Feminist criticism has made tracks in literary, dance and art studies, but music still claims exempt status from the politics of gender. Though pre-concert discussions are popular at classical music events these days, women's issues are hardly ever raised, the canon of great works by male composers never questioned. But Tuesday night's Mount Vernon College "In Series" offering, "Muse or Myth," created a major ripple in a field that changes glacially. Between Elizabeth Kirkpatrick-Vrenios's interpretations of Schumann, Brahms and Wolf, poet Jean Nordhaus commented on the feminine ideal portrayed in the song texts, and read from her own work. Her living program notes ascended to the level of poetry, and her own poetry dovetailed with the issues at hand.
Because the Brahms and Schumann songs portray women whose identities appear to be entirely bound up with a man's, one was apt to wonder why this material was worth discussing in a feminist context. Nordhaus explained that male artists of the Romantic era often adopted the female voice to grasp at the feminine (the creative) voice in themselves -- Brahms with his folk heroine waiting at the church door; Schumann, through the song cycle "A Woman's Life and Love."
Representing the plight of 19th-century female artists were the voices of Fanny Mendelssohn, who wrote finely crafted and sensitive songs; and Mignon, the Goethe character whose famous lament "Kennst du das Land" was set by Beethoven and Wolf. Like Nordhaus, Kirkpatrick-Vrenios is an expert in German Romanticism. She sounds best in dark, multi-layered music, conveying contradictory emotions as few others can. Despite occasional strain in the upper registers, her communicative powers were formidable.