'The Frozen, Firm Embodiment of Music': Romantic Aesthetics and the Female Form

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This paper explores two themes in the writings of ETA Hoffmann, Carl Maria von Weber, and Robert Schumann: music as idealized woman, and philistinism amongst actual female musicians. It argues that these writers deploy these tropes as part of a general campaign to raise the aesthetic value of music, and, along with it, the social standing of musicians. In the context of the changing patterns in labour and domestic life during the early nineteenth century, the activities of composition and instrumental performance were discursively positioned as inherently masculine as a means to secure their desired status of middle-class professional.

For the background to the paper, see my previous blog post


In the long crescendo of the nightingale's song, the beams of light condensed into the figure of a beautiful woman - and this figure was a divine, magnificent music.1

These words by Hölderlin provide succinct expression of a theme reiterated almost obsessively in early German Romanticism: the personification of music as a woman. Music had, of course, been considered feminine (or, perhaps, feminising) at least since the Renaissance;2 indeed, the noun 'music' is gendered feminine in many European languages. Similarly, western iconography has a long tradition of personifying abstract concepts as women.3 What I wish to explore here, though, is the specific context in which this theme emerged as a concrete and pervasive image in the early part of the nineteenth century. By tracing the way in which this image is deployed in the music criticism of these years, and by contrasting this theme with another which pervades these writings - that of musical philistinism - I hope to outline its relation to gender ideology, to the formation of class identities, and to the social and professional ambitions of German composers of this time. My aim, then, is not merely to make the fairly general point that music was seen as feminine, but to show the way in which this standard gendering was used ideologically in a particular historical situation. For, given that many of the narratives by which we still organize our discourse about music were first articulated at this time, an understanding of the circumstances that gave rise to them will help us interrogate the rationales that guide our own thinking and writing about music nearly two hundred years later.

I will be drawing chiefly on the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber, and, to lesser extent on those of Robert Schumann, all composers closely associated with the rise of romanticism in music. Indeed, their written contributions to the new musical aesthetic are arguably as important as their musical offerings; in particular, Hoffmann's musical impact on the repertoire was negligible compared to the influence of his writings on both his own and subsequent generations of composers, including Schumann.4 These writers, moreover, were not working in a vacuum, but as part of an intellectual community; not only were Weber and Hoffmann personally acquainted, but both were familiar with the writings of such early romantic writers as Tieck, Schelling, Wackenroder and the Schlegel brothers, who provided a number of tropes through which they articulated their conception of music as woman.5 Indeed, that Schumann is still drawing on these same tropes in about twenty years later than Weber and Hoffmann suggests the extent to which they had become common currency.

Despite this common agenda, though, it should be stressed that the ideas propounded by these writers do not necessarily reflect musical and social life as experienced by their contemporaries so much as ideological assertions with which they are attempting to shape attitudes and practices of their time. Many of the articles from which I will be quoting are highly charged polemics which, while presenting positions recognizable as aesthetic truisms later in the century, still clearly bear the traces of the conventions they aim to supplant. That is, they represent more ideologies trying to become established than the general views of their time. The extent to which they succeeded in transforming their culture's approach to music is something I will return to after an exploration of the strategies they employed to establish their position.


Firstly, a closer look at the theme of music as woman. Weber builds his 'Fourth Fragment from Tonkünstlers Leben' around this theme in order to explore the contrasting characteristics of French, German and Italian grand opera by cataloguing the personal appearance and behaviour of women representing each at a masked ball. Hence Italian opera is portrayed as 'a tall, gaunt figure with a featureless face...[wearing] a thin gown...covered with little glittering stones', French opera as a 'well-born Parisian', who 'manag[es] with a courtly grace her long and uncomfortably constricting Greek garment', while German opera is initially unable to appear because 'she is so swollen by all the claims that have been made on her behalf, that she cannot get into any clothes.'6

While this is a good example of the extended use of the theme, its satirical tone is atypical. Personified music more frequently appears as an idealized figure, as in the Hölderlin example above. Hoffmann echoes these terms closely at the climax of his Kreisleriana: 'In the long swelling phrases of the nightingale the aura took on the form of a mysterious female apparition, but then again it was the apparition of heavenly music!'7 Schumann takes a similarly idealising tone in his letters to Clara Wieck, in which he not only attributes to her his inspiration for a series of compositions, but also figures some of these works as actual representations of her; his Op. 21 Noveletten, he tells her, contain 'images of you in every possible setting and harmony, and in other ways in which you are irresistible.'8

By linking his music with an actual, loved woman, Schumann invokes a specific relationship between the feminine musical work and a masculine composer. The same relationship often obtains in more abstract, and fictionalized uses of the image; both Christian Friedrich Michaelis and Hoffmann liken music to a feminine beloved:

Just as a lover rejoices to hear his beloved speak, bewitched by the sound of her voice and oblivious to what she is saying, so music often enchants us simply by its very existence, by the union of melody and harmony in a manifold interplay of the most intimate kind which reverberates in our innermost being, whatever the content may be.9

How intelligently Crescentini [the composer] applied these incidental embellishments, and how they enliven the overall effect; they are the brilliant finery that adorns the beloved's fair countenance, so that her eyes shine more brightly and a deeper purple colours her lip and cheek.10

