Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany

by Matthew Head

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Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|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. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|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. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In Sovereign Feminine, Matthew Head restores this earlier musical history and explores the role that women played in the development of classical music.

Editorial Reviews


"Well-written and engaging . . . a significant contribution to the musicological discourse on gender."

The European Legacy

"Matthew Head’s collection is an admirable and worthy example of what one might call a Bildungsaufsatzsammlung, an essay-collection (rather than a novel) of experience."

Women's History Review - Laura Hamer

"A significant book, which usefully applies gender studies to a previously neglected period of music history."

German History - Joachim Whaley

"Head's contribution is most welcome . . . for the light that it sheds on a cultural field that was every bit as significant as literature and art."

Journal of Modern History - Celia Applegate

A work filled with wisdom about the “strangeness of the past” . . . [a] splendid book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520273849
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/09/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 350
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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Sovereign Feminine

Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany

By Matthew Head


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95476-2


Europe's Living Muses

Women, Music, and Modernity in Burney's History and Tours

Burney's women summon superlatives. In Naples Mrs. Hamilton is the best performer on the harpsichord; in Mannheim Maria Antonia Walpurgis, Dowager Electress of Saxony, brings about "a reconciliation between poetry and music" in her operas; in Munich "Signora Mingotti" holds forth on music "with as much intelligence as any maestro di cappella." There is barely a negative comment about the fair sex in The Present State of Music in France and Italy, The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands, and United Provinces, or A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period. Admittedly, Burney was underwhelmed by the performance of the girls of the Ospidale della Pietà in Venice ("the composition and performance I heard to-night did not exceed mediocrity"). There was also a hiccup in Burney's regime of praise when he congratulated Mrs. Hamilton for the "expression and meaning in her playing" given that "ladies ... though frequently neat in execution, seldom aim at expression." But this aside, Burney's books are lined with accomplished women, heirs to history, and embodiments of its present.

Just as striking is what Burney praised women for: knowledge, expertise, education. Such terms were far removed from Rousseau's influential idealization of women in terms of the natural and the naive. In Passy Burney met Madame Brillon, "one of the greatest lady-players on the harpsichord in Europe. This lady not only plays the most difficult pieces with great precision, taste, and feeling, but is an excellent sight's-woman; ... she likewise composes; and was so obliging as to play several of her own sonatas, both on the harpsichord and piano forte.... But her application and talents are not confined to the harpsichord; she plays on several instruments; knows the genius of all that are in common use, which she said it was necessary for her to do, in order to avoid composing for them such things as were either impracticable or unnatural." If Burney concluded with a generic notion of female accomplishment ("she likewise draws well and engraves, and is a most accomplished and agreeable woman"), this is less to contain her achievements than to assuage suspicions that such an erudite woman must be in some ways masculine or confusing—a gender monster—or, in terms used by Brillon herself, "impracticable and unnatural." Even scientific erudition did not exceed Burney's conception of female nature. Of the scientist "Dottoressa Madame Laura Bassi," whom he visited in Bologna, he assured his readers that "though learned, and a genius, [she] is not at all masculine or assuming."

Such emphasis on female rationality and educability does not indicate reluctance on Burney's part to acknowledge raw talent. In Madame Karsch, the Berlin poet, Burney discovered an "original genius" that he ranked next to Klopstock: "This lady is quite a meteor, and surprises more by the elevation of her poems, on account of her low origin, she being descended from parents who were unable to afford her a liberal education, and married very young to a serjeant [sic], in a regiment quartered at Glogau." Having bestowed on Karsch the often sex-specific accolade of original genius, Burney went on to endorse her productivity and profile in the literary marketplace: "When she first arrived at Berlin, a few of her verses were handed about, which were so much approved, that a subscription was opened for printing a collection of them: since that time she has supported herself with dignity, by the productions of her pen." In this story of upward mobility Karsch's career is founded on genius, promoted by subscription, and sustained by commerce. Burney's reference to "dignity" invites the reader to embrace this vertiginous combination of woman, authorship, and commerce.

