Academic journal article Women & Music

Music, Novels, and Women: Nineteenth-Century Prescriptions for an Ideal Life

Academic journal article Women & Music

Music, Novels, and Women: Nineteenth-Century Prescriptions for an Ideal Life

Article excerpt

"I am sure if I were in the wildest paroxysm of anger, your [singing] voice would soothe me into peace" [said Moreland].

"But you never have such paroxysms," said [Eulalia]....

"You do not know me, my Eulalia. My bosom is the couchant lion's lair, " he replies.

Caroline Lee Hentz, The Planter's Northern Bride

THUS MUSIC'S POWER IS REVEALED IN THE 1854 novel The Planter's Northern Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. Indeed, the male character, Moreland, reveals his belief in one traditional power of song--its ability to soothe the conventionally "savage breast" of man. In so doing Moreland acknowledges his wife, Eulalia's capacity to control his emotions. Reference to the symbolic power of music surfaces in another scene, in which it is revealed that Eulalia lacks a standard female accomplishment of the time, the ability to play the piano. Upon being asked to learn to play, Eulalia points out the reason for her shortcomings:

"Will my wife become a pupil, for my sake?" asked [Moreland]....

"Gladly, most gladly," she answered. "I have always sighed for such advantages, but I never expressed the wish. I knew my father toiled to supply us with the comforts of life. How could I be selfish enough to beg for its luxuries." (1)

Eulalia is to be forgiven her deficiency of skill in light of her display of selflessness, submission, and commendable poverty. Eulalia's acquiescence and desire to learn piano perform a dual role of submission and empowerment. Her duty to her husband is clear, but she has the perfect excuse for her lack of appropriate female skills.

Eulalia's lack of keyboard skills is an exception among protagonists in nineteenth-century American sentimental novels, as is her husband's ability to overlook this fact during courtship. Indeed, it is precisely that exceptionality that draws attention to her other virtues; the reader is guided to understand that she is so desirable and good in other ways that Moreland allows her an otherwise diminishing shortcoming. Keyboard skills become important by their absence in Eulalia's life and as a novelist's device that calls attention to Eulalia's other attributes.

It is the goal of this article to note when, how, and why music was used in novels like The Planter's Northern Bride not to depict "real life" but rather to paint the "ideal" woman of the time, the image real American women were seeking to emulate. Who and what was this image? American girls---or, to be more specific, white middle- and upper-class girls--of the nineteenth century learned to play the piano. It was an expected social skill and was considered a necessary preparation for courtship and marriage. The music they were expected to play was, by and large, of the parlor song variety. ("Parlor song" is a term used to connote popular pianovocal sheet music from the nineteenth century intended for home use.) The songs are melodically and harmonically straightforward and short, three to rive pages. The music and text combine to create a formulaic genre where expectations are rarely surprised or disappointed. (2) The sheer volume of parlor songs that survives from the nineteenth century is overwhelming. The hundreds of extant bound music collections from the nineteenth century with women's names engraved on them more than suggest that this type of music had an important role in both female life and the American home. The type of parlor music found in the bound volumes includes arrangements and variations of opera arias, such as "Still So Gently o'er Me Stealing," an adaptation of Bellini's "Ah perche non posso odiarti" from La sonnambula, and songs that explore the standard tropes of displacement, nostalgia, and loss, such as Henry Russell's "The Old Arm Chair," William Bradbury's "Lament of the Blind Orphan Girl," and Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home." Also frequently bound into collections were sacred pieces, such as "Pass under the Rod" by Mrs. …

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