Mary Boysen

Besides documenting the role of music in daily living and popular culture, the compositions that were printed by the Tolbert Ingram Music Company also provide a glimpse into the lives of women like Hattie Green during the early twentieth century.

One particular demographic is striking in its representation of working-class women and their involvement with music: the music teachers of the time. Music and the other fine arts, activities that had been long affiliated with the domestic sphere of women, were also school subjects. Hattie Green was a teacher and also a pianist who performed in various venues around Denver, but many other women who mostly taught music occupied a public space that was not the same as being a performer.

Boysens- New York Census Boysens- New York Census

New York state census, 1875

Mary Boysen, a music teacher and composer from New York, exemplifies this demographic of middle-class working women. The youngest of seven siblings, Boysen was born in 1866 in Ohio, where her parents had met and married. The entire family moved to Buffalo, New York, while Mary was still of schooling age, possibly for Otto Boysen, her father, to continue or expand his practice as a physician.

Of her five brothers, Theophilus and Charles also became medical doctors, Louis and Edward were pharmacists by occupation, and William worked as an architect. Her only sister, Clara, moved to North Dakota and eventually started her own business as a milliner after spending some time teaching piano.

From the siblings' careers, we can surmise that higher education was important to this family; even though Mary and Clara did not (as women) follow their father into the medical field, it is evident that they had musical training, and quite likely that they had at least some opportunities for further education.

Composers did sometimes publish the same pieces with multiple publishing companies to make their work go a little further, but it seems a long way indeed from New York to Denver. Although it is not clear how Mary Boysen came to publish her work with the Tolbert Ingram Music Company, her three publications of 1905 can provide a little insight into her life and musicality. It is likely that all three compositions were submitted together as a set. This is not only because they were published within the same year, but because they are each dedicated to a woman living in Buffalo, NY: Etta Shew, Leila Hayward, and Emma Hayward.

Closer investigation shows that Etta's maiden name was Hayward. She, Leila, and Emma were sisters (Etta was a widow when they lived together in 1910); both Emma and Etta were music teachers. It is possible that they and Mary Boysen met as students or teachers, and that Boysen was closely acquainted with the sisters--certainly, they would have all been middle-aged single women in Buffalo, NY, during the early 1900s. Seen in this context, Boysen's 1905 publications are a nod to the community of women who shared a common occupation as music educators.

Haywards- New York census

New York state census, 1910

In some ways, Boysen's song "Flowers of the Past" parallels the place of a music educator in society. Stylistically, this song is not quite an art song (where the voice and piano part would have independent or intertwined parts, often with the piano part illustrating some aspect of the text), but not quite a popular song (where the voice and right-hand piano parts would be almost identical). Instead, throughout the entire song, the piano part has a simple accompaniment figure of mostly block chords, with a few arpeggio flourishes, under an uncomplicated vocal melody that is in a medium voice range.

There are no shows of virtuosity, no room to embellish and show off sophisticated vocal technique, but also no room for the singer to falter because the piano part will not help them recover. It is a moderate piece in many senses of the word: moderate in its expressivity, its consistent figuration, its difficulty level for a single performer accompanying themselves.

Flowers of the Past, mm.  1-10

Flowers of the Past, mm. 1-10

As a music teacher, Boysen would have been very familiar with the standard of musicianship common to American households of her time. Her compositions show a sensibility that is inclined towards classical training but also a keen awareness of popular taste and culture. Occupying a space somewhere between the popular and elevated classes of society, these works bear a close resemblance to the role that music educators, like Boysen herself, would have played in their communities.

Kabeyun, mm. 51-64

Kabeyun, mm. 51-64

Although the piano pieces "Kabeyun" and "A Mermaid's Song" are very different in character and style, they also carry the same sense of being carefully crafted for an early-advanced amateur. Notably, they both feature dramatic jumps that show off accuracy and low range in the left-hand part.

Drawing its title from Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha", "Kabeyun" has a confident striding melody, accompanied by grand chords and thick textures. "A Mermaid's Song," on the other hand, is more pensive and languid, with a flowing broken chord part that swirls under the right-hand melody for much of the piece. The complementary nature of these compositions might be another reason to consider them part of a set.

Containing few performance directions, both pieces invite the performer to add expressive gestures that would illustrate the images invoked in their titles.

The Mermaid's Song, mm. 6-11

The Mermaid's Song, mm. 6-11

Mary Boysen never married. She moved to North Dakota sometime before 1910 and continued to teach there until her death in 1922. (It is not known which schools she worked at in New York and North Dakota.)

Without surviving personal correspondences, it is impossible to know why these pieces of 1905 were sent specifically to the Ingram Music Company. It is entirely possible that she continued to compose, but since the Tolbert Ingram Music Company closed in 1912, she would have had to send her compositions to a different publisher. Could she also have been publishing with other companies in and outside New York?

At this point, the rest of Boysen's work, like that of so many lesser-known composers and musicians, remains a mystery that may never be illuminated.