Not all Burney's European women survived the voyage from travel diary to A General History, but in the final chapter 12 of the final volume of the General History (1789) Burney included numerous native female musicians. This created the patriotic and decidedly modern impression that the history of music culminated in the full participation of both sexes in the public concert life and theaters of contemporary London. On a mission not just to inform but to reform, Burney described the historical prejudice against theatrical singers, particularly women (4:631). In the following paragraphs, in tracing the rise of concerts and musical theater, women appear equally alongside men in the historical record, as if, in modern England, personal liberty and industry replaced earlier superstitious prohibitions. Women featured not just as jewels in male-authored crowns but as motors of historical change: In 1703 "Mrs. Champion, the singer, performed a piece upon the harpsichord at her benefit in Lincoln's-Inn play-house; the first feat of the kind that was announced in the newspapers" (4:633). Presumably Burney meant the fact of a benefit concert, though he may have intended to highlight the novelty of a solo harpsichord recital. At times Burney almost taunted the English readers of his General History with the image of cash flowing into a household from well-trained female singers: In 1730 "Miss Caecilia Young, a scholar of Signor Geminiani, who now sang in public for the first time, had a benefit concert at Drury-Lane playhouse, pit and boxes laid together at half a guinea. This lady, afterwards the wife of Dr. Arne, with a good natural voice and fine shake, had been so well taught, that her style of singing was infinitely superior to that of any other English woman of her time" (4:653–54).

If Burney was particularly explicit about commerce in this last chapter, he nonetheless concluded his history with an image of sheer female excellence. As if arranging a piece of statuary, Burney granted an "honourable niche" to Mrs. Elizabeth Billington (née Weichsel) in his final paragraphs: "No song seems too high or too rapid for her execution. But besides these powers, ... the natural tone of her voice is so exquisitely sweet, her knowledge of Music so considerable, her shake so true, her closes and embellishments so various, and her expression so grateful, that nothing but envy or apathy can hear her without delight" (4:681). This is to my knowledge the only occasion on which Elizabeth Billington served as the culmination to a history of Western music.

Billington's talents notwithstanding, her significance in Burney's A General History warrants reflection: what is going on here, discursively? Tempting as it might be to figure Burney as a champion of female achievement in its own right, such a reading fails to account for the ways praise is bound up with—even a way of making—broader points about the arts and society, music, and Burney as a writer. Commonsense explanations have some value. Burney's praise probably helped to endear him to his female readership. But there is more to consider. Even from this rapid survey it is apparent that Burney employed women didactically to exemplify particular aspects of contemporary and recent musical culture. Praised not just for their musical excellence but for meanings that excellence held for critical and historical writing, Burney's women are sometimes constrained and essentialized both as female ideals and as ciphers of modernity. His lavish, if on occasions generic, praise of female musicians is of interest to feminist criticism but unlikely to satisfy feminist desire.


Burney's historiography was informed by the then fashionable but contentious view that the history of a civilization is, in essence, a history of its women, or rather, a history of how its women were treated by men. In an article from 1985 on Enlightenment historiography Sylvana Tomaselli styled this the "indexical theory of woman." Tomaselli found in the indexical theory an equation of women with culture and order. This was at odds with what she reported as a dominant assumption of twentieth-century feminism, that women are associated with irrationality and cultural chaos. The "indexical theory" of the Enlightenment, she argued, enshrined the opposite view, not woman as Other but as the civilized and civilizing center. The idea was that the position of women in society provides an absolute measure of its degree of progress: simply put, the further a society travels from the primitive, the more freedom it accords women to develop their intellectual and artistic potential. In his History of Women (1779) William Alexander observed: "Women among savages [are] condemned to every species of servile, or rather, of slavish drudgery; [we] shall as constantly find them emerging from this state, in the same proportion as we find the men emerging from ignorance and brutality, and approaching to knowledge and refinement; the rank, therefore, and condition, in which we find women in any country, mark out to us with the greatest precision, the exact point in the scale of civil society."

The conceit circulated well beyond Britain. In an article from 1789 one W. de la Bossiere Chambor expounded patriotically on "the respect and esteem of ancient Germans for the women of their nation." To treat women as slaves is a sign of barbarism, he affirmed, marshaling the evidence of classical writers to demonstrate that German women had long enjoyed admiration at home. And rightly so, for they refine and cultivate men, even converting wildness and barbarism into military bravery, as well as presiding over peacetime and home life. Invoking what would later become a racial ideal but functions here as a marker of exalted womanhood, Bossiere Chambor appealed to the physical beauty of German women, their blond hair, blue eyes, fair complexions, and long limbs. Employing a neoclassical motif, he likened them to the goddesses and heroines of antiquity, as if modern Germany were peopled with the women of classical mythology and art. His source was presumably the Germania of Tacitus (ca. 98 A.D.).

