By Jennifer DeLapp-Birkett, Ph.D., musicology, [email protected]

When Vivian Perlis died last month, the music world lost a respected scholar, a pioneering oral historian, an advocate for American composers and a strong supporter of women in classical music and jazz. Among her greatest achievements is the nationally recognized Oral History of American Music at Yale University Libraries, which she founded in 1969 with a series of interviews with people who knew the composer Charles Ives.  Those interviews culminated in the celebrated book Charles Ives Remembered (1974). In the 1980s, a long series of interviews with Aaron Copland led to a two-volume Copland autobiography for which she was co-author: Copland 1900-1942 and Copland Since 1943, which were combined and published together as The Complete Copland by Pendragon Press in 2013 with updated footnotes and a new postlude.

Over the decades, Perlis and her assistants conducted hundreds more interviews until today OHAM stands as one of the largest collections of oral history in the country. More than 1,100 musicians are represented in its archives, most of them American composers of classical music and jazz.  In addition to hundreds of hours of interviews with Copland and those who knew Ives, OHAM features interviews with jazz greats including Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Marian McPartland, and Mary Lou Williams, and with many of the twentieth- and twenty-first century’s leading classical composers such as John Adams, John Cage, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, and Julia Wolfe.  A third book, Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington (2005), co-authored with Libby Van Cleve, presents extended excerpts from OHAM’s interviews with Nadia Boulanger, Leo Ornstein, Henry Cowell, and others in addition to the titular figures Ives and Ellington. Since Perlis’s retirement in 2010, Van Cleve has served as OHAM’s director.

Vivian Perlis, photo courtesy Oral History of American Music (OHAM)

When Perlis was beginning her career, she encountered challenges on at least two fronts.  First, the scholarly establishment was slow to accept the subject and the methods of her work.  For traditional scholars, living composers were insufficiently historical, and American composers were less worthy of study than the European mastersInterviews were not considered “objective research” because of potential bias and errors in memory.  It was only with Perlis’s consistent efforts and the passage of time that oral history came to be viewed by musicologists as not only viable, but indispensable primary sources.  An important marker of her work’s acceptance came when Charles Ives Remembered won the prestigious Otto Kinkeldey Award, given by the American Musicological Society for “a musicological book of exceptional merit published during the previous year in any language and in any country.” OHAM gained respect, acquiring additional collections including the WNYC Meet the Composer interviews, Judith Tick’s Ruth Crawford Seeger Oral History interviews, and the Connor and Neff Blues Collection, eventually moving from the basement of the music department to the climate-controlled facilities at Yale Libraries.

In addition, Perlis encountered gender discrimination, most notably when she began work toward the Ph.D. in musicology in the early 1960s.  As she described it to New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini in a 1997 interview, “‘I had three small children at home in Connecticut and was taking the train down to 125th Street for my classes at Columbia. When I asked for some flexibility regarding the requirement to study full time, I was turned down flat. So I could either orphan my children or give up the Ph.D. That would never happen today.’” She never earned a Ph.D., but the accolades accrued as she continued interviewing renowned musicians and producing scholarship, including four documentary films: on Ives, Copland, Blake, and Cage.  She later became a staunch supporter of women in academia, as the present author and many others will attest.  When the Society for American Music awarded her its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, scholars Carol J. Oja and Judith Tick wrote “over the course of some thirty years, Perlis has dazzled us with her work ethic and intellectual sparkle.  … This woman does not think small.  … She has persistently documented outsiders and bucked the system…”  Her productivity and determination are a continuing inspiration to scholars.

Performances of women’s music are also part of Perlis’s legacy: in 2016 the Society for American music established an annual concert series in her name, presenting contemporary works by both men and women. Held at the society’s annual meeting, already this series has brought to audiences the chamber music of New Orleans composers Bessie Shearer, Marguerite Elié-Samuel (1847-1912), Clara Gottschalk Peterson (1835-1919), Camille Nickerson (1888-1982), and Genevieve Pitot (1901-1980); Pauline Oliveros; and Chen Yi (b.1953).

