When Kathi Meyer-Baer became librarian of a distinguished music collection in 1922 at the age of thirty, she placed herself in the mainstream of cultural life in Weimar Germany. When she published a major history of music aesthetics ten years later, she seemed on the brink of a great scholarly career. Ten years later, however, forced from her homeland, she found herself struggling to rebuild her life and career in the United States. Stripped of her language and her culture, she endured years of personal hardships and professional setbacks, and she failed to achieve her goal of a permanent position at a university or public research library. As a woman and a Jew she encountered obstacles in every stage of her life, to the very end. But no setback could break her indomitable spirit or her superb discipline. Blessed with extraordinary courage and resilience, she published four path-breaking books along with more than thirty articles and hundreds of newspaper essays and reports, and her work continues to be read today. This pioneering biography captures her gripping life and scholarly achievement, and places her work both in its rich cultural grounding and in the turbulent political and social life of her time.
David Josephson received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in music from Columbia, where he also directed the Concert Band for three years and helped edit the journal Current Musicology. He has taught at Brown since 1972, where he founded and directed the Brown Early Music Group and chaired the Music Department in 1979-1985. As chairman he built the Orwig Music Library, initiated an artists-in-residence program around a campus-based string quartet, supported creation of a jazz program, and brought Brown its first professional music theorist. He is author of a biography of the German-born American scholar Kathi Meyer-Baer (2010), John Taverner: Tudor Composer (Ann Arbor/London, 1979), Conversations with Ella Grainger (Music Monograph No. 1, Grainger Society Journal, 1993), and numerous articles and review-essays on the musical emigration from Nazi Europe, the composer/pianist Percy Grainger, and Taverner. He teaches courses on Baroque and Classic music, Mozart and Beethoven, conductors and conducting, the culture of death in 19th-century Europe, 19th-century religious music, the sociology of 20th-century music, and the European musical emigration of the 1930s.
April 29, 2016
Torn Between Cultures: A Life of Kathi Meyer-Baer. By David Josephson. (Lives in Music Series, vol. 9.) Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2012. [xiv, 323 p. ISBN 9781576471999. $36.]
Illustrations, selective bibliography of the writings of Meyer-Baer, bibliogra- phy, index.
Kathi Meyer-Baer (1892–1977) was a Jewish-German musicologist and librarian. She was a productive scholar, publishing five books and numerous articles from 1917 to 1975 on topics as wide-ranging as choral music, aesthetics, musical incunab- ula, and the basse danse. Like many scholars in her generation, she immigrated to the United States via France during the Second World War, and was one of the seventeen musicians and music scholars helped by the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars. Yet, unlike the others aided by the committee, such as Alfred Ein- stein and Edward Lowinsky, she never found a permanent academic position— perhaps because she was the only woman— and knowledge of her life and works seems to have vanished from the records. Al- though important enough for inclusion in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and in Baker’s Biographical Dic- tionary of Musicians, these entries are cur- sory and outdated. What David Josephson has uncovered in this in-depth biographical monograph is a narrative that tells us not only about Meyer-Baer’s life and career, but also is an engaging case study of
musical émigrés, German and American musicological institutions, and academic miscommunications.
Josephson focuses primarily on Meyer- Baer’s life, rather than her works, dividing the book chronologically and geographi- cally: the first section, entitled “Germany,” details her education and the beginning of her career; “France,” the slimmest section, focuses on the Baer family’s two years in France; the third and largest section, “America,” delves into her life in the U.S.A., her search for an academic posi- tion, and her continued research. Josephson relies on archival material from three main sources: the Baer Family Collec- tion in Santa Maria de Xalostoc, Mexico; the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University; and the Paul Hirsch Collection at the British Library in London. The items cited by Josephson are primarily letters, from which he quotes extensively, letting Meyer-Baer and her colleagues, especially Paul Hirsch and Sophie Drinker, speak for themselves.
As Josephson notes, Meyer-Baer’s gender did influence her career, especially at the beginning: Professor Hermann Kretschmar blocked her dissertation at Berlin Uni- versity in 1915, claiming that “to accept her dissertation would be to give a female stu- dent an unfair advantage in wartime over her male counterparts” (p. 8). In order to complete her doctorate, Meyer-Baer trans- ferred to Leipzig University, a move spon- sored by Hugo Reimann, where she spent just a single day taking exams. After her struggle to submit her dissertation, it is not surprising that she faced the same resis- tance a few years later, when her Habilita- tion application, necessary to qualify for a university job, was rejected. In the mean- time, Meyer-Baer strung together a few lec- tures and began publishing articles.
After a chance introduction at an after- concert party, she came in touch with Jewish-German businessman Paul Hirsch (1881–1951) and visited his impressive pri- vate music collection. Shortly thereafter, he offered her a position as librarian, thus be- ginning “the most stimulating decade of her professional life” (p. 24). Josephson suggests that it was “no accident” (p. 294) that Meyer-Baer found employment with a Jewish patron, given the anti-Semitic cli- mate of 1920s Berlin. Meyer-Baer enjoyed
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her time at the library and immediately began working toward the publication of a multivolume catalog of the library’s hold- ings, no small task with some twenty thou- sand items, and a series of facsimiles of its rare scores and treatises, which started to come out in print in 1922. Although her formal employment at the library ended with Hirsch’s departure from Germany in 1936, he and Meyer-Baer continued their association, the last volume of the library holdings publication series appearing in 1945. (Hirsch was forced to sell the collec- tion the following year.)