Though a historiographical principle, the indexical theory traveled well beyond history books. It was dramatized, for example, in "abduction" or seraglio operas. In Mozart and Stephanie's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (K. 384) Osmin, who believes that women require incarceration to keep them faithful, attempts to force himself on the cheeky maid Blonde, who, despite her occupation, counters proudly that she is "an Englishwoman, born to freedom." If not personifying she at least lays claim to the exalted state of free womanhood and quickly turns didactic, instructing Osmin in the fine art of coaxing and flirtation—a saucy twist on the notion that women reform male manners (see her aria "Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln," act 2).

For the Burney of the Tours and General History the "indexical theory" was cutting edge. Although the idea of female exemplification of civility stretched back to the beginning of the century, a more systematic "theory of feminization" linking incipient capitalism, female ascendance, and a notion of progress first appeared with Adam Smith at midcentury. As Emma Clery has encapsulated the arguments, the indexical theory opposed (even if, initially, from within) elements of a civic humanist tradition in England that took the classical republic as its model. Anticommerce, often misogynist, and equating virtue with (a version of) manliness and public service, civic humanism summoned the imagery of the male warrior citizen as the defender against decadence and decline. An alternative model of history was characterized, in Clery's words, by a "linear, historical narrative, involving a gendered account of progress, a positive feminization, [and] a triumphant movement towards increased civility and refinement." Burney's General History, with its overlapping celebrations of modernity, women, and commerce, offered such an alternative. Burney's women are integral to his historiography. Had his story concerned the triumph of pure music over its historical fetters of church, court, and text, he might have needed to develop different rhetorical strategies. But that story about music's discovery of its autonomy was not yet central to the emerging business of music-historical writing.


The definition of music in the preface to A General History as an "innocent luxury," a phrase Burney silently borrowed from the Scottish historian and philosopher David Hume, provocatively situated music within celebrations of modernity (something Hume had not attempted). More was at stake than borrowing an elegant turn of phrase. Luxury was a key term in competing ideologies of political economy, history, Britishness, and morality. Hume, in arguments that express a positive excitement about the emergence of capitalism and consumption, sought to reinstate luxury as both civilized and civilizing. According to earlier civic-humanist rhetoric, luxury erodes manliness, weakens the body politic, and causes decline into decadence. Acknowledging that some Latin authors attributed the fall of the Roman republic to the influx of "Asiatic luxury," Hume critically reviewed the evidence and concluded that uncontrolled territorial expansion and poor government were more likely causes of the loss of (some version of) democracy in Rome. Situating luxury not in superfluous goods and leisure but in the elevated pleasures they afford, Hume redefined it as a "great refinement in the gratification of the senses." As such, luxury was morally neutral prior to its use toward good or bad ends: "Any degree of it may be innocent or blameable." At the heart of Hume's argument was the contention that luxury, even as private pleasure, could serve the collective good and thus, implicitly, fulfill the civic humanist requirement of public virtue. It could do so because it was a stimulant to personal as well as economic growth, at once a school for private manners and a means by which the laboring poor are enriched through manufacture and trade.

Part of the power of Hume's account of luxury was the flexibility he granted the term to stand, metonymically, for other key words of the period—not only such words as pleasure and virtue but also art, woman, and liberty. If luxury consists in "great refinement in the gratification of the senses" it is at home in artistic practices and the discourse of aesthetics. If luxury is pursued in leisure and in private, if it suspends (even as it enjoys the fruits of) trade and the professions, it exists in the kind of purposeless and polite realm enjoyed, presumably, by women. (Indeed, "woman" in Hume is herself luxurious insofar as she is leisured and well read.) And if luxury provides the male citizen with necessary reenergizing recuperation, if it stimulates the production of consumer commodities, increases the flow of wealth, and empowers the serf to trade in goods and labor, it emerges as something close in meaning to national liberty: "The liberties of England, so far from decaying since the improvements in the arts [that is, manufacture as well as the fine arts], have never flourished so much as during that period [of commerce actuated by aspirations to luxury]."

Burney was already using Hume's arguments in the preface to his first tour (France and Italy). Indeed, with a mission to make space for music, and writing about it, in the luxurious world, he not only described it as "a charming resource, in an idle hour, to the rich and luxurious part of the world" but made a detailed claim for music as a form of public virtue. In so doing he retraced the movement from private pleasure to public virtue at stake in the luxury debate. Playing wittily against the fabled power of ancient music, he emphasized the "assistance" music gives "to open the purses of the affluent for the support of the distressed." In the most explicit of his arguments for music as a moral force, a means of reform and refinement, he highlighted charitable uses in London, detailing benefit concerts for orphans, the maternity hospital in Brownlow Street, the Lock Hospital (where syphilis was treated), and the Society for the Support of Decayed Musicians and Their Families.


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