The Artistic Sphere

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Searching for Dorothy - by Giles Masters

Should Dorothy Wadham be considered a protagonist of music history? This question might well have seemed absurd to her nearly a century ago. The protagonists of music history as it was taught and written about in the early twentieth century were nearly all men. All the most important ones were composers, with a supporting cast of performers, patrons, critics, and the odd impresario. Dorothy Wadham was none of these things.

Impersonal census records document the most basic outline of her life: b. Paddington, London, 1895; d. East Sussex, 1990. In the 1920s and 30s, she worked as the secretary for the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). The ISCM’s purpose in this period was the organisation of a series of annual festivals of new music, which took place in a different country each year. These festivals played an important role both in disseminating new music and in fostering international connections between musicians after the ruptures of the First World War. The London office where Dorothy Wadham worked was the central point of contact for this international network.

It would be easy to dismiss her work for the ISCM as ‘just’ secretarial, purely mechanical administration – in short, 'women’s work'. It is just such reasoning that has presumably led to her having largely been expunged from history, unmentioned in the memoirs of more high-profile (male) participants, and uninvestigated by historians. But even a cursory search through the archives reveals a different picture. She may not have had access to high-level decision making, but she clearly had individual agency within this institution as an organiser, coordinator and gatekeeper. If we believe that our histories of musical modernism should be more than a pageant of Great Composers, then people like Dorothy Wadham matter.

In this essay, I want to explore the process of searching for Dorothy Wadham, who I know only through a scattered archival trail of letters and documents. This is partly a story of failure, since I cannot make these fragments cohere: I try to construct a convincing picture of her life, her personality, or even just her role at the ISCM, but every attempt seems either to crumble back into its unconnected sources, or to impose a rigid caricature that reduces an individual life to a time, place, gender and profession. If Dorothy Wadham is to be made a protagonist of music history, I ask, how can I attempt to know her and how can I write about her?

Giles Masters is a PhD student in musicology at King's College London, where is researching the festivals organised by the International Society for Contemporary Music in the 1920s and 1930s. His essay 'Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Royal Opera House' was awarded runner-up in the The Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism 2017.