Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Synopsis

In the German states in the late eighteenth century, women flourished as musical performers and composers, their achievements measuring the progress of culture and society from barbarism to civilization. Female excellence, and related feminocentric values, were celebrated by forward-looking critics who argued for music as a fine art, a component of modern, polite, and commercial culture, rather than a symbol of institutional power. In the eyes of such critics, femininity--a newly emerging and primarily bourgeois ideal--linked women and music under the valorized signs of refinement, sensibility, virtue, patriotism, luxury, and, above all, beauty. This moment in musical history was eclipsed in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and ultimately erased from the music-historical record, by now familiar developments: the formation of musical canons, a musical history based on technical progress, the idea of masterworks, authorial autonomy, the musical sublime, and aggressively essentializing ideas about the relationship between sex, gender and art. In Sovereign Feminine, Matthew Head restores this earlier musical history and explores the role that women played in the development of classical music.

Excerpt

Beautiful, rich, and orphaned, Lady Sophia Sternheim, the eponymous musical heroine of Sophie von La Roche’s epistolary novel of 1771, was destined to be hunted by libertines and suffer the torments of stolen reputation. Packed off to court by her ambitious guardians, Count and Countess Löbau, who hope to make her a royal mistress, her pristine virtue is prematurely desecrated by a sham marriage to Lord Derby, a rake. Undone, fleeing her seducer, her conscience embraces death, and she hovers between heaven and earth. Unlike many of her type, however, she does not die: she struggles against the temptations of the grave and, didactically renouncing even that morbid luxury, discovers an enduring moral heroism and social conscience. Exalted by her disgrace, she resolves to dedicate her life to acts of benevolence, the appreciation of nature, the education of girls, the cultivation of friendship, and the solace of music.

With this heroine, who sings and accompanies herself on the lute, improvises, and plays extensively from memory, La Roche struck a resounding chord in the culture of sensibility. On the basis of Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim she emerged almost overnight as one of the most celebrated authors of her age. For a year or two the future of German literature seemed to lie partly in her hands. Critics discerned a moral and emotional authenticity linking author and heroine, one that, for a brief historical moment, they desired above all other artistic values. That the author was female contributed to the critics’ sense that the prose bypassed the mediation of learning and artifice. La Roche’s fiction, as the product of (or some ideal of) female nature, was felt to offer glimpses of her heroine’s invisible interiority, and of the operations of her heart and mind. the young Goethe, whose Werther of 1774 was directly inspired by and soon eclipsed Sternheim, published a . . .

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