Of the composer interviews in OHAM, nearly sixty preserve the words and voices of women. Among these are members of past generations, including Rebecca Clarke, Vivian Fine, Miriam Gideon, Katherine Hoover, Ursula Mamlok, Marian McPartland, Pauline Oliveros and Louise Talma; present-day luminaries including Laurie Anderson, Jennifer Higdon, Barbara Kolb, Libby Larsen, Meredith Monk, Joan Tower, Julia Wolfe, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich; and a younger generation including Hannah Lash, Gilda Lyons, Missy Mazzoli, Caroline Shaw and Augusta Read Thomas.  Interviews with other women of note are also found in the collections, such as French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught generations of American composers; Eva O’Meara, a founder of the Music Library Association; musicologist Eileen Southern, and Minna Lederman, editor of the influential Modern Music magazine in the 1920s and 1930s. For prospective patrons unable to access the OHAM archives in person (12-5 weekdays at the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library inside Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University) transcripts of many interviews are available electronically as digital copies of transcripts or via online streaming through this  Reproduction Request Form on the OHAM website.


Women Composers in OHAM

Kathryn Alexander
Laurie Anderson (b.1947)
Lisa Bielawa (b.1968)
Carla Bley (b.1938)
Ursula Block (Amy Beal Interviews)
Jane Ira Bloom (b.1955)
Victoria Bond (b.1945)
Joanne Brackeen (b.1938)
Elizabeth Brown (b.1953)
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
Eleanor Cory (b.1943)
Vivian Fine (1913-2000)
Miriam Gideon (1906-1996)
Gisela Gronemeyer (Amy Beal Interviews)
Jennifer Higdon (b.1962)
Katherine Hoover (1937-2018)
Jean Eichelberger Ivey (1923-2010)
Betsy Jolas (b.1926)
Sheila Jordan (b.1928)
Amy Beth Kirsten
Alison Knowles (b.1933)
Barbara Kolb (b.1939)
Joan La Barbara (b.1947)
Libby Larsen (b.1950)
Hannah Lash (b.1981)
Mary Jane Leach (b.1949)
Anne LeBaron (b.1953)
Tania León (b.1943)
Annea Lockwood (b.1939)
Gilda Lyons (b.1975)
Ursula Mamlok (1923-2016)
Karen Mantler (b.1966) (Amy Beal Interviews)
Missy Mazzoli (b.1980)
Marian McPartland (1918-2013)
Myra Melford (b.1957)
Nicole Mitchell (b.1967)
Meredith Monk (b.1942)
Thea Musgrave (b.1928)
Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)
Joan Panetti (b.1942)
Marga Richter (b.1926)
Laura Schwendinger (b.1962)
Caroline Shaw (b.1982)
Kate Soper (b.1981)
Maxine Sullivan (1911-1987)
Kay Swift (1897-1993)
Louise Talma (1906-1996)
Augusta Read Thomas (b.1964)
Joan Tower (b.1938)
Elizabeth Vercoe (b.1941)
Melinda Wagner (b.1957)
Amy Williams (b.1969)
Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)
Julia Wolfe (b.1958)
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)

Other women in OHAM
Helen Boatwright, soprano, recorded Ives songs
Nadia Boulanger, pedagogue (1887-1979)
Anita Kert Ellis, jazz singer, actress (1920-2015)
Frances Gershwin-Godowsky. vocalist, sister of George
Ella Grainger, wife of Percy
Olga Koussevitzky, philanthropist; second wife of Serge (1901-1978)
Minna Lederman, editor, writer on music and dance (1896-1995)
Sue Mingus, producer, manager, widow of Charles
Eva J. O’Meara, librarian, bibliographer (1884-1979)
Elizabeth Parisot, pianist
Vivian Perlis (1928-2019)
Mrs. Quincy Porter
Claire Reis, administrator, pianist, educator (1888-1978)
Judith Rosen, Schoenberg family assistant
Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, wife of Luigi
Eileen Southern, musicologist, teacher, author (1920-2002)