The Organ

Elizabeth Stirling and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth-Century England

Judith Barger: Elizabeth Stirling and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth-Century England
ISBN 978-0-7546-5129-1

What a fascinating book this is! Elizabeth Stirling was one of a very small number of female organists in nineteenth-century England who ‘made it’ (to a certain extent) at a professional level in an environment not only dominated by male organists, but also in a world almost wholly antipathetic to women doing anything other than keep house and look pretty. How strange and sad it all seems now: but in the mid to late Victorian period, it simply was not the done thing to teach or study professionally, perform in public, or gain qualifications and awards. Yet Stirling somehow managed to become recitalist, church organist and composer. She was a pioneer in the performance of J.S. Bach’s organ works, and won some popularity for her own music. Barger surrounds this fascinating biographical study with an excellent study of primary sources of the time: newspaper articles; concert programmes; music reviews; job advertisements; primers; fiction, and much, much more.

Chapter 1 provides a most insightful overview of the role of women in nineteenth-century society, taking both a chronological and then a thematic approach. Chapter 2 focuses on the limited opportunities for female musicians and organists borne of a social and economic status quo that must have made life depressingly difficult. The remaining chapters (2-8) are centred upon Stirling’s life and career, albeit in a more general context and with many references to other female organists, performers and composers. Chapters 3-4 focus on preparing for, launching and building a career as a (female) organist, and in doing so highlight the position of organists more generally at the time; chapters 5-7 focus, in turn, on women as professional organists, composers of vocal music, and organ music, with a valuable critique of Stirling’s own output. It is notable that she was in the vanguard of organ composers who incorporated Bach’s musical style, especially with regard to their writing for the pedals. The final chapter considers Stirling’s legacy, highlighting what today we take for granted as a greater degree of equality than Stirling could ever have thought possible. But do we really have equity and equality even now?

The work concludes with four significant appendices which add much to the value and importance of this outstanding scholarly work. The first is a full chronology of Stirling’s life, including major performances; the second is a list of all her known repertoire, though based as it is on her public performances, this may be but a fraction of what she actually played either at church or in private. But what an interesting selection it is: mostly Bach and then mainly transcriptions, with only ten ‘real’ organ pieces (including two of Mendelssohn’s Sonatas). Appendix 3 is just as significant, being a list of all publicized recitals by women – and not many of them either. Appendix 4 is Stirling’s best-known composition All among the Barley – trite and trifling by our standards, but a work that achieved popularity despite, or perhaps because of, its limitations, its ‘light’ nature being tolerated in a world where only men were capable of writing serious music. The extensive bibliography gives ample evidence of the serious and scholarly research that has gone into this work. The title is well published and produced, with a valuable index. I recommend this book most highly for its high standards, its subject matter and therefore its contribution to organ, social, economic and feminist history with special reference to Victorian England.