Michaelis's simile draws women and music together as sharing a power to delight beyond that of the rationally intelligible, while Hoffmann's direct embodiment not only shares this sense of delight, but also attributes these charms to the directing intelligence of the composer. Both writers, moreover, expect the reader to share their masculine subject positions: it is the listener's experience they invite us to share, while the musical beloved is discussed in terms of the material effects of appearance and sound quality. Indeed, Michaelis explicitly declines to consider the beloved's subject position by remaining oblivious to the content of her speech. Hoffmann develops the connection between the musical beloved and the composer in his fictionalized discussion of Don Giovanni, when he has the singer of the role of Donna Anna say to the composer-narrator 'Yes, I have sung you, for I am your melodies.'11 Hence the relationship becomes clear: the personified music is Galatea to the composer's Pygmalion, the artwork which he created, perfected, and now loves.12

The image of music as woman also draws on an image from German Pietism - that of Sophia - reflecting the influence of the mystic Jakob Böhme on the Jena Romantics.13 Sophia, the Virgin or Heavenly Wisdom, was split from Adam by the Fall from Grace, and ascended directly into Heaven to await reunion in androgynous perfection with his descendants. While the Jena Romantics did not discover Böhme until 1798, when Tieck recommended his work, the Pietist tradition within which he wrote would have been familiar to many late-eighteenth-century thinkers, including Novalis, Schelling, Schleiermacher and Hölderlin. Indeed, one of the significant innovations of the Romantics was the secularization and introduction into literature of such previously exclusively religious tropes as androgyny and the pattern of paradise, paradise lost, and paradise regained. In the secular, romantic androgyny, women are associated with nature, the organic, and the non-rational, spiritual world, and only by heterosexual union with them can men achieve wholeness. Hence, a feminized music becomes and ideal, redeeming and unattainable (hence chaste) figure: an embodiment of Goethe's Ewig Weibliche.

Weber hints at such a spiritualized and redemptive feminine music in his review of Morlacchi's oratorio Isacco:

A daughter rather than a mimic of Nature, music in her solemn and mysterious language arouses and creates the sense of devotion; she works directly on man's emotional system and is the mistress of his deepest stirrings.14

Meanwhile, in his novel Kater Murr, Hoffmann evokes imagery of both Pygmalion and Sophia when he describes how the artist's spirit:

stretches out a thousand feelers in ardent longing and surrounds the one it has seen yet never possessed, for the longing continues to exist as an endless thirst. And she, she herself is the glorious one who, like a dream figure, takes on living form and shines forth from the artist as song-picture-poem!15

In contrast, descriptions of actual female musicians are some of the most acidly caricatured figures in the writing of early nineteenth-century musicians. Weber, in one of the unpublished passages of his incomplete novel, Tonkünstlers Leben, gives this description of a local amateur's daughter from whom his composer-narrator wishes to receive support:

I was...not a little struck by her appearance, for such an opus is not to be met with every day. Imagine a diminutive creature with a huge head covered with bristling black locks and a kind of tiara.... She sat down at the piano, struck a few heavy chords, and...croaked her way through a bravura aria by Scarlatti. I was astonished by my own good nature, and tried to look over her shoulders (one of which was perversely higher than the other) at the music. But she had only sung a few more bars when she exclaimed, 'You see, it's quite impossible!' sang a few more bars, blamed her hoarseness (though she made a sound like a booming bittern) and finally after repeated interruptions, got to the end.16

This poor girl is charged not only with musical incompetence, but also, in attempting music which is not only beyond her, but quite explicitly designed as a showpiece, pretentious affectation. This characteristic is highlighted by the detail of her headgear; unattractive natural endowments - her 'bristling black locks' - are glossed over with an artificial and expensive tiara. Indeed, throughout the whole passage, the narrator uses an unending catalogue of her physical deformities to mark his revulsion at her musical deficiencies; even here, though, the young woman is described as an 'opus'.

This was written in 1809; the following year, in which he made the acquaintance of Weber, E.T.A. Hoffmann published a remarkably similar description of musical philistinism. While the daughters of the house here are also depicted as utterly unmusical, it is the guest who pushes herself forward as a performer that receives the full blast of the narrator's venom:

Oh blithely go on with your shrieking, squeaking, miaowing, gurgling, groaning, moaning, warbling, wobbling!... Oh Satan, Satan! Which of your hellish demons has taken possession of this larynx, which traps and twists and tears every musical sound?...How can every obscene sound that emanates from the screeching trumpets of market-criers have been charmed into this little throat? The strain is too much to bear.17

The conjunction of these two themes - music as woman, but women themselves as incompetent - thus sets up a dichotomy between woman as the epitome of beauty and goodness, (and unobtainable) and woman as utterly unattractive, unbearable, (and lamentably present). This dichotomy taps a trope persistent in Western culture: woman as either utterly good or utterly bad, as madonna or whore. The invocation of this trope to differentiate between music as an ideal and female amateur musicians, though, deploys it to a certain end which is specific to a particular moment in music history. This end was to secure the social status of the male professional musician by marginalising the professional status of his female counterpart.


