Photo of Susan McClary sitting at a harpsichord
Photo credit: Mike Sands

Music’s Susan McClary to accept honorary degree, give address at Cleveland Institute of Music commencement ceremony

Susan McClary, the Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music, engaged in conversation with contemporary director Peter Sellars during a Case Western Reserve University Department of Music event in October 2019. In that discussion, they considered the future of music, predicting that the traditional music giants—such as metropolitan operas and symphony orchestras—were not the future of the industry.

But they couldn’t have predicted what would come next: a pandemic that would disrupt nearly every industry, putting a halt to live musical performances and threatening the livelihood of the very organizations they warned might see a downfall.

Tonight (June 2), McClary and Sellars will resume that discussion at Cleveland Institute of Music’s commencement ceremony for its Class of 2021. As part of the festivities, McClary, who teaches students at both Case Western Reserve and CIM, will accept an honorary degree, the third she’s earned throughout her distinguished career. 

“It’s just remarkable to receive this honor, but CIM is particularly dear to me,” she said. “I always prefer teaching at places where I get to work very closely with high level performers.”

A groundbreaking musicologist

McClary took an early interest in music, learning to play the piano and violin as a child. Though she went to Southern Illinois University as a piano major, she realized she was more inclined to study music than perform it.

In the 1980s, McClary began asking questions no one else was at the time, exploring gender and sexuality in musicology. She rejected the idea that music was abstract, and leaned into the belief that music shapes and is shaped by the society in which it is created.

Her 1991 book, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, was met with controversy. But her inflammatory studies sparked a debate—and eventually a reckoning.

“I received death threats, and it was a difficult time,” she said. “But now the field of musicology takes for granted that we have to pay attention to such issues and move in these directions.”

More recently, McClary authored a book about Sellars’ career, titled The Passions of Peter Sellars: Staging the Music.

For her contributions to the field of musicology, McClary was named a 1995 MacArthur Foundation Fellow while at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has already earned honorary degrees from McGill University (2016), where she previously taught, and Southern Illinois University (2017), her undergraduate alma mater.

And now, an honorary doctorate from CIM is yet another accolade—but one that holds special meaning for McClary, who works closely with the institute’s students.

“I derive far more joy from working with these talented, wonderful students than they can ever repay to me,” McClary said. “To have been asked to accept an honorary doctorate from CIM is just a dream.”

CIM’s commencement will be livestreamed at today at 7 p.m.