains largely unstudied is why Wilson Kimber keeps returning to the topic of women and their influence in promoting music and culture.

“It is important to me to bring visibility to the women’s history in music and…there is a long and complicated history of women as composers and performers and people who had important influence in the history of music,” Wilson Kimber said.


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