During the early years of the nineteenth century, the status of the professional musician was in flux. The political and social upheavals attendant on rapid economic changes and the Napoleonic wars led to a decline in the musician's traditional forms of employment in the service of aristocratic patrons at the same time as they opened new independent, commercial opportunities.18 The social station of musicians under the old regime could vary widely, depending on their level of skill and the size (and budget) of the court in which they were employed, while the newer forms of occupation offered both a clarification of role and a potential for social and economic betterment which musicians were keen to exploit. At the same time, music underwent a dramatic rise in aesthetic status relative to the other arts; once denigrated for its lack of specificity - Kant is unsure whether it should count as a fine, or merely pleasurable art on this account19 - the emerging romantic aesthetic upholds it for much the same quality - Hoffmann famously elevates purely instrumental music for its intimations of the infinite. Indeed, these two processes of elevation are often explicitly linked, with the case of the musician's status argued on the basis of that of his art.

Hence, Wackenroder's Joseph Berlinger rejects his father's argument that music is an extravagant, sensuous excess of the fashionable world, and that medicine represents a more worthy and useful career, with an inner voice that tells him, 'No! No! You have been born to a higher, nobler end!'20 And Hoffmann's long-suffering Kappellmeister Kreisler exhorts his younger colleague: 'Fling it off, this hated servant's uniform, honest Gottlieb, and let me press you to my heart in years to come as the indomitable artist you can be with your outstanding talent and your profound artistic sense.'21 Hoffmann himself had personal experience of the difference in status between the middle-class profession of law and that of the professional musician; having been forced out of an official post on the French invasion of Prussia in 1806, he attempted for some years to make a living in a variety of posts in operas houses, supplemented by teaching and composing. His success in these roles, however, was only intermittent, and, to escape from financial difficulties, he returned to the law in 1814. His 'Thoughts on the Great Value of Music' was first published in 1812, and reflects a certain bitterness at the relative social positions of his musical and legal careers:

No one of sound mind and mature understanding would value the best artist as highly as a worthy chancery-clerk; or even a worker who stuffs the cushion on which the tax-collector sits in his counting-house...The one caters for a necessity, the other only for an amenity.22

The circumstances that permitted musicians to entertain these social and professional ambitions, then, are already well documented, and their eagerness to capitalize on this opportunity is evident in the aesthetic manifestos of fiction which seeks to elevate music and musicians alike. But why should these ambitions necessitate the exclusion of women?

At the start of the nineteenth century the separation of domestic and economically productive labour by both location and gender that we now regard as 'traditional' was a new phenomenon. Its emergence has been attributed in part to material changes in the economic conditions of family life, with the separation of production and consumption associated with industrialization, and the growing professionalization of the German bureaucracies.23 The legal framework of the Napoleonic Code, which influenced much of the rest of Europe, enforced this separation of public and private at the level of political participation and property ownership by barring women from both.24 It was also an important factor in the development of distinctively middle-class identity during these years, as it became one of the chief ways by which the bourgeoisie differentiated themselves ideologically from the aristocracy, who engaged in no productive labour, and the family economy of the labouring classes. Indeed, Catherine Hall argues that this was one of the chief means by which groups otherwise separated by religion, occupation or relative wealth forged a common class identity.25

The separation of gender roles was underpinned by an ideology that both accorded the sexes with essential, radically different, yet 'complementary' characteristics, and redefined the relationship between the sexes within marriage. Karin Hauser traces a change in gender definitions in early-nineteenth-century Germany from definition according to duties and virtues corresponding to social status to definition by inherent elements of character; the constitution of the sexes, that is, was now determined by nature rather than by household role, and their relationship based on love rather than on dynastic concerns.26 Peter Petschauer links this with the development of the domestic ideal in the middle classes by tracing the change in terminology in educational literature at the end of the eighteenth century from Haushaltung (household) to Heim (home), the former being associated more with the landed aristocracy and calls for an academic education for women, and the latter more with middle-class burghers and recommendations for education along the lines of separate spheres.27 Jeffrey Weekes also sees this new relationship, like the new division of labour, as a means to articulate a differentiated class identity: 'during the first half of the 19th century the domestic ideal and its attendant images became ... an expression of class confidence, both against the immoral aristocracy, and against the masses, apparently denied the joys of family life.'28

Thus, in order to 'fling off the hated servant's uniform' and achieve professional, bourgeois status, it was necessary for musicians to move their metier into the newly-invented public, male sphere, and to discredit music-making within the home as inherently inferior, particularly as it was an activity already frequently associated with women. The creation of a public sphere in music was made possible, according to Leon Botstein, by 'the spread of literacy, the growth of urban life, the development of a market economy, and extended communication through printing' at the end of the eighteenth century,29 and its consolidation during the nineteenth century was facilitated by the growth of such industries as music publishing, instrument manufacture, and concert management.30 The campaign for universal copyright was also a significant factor, in that it represented 'an effort to obtain a legal mass market.'31 At the same time, the rise of the entrepreneurial virtuoso both relied upon the surplus income of the new commercial classes and supported the new professionalization of the musician by permitting viable alternatives to the tradition of musicians acting as assistants to aristocratic music-making. By 1848 the separation of spheres in terms of performance was largely established, with amateurs continuing to perform in salons, but not in the public concert hall; while the salon may not represent a truly 'private' forum, it was thus still marked as a distinct social space both by the presence of amateur performers and by the central organising role that women played within it.32

