Susan McClary

From Academic Kids

Susan McClary is a musicologist considered to be a significant figure in the "New Musicology". She is noted for her work combining musicology and feminism.


Feminine Endings

Perhaps her best known work is Feminine Endings (1991; ISBN 0816641897). ("Feminine ending" is a musical term once commonly used to denote a weak phrase ending or cadence.) The work covers these topics:

  1. Musical constructions of gender and sexuality.
  2. Gendered aspects of traditional music theory.
  3. Gendered sexuality in musical narrative.
  4. Music as a gendered discourse.
  5. Discursive strategies of women musicians.

The publication of Feminine Endings (now in its second edition) is considered to have been a significant step in the acceptance and proliferation of feminist musicology within academia. Largely because of this influence, McClary was a 1995 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship.

In Feminine Endings, McClary describes, among other things, how 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 analyzes the sonata procedure for its constructions of gender and sexual identity. The primary, once "masculine", key (or first subject group) represents the, always in narrative, male, self, while the secondary, "feminine" key (or second subject group), represents the other, a terrority to be explored and conquered, assimilated into the self and stated in the tonic home key.

Other work

McClary set the feminist arguments of her early book in a broader socio-political context with Conventional Wisdom (2000, ISBN 0520232089), since this allows a less critical tone the book also seems more optimistic. In it, she argues that the tradition 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 world view which produces the classical canon most prized by supposedly objective musicologists. However, one should not receive the impression that McClary ignores the "purely musical" in favor of cultural issues, it is a crucial part of what creates cultural meaning. She examines the creation of meanings and identities, some oppresive and hegemonic, some affirmative and resistant, in music through the reference of musical conventions in the blues, Vivaldi, Prince, Philip Glass, and others.

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 people who, like McClary, fall in between such as philosopher Theodor Adorno.

McClary herself admits that her analyses, though intended to deconstruct, flirt with essentialism.

The Beethoven and rape controversy

A sentence by McClary which has been very widely quoted is given below. Here, "the Ninth" refers to 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.

The sentence appeared in the January 1987 issue of Minnesota Composers' Forum Newsletter, a journal with a relatively small circulation. Nonetheless, it continues to elicit a great range of responses. McClary subsequently rephrased this passage in Feminine Endings:

The 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 patriachal culture since the Enlightenment." (129) It is significant that the critiques of McClary discussed below refer primarily to the original passage from the Minnesota Composer's Forum Newsletter.

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 oppresive, and that these are overtly expressed, as rape, in the Ninth. For related views, see discussion above, as well as sonata form.

Hostile reactions were posted on the Web by commentators whose politics are evidently right-wing; here are four examples: 1 (, 2 (, 3 (, 4 ( The intent of such postings often is not so much to discuss Beethoven as to support an attack on the purported decadence of modern academia, particularly in the humanities. Such commentators assume that the reader will immediately agree that McClary's opinion is absurd, and then take this absurdity as evidence that modern academics have "gone astray" and are unworthy of the public's support.

Leaving aside readers whose main interest is political, there are other reasons why readers might take offense at McClary's sentence. For instance, on one reading, the passage could be construed as unfair to Beethoven: this would be so if one assumes that the "throttling murderous rapist's rage" putatively expressed in the music is supposed to be a spillover 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. On the other hand, it is also clear that McClary did not literally accuse Beethoven of these things, so the objection might well be considered hypersensitive.

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

The noted pianist and critic Charles Rosen has also commented on the famous passage. He avoids taking offense on any of the grounds mentioned above, and indeed is willing to play with sexual metaphors just like McClary. 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 Beethovenís Ninth Symphony:
[passage appears here]
The phrase about the murderous rage of the rapist has since been withdrawn [see below], 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.

The term "withdrawn" in Rosenís passage alludes to McClary's later work (1991) in Feminine Endings, quoted above.

Though McClary no longer focuses strictly on gender and sexuality in music (she remains fascinated with how music generates pleasure, however), her original controversial remarks about Beethoven (and also Schubert), despite being nearly twenty years old, continue to exist for her critics as ever-contemporary examples of her scholarly transgressions.

It is worth noting that McClary "can say something nice about Beethoven" (1991, p.119) and discusses his Op. 132 positively, saying "Few pieces offer so vivid an image of shattered subjectivity as the opening of Op. 132." One may also contrast with McClary's Lou Harrison's view of Beethoven's codas as "an exasperated absentee landlord pounding on the door for back rent." (Miller and Lieberman 1998, p.192).


Susan McClary is on the faculty in the Musicology Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is married to the musicologist Robert Walser.


  • "Rather than protecting music as a sublimely meaningless activity that has managed to escape social signification, I insist on treating it as a medium that participates in social formation by influencing the ways we perceive our feelings, our bodies, our desires, our very subjectivities - even if it does so surreptitiously, without most of us knowning how. It is too important a cultural force to be shrouded by mystified notions of Romantic transcendence."
    • "Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert's Music", Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (1994), ISBN 0415907527

Selected bibliography

Works by Susan McClary

  • "The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during Bach Year." In Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception. Ed. Leppert and McClary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 13-62.
  • "Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition." Cultural Critique 12 (1989): 57-81.
  • Georges Bizet: Carmen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • "Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert's Music." In Queering the Pitch. Ed. Brett, Wood, and Thomas. New York: Routledge, 1994. 205-33.
  • Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, & Sexuality. 2nd. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002 (1991).
  • Modal Subjectivities: Self-Fashioning in the Italian Madrigal. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.


  • The quotation from Charles Rosen above is taken from Chapter 15 of his Critical Entertainments (2000) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674177304.
  • A fairly negative assessment of McClary's work appears in Paula Higgins (1993) "Women in Music, Feminist Criticism, and Guerrilla Musicology: Reflections on Recent Polemics," 19th Century Music 1:174-192. Higgins is particularly critical of McClary's citation practice as it concerns others scholars in the area of feminist musical criticism.
  • Miller, Leta E. and Lieberman, Frederic (1998). Lou Harrison: Composing a World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195110226.

See also

External links



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