This moment of professional transition was exacerbated by the increasingly tense situation in German politics, as well as changes in Meyer-Baer’s personal life. As Josephson describes it, an additional “four events now changed the course of Kathi’s life” (p. 294): marriage to Kurt Baer in 1934, the birth of their son George in 1936, and their subsequent emigration from Germany, first to France in 1938, and then to the United States in 1940. After arriving in the U.S., Meyer-Baer still struggled to find employment, with a position at a women’s college perhaps being her only option: Betty Drury of the Emergency Committee suggested that Meyer-Baer would be ideal for a school such as Mount Holyoke College (p. 151) and Josephson even hypothesizes that Meyer-Baer held a grudge against Alfred Einstein, perhaps en- vious of his position at Smith College (pp. 161, 233).
In this section on the Baers’ emigration, Josephson indulges in a short theoretical digression, a discussion of the difference between the terms exile, refugee, émigré, emigrant, and immigrant. In another scholar’s hands, this discussion would have dominated the narrative, reducing Meyer- Baer’s story to an extended example, but Josephson intelligently uses the terms to better illuminate her situation: the Baers “left Germany as emigrants . . . left France as refugees, entered the United States as immigrants, and lived their lives largely as émigrés” (p. 93).
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Meyer-Baer’s career is her extended collab- oration with Sophie Drinker, a “scion of Philadelphia society” (p. 59) and amateur musician. Drinker’s involvement with the Montgomery Singers women’s choir led to
her initial interest in Meyer-Baer’s disserta- tion on female choral singing from pre- Christianity to 1800 (“not a long disserta- tion” but rather a “path-breaking work on a subject little studied,” p. 12). Drinker con- tacted her in 1934, while Meyer-Baer was still in Germany, to propose an English translation and expansion of the text to create, in Drinker’s words, “a real history of women making music” (p. 62).
In the later 1930s, Meyer-Baer began to see this translated publication as a way to move into the American musicological or- bit. She wrote additional chapters and an- swered Drinker’s multiple requests, which entailed mailing photocopies of original documents, corresponding with nunneries, and retrieving archival information. Josephson remarks here on the imbalance of power suggested by Drinker’s “unsettling
. . . barrage of requests” of Meyer-Baer, who had, after all, informed Drinker of the worsening situation in Germany (p. 81). To her credit, Sophie and her husband Henry did sponsor Meyer-Baer and Kurt (who would go to the Curtis Institute of Music) for immigration to the U.S.A. with an affi- davit of support in 1939. Indeed, they were “vital” (p. 124) in helping Meyer-Baer and Kurt adjust to their new country.
Drinker’s aspirations for the book, how- ever, went beyond a history of singing schools and nuns, as she wanted it to in- clude also a discussion of goddesses and pre-antiquity rites performed in matriar- chal societies. She met with numerous clas- sics and anthropology professors with ques- tions and eventually came to see this project as a completely different book from Meyer-Baer’s dissertation. It still came as a shock to Meyer-Baer when she learned that Drinker had finished the book on her own in 1944, despite their close work in person in the early 1940s and their new geographi- cal proximity, which should have facilitated their collaboration (Drinker was based in Philadelphia and Meyer-Baer in New York City). Despite a decade of archival work and multiple rewrites, Drinker acknowl- edged Meyer-Baer’s contribution only in passing in the preface. Moreover, Drinker clarified to Meyer-Baer that she “grossly overestimated” her contribution; it “was but a small fraction of the total which I have ac- quired and an even smaller fraction of what I have used” (pp. 190–91). The women’s friendship was obviously over, and Meyer- Baer’s son described the publication of Drinker’s Music and Women: The Story of Women in Their Relation to Music (New York: Coward-McCann, 1948) as “the greatest professional disappointment in his mother’s life” (p. 196).
Despite this series of disappointments and Meyer-Baer’s continued lack of a per- manent position, she continued to publish prolifically, including her last book Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Death: Studies in Musical Iconology (Princeton: Princeton Uni- versity Press, 1970); a peer reviewer lauded its interdisciplinary nature, as it “makes con- tributions to the history of art, music, litera- ture, religion, and philosophy” (p. 284). The inclusion of peer reviews here is inter- esting. In general, though, the book is perhaps at times too focused on her life and career, the discussion of her research confined to contemporaneous reviews. A deeper analysis of her writings, particularly her dissertation on female choral singing, would have strengthened Josephson’s argu- ment that Meyer-Baer was a significant fig- ure in German and American musicology.
Yet, even after acknowledging this omis- sion, this text represents a massive under- taking to reconstruct of the life of Meyer- Baer. In all, Josephson convinces the reader that it is not just her publications that make Meyer-Baer noteworthy, but rather the entirety of her life and career. In addition to being the second woman to earn a Ph.D. in musicology, her scholarship on women and contributions to Drinker’s Music and Women make her an important figure for feminist musicologists. Likewise, Meyer-Baer’s attempts to integrate into American institutions make her biography interesting to scholars of émigrés and musi- cal migrations. Lastly, her work and experi- ences as a mid-century musicologist and li- brarian provide insight into the history of the disciplines and their workings. Appropriately published in Pendragon’s Lives in Music series, this volume is enthusi- astically recommended for all music li- braries, a windfall for both musicologists and librarians.
Johanna Frances Yunker
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Johanna Frances Yunker Notes, vol. 72 no. 4, June 2016