The professionalization of music was also marked by the founding of institutions which brought music education out of the home and into public buildings. Paris had set the trend in 1795 with the founding of the Conservatoire, and was followed by Prague and Vienna in 1811 and 1817 respectively; by the middle of the century London, Leipzig, Munich and Berlin also had conservatories. These institutions, on the whole, did not bar women completely, but merely restricted the classes they could attend; the German conservatories, for example, allowed women to study only voice until the 1840s, when piano and harp were added. While women still had access to some instrumental teaching, this was largely only available in feminized spaces - private teaching and some girls' schools - and thus kept segregated from the newly-created institutional domains.33 When A.B. Marx and Karl Breitenstein started to give university lectures in music, though, in Berlin and Vienna, this moved the subject into definitively male territory. These new patterns of musical performance and education, then, were shaped in accordance with the gendering of social space around which the European bourgeoisie was establishing its class identity.

Both this separation of spheres in musical activity and aspirations to the social norms of the middle class are evident in contemporary music criticism, alongside the more explicit polemics which seek to promote the professional credentials of the musician. Schumann, for instance, lauds a 'lady friend' for both her support for music and musicians and for being a model housewife and mother, but remarks that her playing was, 'correct, elegant and easy, though not without restlessness when many listeners were present', thus associating her adherence to the domestic, supportive role with a discomfort at exposure in too public an arena.34 Weber, meanwhile, remarked in a letter of 1815, that, 'my wife must belong to me, not to the world; I must be able to support her without a struggle'.35


As with the curricula of the new conservatories, so the music critics of this time left open one area of professional music-making in which women could participate and still remain on the virtuous side of the madonna/whore dichotomy: that of singing. This marks, to a certain extent, simple pragmatism; female roles in opera would appear to be the one musical niche that male musicians could not easily fill. However, it should be noted that there was a traditional operatic alternative to women in the castrato whose high vocal range had occupied both male and female roles during the previous two centuries. This figure, though, while still prominent on the stage into the 1830s, is conspicuously absent from the dualistic gender framework within which these early romantic music critics are writing, even when discussing repertoire particularly associated with castrati such as the aria by Crescentini mentioned above. Indeed, Napoleonic intervention in Italy in the early nineteenth century temporarily suspended the production of castrati, again suggesting the extent to which the new essentialist definitions of gender were intertwined with the new political models.

The female singer, then, is approved, although she is treated with a peculiarly de-professionalising rhetoric. Where the singer wishes to show her skill, as in the case of the self-promoting guest mentioned earlier, she is showered with misogynistic wrath; where she can be conflated with the song she sings (and thus denied any agency in the effect she creates), she is glorified:

But what am I to say of you, most wonderful of singers! With the fervent enthusiasm of the Italians I call to you, 'You who are blessed by heaven!' For it must be the blessing of heaven that enables your pious heart to give pure and full voice to what it feels within.36

Heaven speaks through the singer, while, for herself, she is accorded only emotion - she is ruled by heart, not head. This point is reinforced by the following passage:

Her long, swelling armonica-notes transport me into heaven, but Röderlein says she has obviously picked them up from the nightingale, a mindless creature that only lives in forests and should not be imitated by humans, the intelligent lords of creation.37

Here, the singer's insensitive uncle, Röderlein, is mocked by the narrator for his prosaic view, yet the view satirized is a critique of Romanticism which clarifies implications not always explicit in more straightforward presentations of the aesthetic. In particular, the associations of nature and beauty affiliated with the ubiquitous nightingale imagery for female singers are exposed as mutually exclusive of intelligence and power.38

The madonna/whore trope is thus used to deny women power or agency as musical practitioners - they are worshipped as passive conduits of music, its power coming from heaven, nature, or sometimes even the composer, but are reviled when they wish to assume control of their own skill. Indeed, Hoffmann implies that it is not so much amateur incompetence that is to be disapproved as amateur expertise; the following passage depicts a professional musician taking patronising pleasure in a performance that offers no threat or competition to his expertise:

'[O]ften, when I feel thoroughly battered and bruised by godless bravura arias, concertos, and sonatas, then an insignificant little melody, sung by a modest voice,...but sincerely and well meant and speaking directly from the heart can bring me comfort and cheer.'39

These performers are not only all singers, but they are also all fictional. Such ideological manipulations as collapsing the singer's identity into her song, and indeed acknowledging no other acceptable female musical activity than singing, become more difficult when faced with real professional women musicians, enjoying an existence outside of the imagination of the critic. The professional competence of such international artists as the pianist Camilla Pleyel might be hard to deny, but Schumann still manages to diminish and even infantilize her by drawing attention to her appearance as a properly modest and virtuous woman before her musical skill:

The fine, flower-like grace of the artiste's form and movements, her child-like gestures of denial, as though she thought herself unworthy of such applause, not to mention the profundity of character which her art displayed, will long haunt the memory of those who heard and saw her.40

