Music Theory for the “Weaker Sex”: Oliveria Prescott’s Columns for The Girl’s Own Paper

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Rachel Lumsden


In this article, I examine a cluster of music theory essays by Oliveria Louisa Prescott (1842–1917), which were published between 1886 and 1891 in The Girl’s Own Paper (TGOP), the most popular periodical for young women in Victorian England. Although little known today, Prescott sustained a vibrant musical career in London as a composer and teacher, and her articles on music theory regularly appeared in major periodicals such as The Musical World and TGOP.

Prescott’s work for TGOP presents a rare opportunity to explore music theory that was not just written by a woman, but also intended for a genteel female audience in the Victorian era. Her articles include explanations of fundamental theoretical subjects (cadences, basic harmonic progressions) as well as short analyses of solo piano works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn. But these articles are also noteworthy for their discussions of more advanced theoretical topics (such as chromatic harmony), concepts that might seem surprising for a popular periodical for young ladies. Mainstream journalism is often devalued as a “less serious” form of intellectual discourse, but Prescott’s work complicates stereotypes of ignorant amateur female musicians and the so-called “private” sphere, and it demonstrates how print journalism could serve as a vital public platform for the circulation of music theory among young British women in the Victorian era.

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