Gender and Germanness in the British Reception of the Viennese Classics

By Irving, Howard | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Gender and Germanness in the British Reception of the Viennese Classics


Irving, Howard, Musical Times


Comparing Haydn and Mozart has been a regular feature of music criticism since the 18th century. In fact, throughout their eventful reception histories Haydn and Mozart have been linked by a binary opposition so compelling that it can be difficult to find one composer in the literature without the other turning up nearby and generations of writers have addressed them less as unicjue and complex individuals than as members of a small but ideologically important group in the creation of classical music, the Viennese masters. Yoking together these very different individuals inevitably intensifies qualities that are not emphasised to the same extent when each composer is viewed in isolation. This is particularly true of the highly varied reception of Mozart, which contrasts vividly with the relative stability of the legendary patriarch of classical music, Joseph Haydn. If Haydn's status as progenitor has helped to produce a more narrowly focused interpretation of his life and work, being forced into an opposition with so powerful a figure has sometimes transformed Mozart into a composer that some modern readers would scarcely recognise.

Though the true identities of both composers may be distorted by comparisons, the qualities that are stressed can be revealing, especially in the important period from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. During this period, when the value system of classical music achieved its present form, criticism of Haydn and Mozart sometimes became a forum for airing nationalistic ideologies in a contentious debate over the relative significance of Germany and Italy in the development of Viennese classicism. Gender stereotypes have been shown to have played an important role in this debate and in broader efforts to nationalise classical music, most visibly in Italian musicologist Fausto Torrefranca's efforts to claim Italian priority for what he saw as the masculine rationality of the Viennese masters and to reject the effeminate corruption of opera.1 Here I would like to show that in a similar way but much earlier in the 19th century, gender was often injected into comparisons of Haydn and Mozart's compositional methods in British criticism that reflects the country's long history of applying gender stereotypes in aesthetic discourse.

I'd like to begin with a very early comparison of Haydn and Mozart that can be found in a well-known conversation between composer Karl Dittersdorf and Emperor Joseph II that is recorded in Dittersdorf 's autobiography. Joseph II is reported to have compared Mozart's music to 'a gold snuffbox made in Paris' because it 'excels in tasteful ornament', while Haydn's is supposed to be more like an English snuffbox because it 'is distinguished for its chaste simplicity and fine polish'. Dittersdorf, on the other hand, argues that Mozart's music is like the poetry of Klopstock because 'one must read Klopstock's works over and over again', while Haydn is like Geliert because 'Geliert 's merits are patent at the first glance'.2

At the possible risk of reading too much into these simplistic characterisations, the qualities that are assigned to each composer can be associated with familiar stereotypes that would gender Mozart's music as feminine and attach to it qualities of emotional complexity and ornament while Haydn's might be viewed as masculine and imagined to possess the qualities of directness and simplicity. As it relates to Haydn, at least, this formula is a familiar and possibly uncontroversial component of later criticism. In fact, Haydn's supposed masculinity might even be said to have reached the status of a cliché in casual writing such as programme notes in an earlier, less politically-correct era.3 Mozart's case, however, is a bit more complicated. Both Mozart and his music are routinely described in 19th-century criticism with words like delicate and sensitive and the composer himself is usually denied full masculinity by virtue of his status as the eternal child prodigy, an image that dominated the reception of this composer through the 19th century. …

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