Notably, this generally positive review contains only one less than complimentary section: that dealing with Pleyel's own composition, in which 'creative talent fell much behind her execution.'41 This suggests a scale of priorities on the part of these writers which is more ready to acknowledge the female executant than the female composer. This is also borne out by an overview of the subject matter of their concert and music reviews: while all three writers discuss female performers, and in particular singers, with moderate frequency, female composers appear extremely rarely. One conspicuous exception is Schumann's 1837 review of Clara Wieck's Op. 6 Soirées, which, even as it acclaims these pieces, suggests an explanation for the general absence of female composers in his and others' critical oeuvre:

For the Soirées betray, on the one hand, and plain for anyone to see, a life effulgent and tender, apparently responsive to the slightest stirring; on the other hand, a wealth of unconventional resources, and ability to entangle the secret, more deeply twisting threads and then to unravel them, something one is accustomed to expect only from experienced artists - and males!42

Here we have two sets of qualities ascribed to these pieces: the first implicitly gendered feminine ('tender', 'responsive'), the second explicitly gendered masculine. The coexistence of both sets of qualities in the same works implies at one level the balanced perfection of romantic androgyny. At the same time, though, the terms used to describe these qualities draw on those used to frame the relationship between a masculine composing subject and feminine musical object: the 'effulgence' resonates with the Sophia imagery of heavenly apparitions, while the ability to manipulate the 'twisting threads' relates more to the directing intelligence of the composer. This use of complementary roles to describe complementary characteristics suggests that the very notion of 'female composer' is in some way problematic, that on one hand there is the desire not to compromise the femininity of Wieck the woman, but on the other, there is the sense that the qualities to be valued in a composer are inherently masculine. Such a gendering of this specific aspect of the music profession stems from a change in the conception of 'genius'.


The transformation of the notion of genius at the end of the eighteenth century came with a shift from the aesthetic of imitation to that of inspiration. Martha Woodmansee sees this move, in the realm of literature, as a result of writers attempting to earn a living by writing without the safeguards of copyright - evidently a similar condition to that in which early-nineteenth-century musicians found themselves when they moved from the role of retainer in an aristocratic household into the newly-created public sphere. To protect their work in such circumstances, writers sought to replace the notion that knowledge was publicly owned, and merely articulated by craftsmen, with the ideas of 'inspiration' and 'original genius', which made the work 'peculiarly and distinctively the product - and the property - of the author.'43

The process of constructing this new understanding of genius involved two sets of ideas which would mitigate against women's inclusion in it.44 Firstly, it appropriated a form of divine creativity to the composer; Weber, for example, announced that the artist 'ought by rights to stand free as a god, conscious of his strength and steeled by his art'.45 Schumann, similarly, repeatedly draws upon the legend of Apollo befriending a mortal youth to articulate this idea:

His own imagination is to the artist what the Grecian god was to the youth of old.46

The artist should be cheerful as a Grecian god in his intercourse with life and men; but when these dare to approach too near, he should disappear, leaving nothing but clouds behind him.47

This is clearly at odds with contemporary notions of womanhood, whose heavenly characteristics were strictly redemptory and intercessionary, not godly. Thus the presence of female composers would have compromised the claims men were making for themselves.

Secondly, the new conception of genius appropriated characteristics to the composer previously gendered feminine - imagination, emotionality, subjectivity. Again drawing on the idea of androgyny, the genius united feminine and masculine attributes within a single creative being. This union, though, did not entail a re-valuing of femininity so much as its subsumption; Diane Long Hoeveler argues that romantic writers, by figuring their ideal alter egos as 'inner women', 'cannibalistically consumed' their female characters.48 By usurping feminine traits, then, the romantic artist rendered actual women unnecessary. This is especially pertinent in a culture that saw music as a characteristically female accomplishment: the feminine qualities of the male genius needed to be carefully distinguished from those of real women, who could at best hope to serve as inspiration for his creative powers. The Pygmalion relationship was especially useful for ensuring this distinction: it used music's feminine gendering to guarantee the masculinity of the composer by positing a heterosexual relationship between them.

Indeed, the use of sexual and reproductive imagery as metaphors for artistic creativity is peculiarly confused at this time. While works are often referred to as the 'child' of the artist, both paternity and maternity are evoked as the relationship. Carl Friedrich Ebers, for example, casts Weber as the father of his (that is, Weber's own) clarinet quintet, and himself - as its arranger - as its foster father.49 Weber, by contrast, evokes in his fiction an image of gestation rather than insemination:

Once [the composer] has conceived a work as a whole image, and decided to foster and nurture it, as it were, in the womb of his mind - for good things only mature with time - he must protect it from all unsuitable nourishment or other contacts harmful to his precious child.50

Hoffmann, meanwhile, both acknowledges the frequency of such parental metaphors, and manages to invoke both maternity and paternity in a single sentence:

And since nothing is more natural, it has become the convention to compare the intellectual with the physical act of giving birth.
Upon both lies the curse of original sin, that is to say the pain and torment of labour, counterbalanced by paternal pride and an abundance of blind love for the new-born creature.51

Hoffmann rationalizes these images by drawing on another myth - that of the birth of Minerva, fully formed, from the head of Jupiter:

But suddenly the composer surprises us with a work that springs upon the world in shining array, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, a work full of maturity and truth, an offspring of the delight that aroused his genius at the first moment of fully awakened consciousness.52

It is supremely in composing Lieder that nothing can be ruminated upon or artificially contrived; the best command of counterpoint is useless here; at the moment of inspiration the idea, which is all, springs forth in shining splendour like winged Minerva from the head of Jupiter.53

This image encapsulates a remarkable number of the issues I have been discussing: the respective genders of creator and work, the godlike status of the creator, and the appropriation of the female function which allows procreation without maternity by transferring conception from the uterus to the brain.


