May 24, 2016

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It is hard to reduce composer Marion Bauer to her anecdotal “firsts.” True, she was among the first women to have a piece premiered by the New York Philharmonic, and she was also the first woman to sit on the faculty of Washington Square College’s Department of Music. But beyond these “firsts,” Professor Bauer also led an American music movement, raising the collective profile of her modernist contemporaries and guiding new generations of composers.

The obstacles Marion Bauer faced as a woman in music were not insignificant. According to prevailing wisdom of the time of Bauer’s youth in the 1890s, professional musicianship was a man’s occupation; women were expected to stop at hobbyist piano playing. By the early 20th century, critics still judged new works not only by their experimental tonalities, but also by the “masculinity” they expressed. Any piece deemed too “feminine” was roundly condemned.

Fortunately, Bauer found ample mentorship in renowned composers Nadia Boulanger and Henry Holden Huss. She developed her distinct modernist style through years spent in European musical circles alongside Arthur Honegger and Claude Debussy—who later served as some of the subjects Bauer taught at NYU.

If not exceptionally prolific as a composer, Bauer certainly was productive as an advocate of modern American classical music. She joined NYU’s Department of Music in 1926. Alongside the five courses she taught as a lecturer, including “Brahms to Debussy and Contemporary Music,” “Instrumentation,” and “Musical Criticism,” Bauer also dedicated herself to public music education. Through the Extension Division’s Bureau of Broadcasting, Bauer delivered lectures on music appreciation, which she soon supplemented with published nonfiction: “How Music Grew, How Opera Grew, and Musical Questions” and “Quizzes: a Digest of Information about Music,” among other works.

In her pursuit of popular music education, Professor Bauer embodied the music department’s purpose affirmed at its 1923 founding: “to train the student to become an intelligent listener.” In recognition of her critical contributions, Bauer was promoted to Associate Professor in 1930, a position she would hold until her 1951 retirement.

The most tangible part of Bauer’s legacy, however, are her compositions. Bauer’s experiments in non­traditional harmonies, serialism, and impressionism suffused forty years of choral, chamber, and symphonic works. A highlight of her recognition came in 1947 with the premiere of the symphonic poem “Sun Splendor.” Performed by Leopold Stokowski conducting the New York Philharmonic, Bauer’s was only the second female-­penned work to be programmed in the hundred years since the orchestra’s founding.

Then, of course, there are Bauer’s compositions written in English, not in musical notation. Represented in the Marion Bauer Papers are some of her manifold contributions to popular knowledge of music theory and history. Make an appointment to view the collection in person!