The madonna/whore dichotomy functions ideologically as a discursive 'carrot and stick': undesirable behaviour is pilloried and contrasted to desired behaviour, which is praised. It is clear that early nineteenth century male composers wished to secure both their status as bourgeois professionals and artistic status as geniuses by the exclusion of women, and that the 'stick' function of this trope is consequently applied to female pretensions to musical skill. It is, perhaps, less clear how the notion of a glorified feminine personification of music - the 'carrot' function - serves to enforce this restriction. What this idea does, though, is to remove women from the position of subject - that is, autonomous, creative, determining - to that of object - dependent, created, determined. That these positions were considered mutually exclusive, and that a direct and causal relationship was therefore seen between a feminine music and a dearth of female creativity is intimated by an entry from Schumann's diary in 1830:

how amazing it is that there are no female composers, although we have had bad female poets and good female painters. Might one regard woman herself as the frozen, firm embodiment of music?54

These associations - of music as woman, but women themselves as amateurish philistines - were produced at a particular moment of musical and social history from the concurrence of composers trying to raise their status with the general adoption of the ideology of separate spheres as marker of class identity. However, while I have shown how women were constructed in discourse as ideal objects rather than creative subjects, I have yet to show whether this discursive strategy was at all successful in marginalising real female musicians. Ideology, after all, commonly acts to a certain extent as the mark of its own failure: while repeated iteration may render an idea a truism, it also reveals that idea's contingency - if it really were self-evident, it would not require such repetition.

Like much gender ideology, the images I have traced here represent a stereotypical position that has a rather complex relationship with the lived experience of actual gendered people. Widely published, they would have had considerable impact on the musical communities to whom they were addressed, but, even where they were whole-heartedly accepted, they would not determine behaviour, so much as present boundaries of expectation, against which individual behaviour would be negotiated. Indeed, that all three of the writers I have focused on had regular interaction with professional women musicians, and appear to have held them in considerable esteem, suggests that their use of this theme represents more a theoretical ideal than realistic aspirations for the constitution of their profession. And it is notable that, while these images do appear in those writings closest to their day-to-day musical lives - diaries, concert reviews, letters - their use is both more clear-cut and more extended in fictional and semi-fictional genres.

So the evidence for the effectiveness of this discursive strategy is mixed. The work of feminist musicologists over the past two decades has shown that there were indeed many women who enjoyed flourishing careers in nineteenth-century Europe, both as composers and performers, so to this extent, the ideological attempt to marginalize them was unsuccessful.55 However, this work has also revealed that in order to establish these careers, these women often had to overcome both social and institutional obstacles, and personal doubts as to their professional legitimacy: the construction of an identity as a professional female musician was to some extent problematic.56 Perhaps more significant is the fact that this recent process of rediscovery had to be undertaken at all, that these women have been (and, indeed, still are) largely absent from our standard music histories.57 This would suggest that, while the discursive strategy I have outlined here may not have succeeded in shaping the practice of music, it certainly did impact on the way music is conceptualized. That is, it had its greatest effect in the medium through which it was articulated, that of literature about music.


The writers discussed here played a key part in establishing the role of composer as the central organising category of discourse about classical music, and they constructed that role as definitively masculine: by casting their art as an ideal feminine, they constructed a discourse in which the female composer became an anomaly, difficult, if not impossible to accommodate in the available categories, and consequently excluded from attention. And the universalist and transcendent terms in which this discourse was couched have both facilitated its endurance - indeed, its application to repertories at considerable historical and geographical remove from its origins - and disguised the agendas which underlay its formulation. Hence the absence of women from our standard histories of music is not due merely to individual historians' misogyny or lack of interest, but to a shared discourse whose structure has rendered female creativity in some sense unthinkable.

During the past two decades, however, musicology as a discipline has made a concerted effort to problematize the standard narratives of music history. The centrality of the composer has been undermined by an increased concern with the role of performers, patrons, musical institutions, and audiences in musical production, while the rediscovery of female composers has challenged the assumption that musical creativity is a priori masculine. The broadening of the repertoire base under scrutiny to include genres previously considered beneath scholarly notice, and the direct theorising of canonicity have likewise implicitly and explicitly questioned the rationales for inclusion and exclusion of different musics by the models we have inherited.

By bringing together the writings of some of the key figures in formulating those models with the plentiful research on both the constructions of gender and the changing conditions of the music profession at the time, I have aimed to show how these narratives, and the aesthetic position they embody, were formulated in response to particular circumstances at a particular moment in history. For it is an aesthetic which seems to be reaching the end of its shelf life: what was once called the 'new' musicology was born of the sense that established approaches were no longer entirely adequate. My hope is that the insights presented here will prove useful to the ongoing project of re-writing our narratives about music more inclusively. If we recognize that the concepts we have inherited by which to structure our discourse about music were created to serve specific purposes of their own time, we may find it easier to reconfigure those concepts to serve the needs of our own.

  1. Quoted in R. Murray Schafer, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Music (Toronto & Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1975), pp. 53-4. Schafer uses this quotation to illustrate the theme of music as woman discussed here; his discussion, however stops at identifying it, submitting it to no further analysis.
  2. See, for example, Linda Austern, '"Alluring the Auditorie to Effeminacie": Music and the Idea of the Feminine in Early Modern England', Music and Letters 74 (1993): 343-354.
  3. See Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (London: Picador, 1987).
  4. Siegfried Koss, 'Brahms and E.T.A. Hoffmann' Nineteenth-Century Music 5 (1982): 193-200, and Marc A. Weiner, 'Richard Wagner's Use of E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Mines of Falun"', Nineteenth-Century Music 5 (1982): 201-214 both discuss the impact of Hoffmann's writings on later composers.
  5. For accounts of these writers' familiarity with contemporary romantic literature, see John Warrack, Carl Maria von Weber (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 67, 208; David Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 41-46 and passim, and Stephen Rumph, 'A Kingdom Not of This World: The Political Context of E.T.A. Hoffmann's Beethoven Criticism', Nineteenth-Century Music 19 (1995): 50-67.
  6. Carl Maria von Weber, Writings on Music, trans. Martin Cooper, ed. John Warrack (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 342-4.
  7. 'Johannes Kreisler's Certificate of Apprenticeship', in Charlton (ed.), E.T.A Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 163.
  8. Quoted in Anna Burton, 'Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: A Creative Partnership', Music and Letters 69 (1988): 211-228, p. 213.
  9. Christian Friedrich Michaelis, extract from Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung 1806-7, in Peter Le Huray & James Day (eds.), Music & Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, abridged edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 202.
  10. Hoffmann, 'Ombra Adorata', in Charlton (ed.), E.T.A Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 90.
  11. 'Don Juan: A Fabulous Incident which Befell a Travelling Enthusiast', in Schafer, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Music, p.67.
  12. Margaret Kohlenbach makes a similar observation about Hoffmann's novel Kater Murr: 'The woman with whom the artist believes himself to be in love is said to be, or to be the source of the work of art. Figuring her as that which radiates as art from the artist's soul, Kreisler disregards the female body and his beloved's independent existence.' She also, however, claims that Hoffmann moves away from this position in later works. ('Women and Artists: E.T.A. Hoffmann's Implicit Critique of Early Romanticism', Modern Language Review 89 (1994): 659-673, p. 659.)
  13. I am drawing here on Sara Freidrichsmeyer, The Androgyne in Early German Romanticism: Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis and the Metaphysics of Love, Stanford German Studies 18 (Bern: Peter Lang, 1983).
  14. Writings on Music, p. 215.
  15. Quoted in Schafer, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Music/, p. 51-2.
  16. Writings on Music, p. 320.
  17. 'Kappellmeister Johannes Kreisler's Musical Sufferings', Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 83.
  18. See Celia Applegate, 'How German is it? Nationalism and the Idea of Serious Music in the Early Nineteenth Century', Nineteenth-Century Music 21/3 (1998): 274-296, pp. 282-284, and Walter Salmen (ed.), The Social Status of the Professional Musician from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century, trans. by Herbert Kaufman and Barbara Reisner (New York: Pendragon Press, 1983).
  19. Kant, Kritik der Urteilschaft (1790), extracted in Le Huray & Day, Music and Aesthetics, p. 160-1.
  20. Wackenroder, 'The Remarkable Life of the Musician Joseph Berlinger' (1797), extracted in Oliver Strunk (ed.), Source Readings in Music History: The Romantic Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965), pp. 14-16.
  21. 'Kappellmeister Johannes Kreisler's Musical Sufferings', Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 87.
  22. 'Thoughts on the Great Value of Music', Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 94.
  23. See Jean H. Quateart, 'Teamwork in Saxon Homeweaving Families in the Nineteenth Century: A Preliminary Investigation into the Issue of Gender Work Roles', in Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes (eds.), German Women in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Social and Literary History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), and Karin Hauser, 'Family and Role-Division: The Polarisation of Sexual Stereotypes in the Nineteenth Century - An Aspect of the Dissociation of Work and Family Life', in Richard J. Evans and W.R. Lee (eds.), The German Family: Essays on the Social History of the family in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Germany (London: Croom Helm, 1981).
  24. See Bonnie Smith, Changing Lives: Women in European History Since 1700 (Lexington, Mass.: D. Heath and Company, 1989), pp. 121, 130. While the Napoleonic code applied to all sectors of society, its impact would not have been uniform: restrictions on the control of property would only have affected those classes in a position to own property.
  25. Catherine Hall, White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), chapters 3 & 4.
  26. Hauser, 'Family and Role Division', pp. 57-59. Hauser also sees the development of this new construction of gender as a response to the crisis in patriarchal authority during the French Revolution (pp.59, 61).
  27. Peter Petschauer, 'Eighteenth-Century German Opinions about Education for Women', Central European History 19 (1986): 262-92.
  28. Jeffrey Weekes, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 (London & New York: Longman, 1989), p.28
  29. Leon Botstein, 'Musical Literacy and the Concert Audience', Nineteenth-Century Music 16 (1992): 129-145, p. 132.
  30. William Weber, 'Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870', International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 8 (1977): 5-22, p. 6.
  31. Weber, 'Mass Culture', p. 12.
  32. Jeanice Brooks argues that to use the public/private dichotomy to describe salon culture is to superimpose an ideological construction on musical practices that do not really fit into such a dualistic framework. 'Nadia Boulanger and the Salon of the Princesse de Polignac', Journal of the American Musicological Society 46/3 (1993): 415 - 468. See also William Weber, Music and the Middle-Classes: The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris and Vienna (London: Croom Helm, 1975), pp. 37-8 and p. 126.
  33. Jane Bowers, review of Freia Hoffmann, Instrument und Körper: Die musizierende Frau in der bürgerlichen Kultur (Frankfurt am Main & Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1991), Nineteenth-Century Music 17 (1994): 285-293, p. 287-289.
  34. Robert Schumann, 'Reminiscences of a Lady Friend', in Music and Musicians: Essays and Criticism, trans. Fanny Raymond Ritter, vol. I (London: William Reeves, c. 1876), p. 88. This account is presumably at least partly fictional, as it contains extracts ostensibly from her diary, in which, incidentally, she claims never to be happy unless her children are present.
  35. Quoted in Warrack, Carl Maria von Weber, p. 165
  36. Hoffmann, 'Ombra Adorata', in Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 90.
  37. Hoffmann, 'Kappellmeister Johannes Kreisler's Musical Sufferings', Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 87.
  38. Heather Hadlock also notes this denial of the singer's agency in Hoffmann's writings: 'In fact, in Hoffmann's fiction the most transcendent music enters the world when the singer's body has been eliminated altogether, leaving only her voice ushered in from the unseen "far, romantic realms".' ('Return of the Repressed: The Prima Donna from Hoffmann's Tales to Offenbach's Contes', Cambridge Opera Journal 6 (1994): 221-43, p.223.)
  39. Hoffmann, 'Letter from Kappellmeister Kreisler to Baron Wallborn', in Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 130.
  40. Schumann, 'Camilla Pleyel', in Music and Musicians, p. 160.
  41. Schumann, 'Camilla Pleyel', in Music and Musicians, p. 158.
  42. Schumann, 'The Museum', in Henry Pleasants (ed.), The Musical World of Robert Schumann (London: Victor Gollancz, 1965), p. 122.
  43. Martha Woodmansee, 'The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the "Author"' Eighteenth-Century Studies 17 (1984): 425-48, pp. 426-7.
  44. See Christine Battersby, Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (London: The Women's Press, 1989) for an extended discussion of this change in the meaning of genius.
  45. Weber, Tonkünstlers Leben, in Writings About Music, p. 326.
  46. Schumann, 'Theodor Stein', in Music and Musicians, p. 140.
  47. Schumann, Music and Musicians, p. 66.
  48. Diane Long Hoeveler, Romantic Androgyny: The Women Within (University Park & London: Pennsylvania University Press, 1990), p.9.
  49. Carl Ebers, response to Weber, 'A Warning to the Public', in Weber, Writings About Music, p. 198.
  50. Weber, Tonkünstlers Leben, in Writings About Music, p. 322.
  51. Hoffmann, 'Casual Reflections on the Appearance of this Journal', in Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 424.
  52. Hoffmann, 'Further Observations on Spontini's Opera Olimpia', in Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 443.
  53. Hoffmann, 'Riem's Zwölf Lieder', in Charlton (ed.), E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 379.
  54. Quoted in Peter Otswald, 'Florestan, Eusebius, Clara, and Schumann's Right Hand', Nineteenth-Century Music 4 (1980):17-30, p. 26. This dates from before Schumann met Clara Wieck, in the light of whose acquaintance he clearly revised this opinion, supporting her in the publication of her music, and quoting it extensively in his own.
  55. The literature on individual composers is far too extensive to survey here; some key general texts in this project include Jane Bowers and Judith Tick (eds.), Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition 1150-1950 (London: Macmillan, 1986); Diane Jezic, Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found (London: The Feminist Press, 1988); Karin Pendle (ed.), Women and Music: A History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); and Julie Ann Sadie and Rhian Samuel (eds.), The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (London: Macmillan, 1994).
  56. See, for example, Marcia Citron's discussion of the anxiety of authorship in Gender and the Musical Canon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 54-78.
  57. Again, a full survey is beyond the scope of this paper; a small sample of standard texts used in further and higher education in the UK, and from which female composers are completely absent, would include David Bowman, Analysis Matters: A Study Guide to London Examinations' Advanced Level Musical History and Analysis Papers (London: Rhinegold Publishing 1998), Donald Jay Grout & Claude Palisca, A History of Western Music, 4th edition (New York & London: Norton, 1988), and Wilfred Mellers & Alec Harman, Man and his Music: The Story of Musical Experience in the West (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988).

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