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The Influence of Women on the Great Composers

How Many Art-works Have Been Inspired by Women

PROBABLY in no way has the influence of women been directed to better advantage than in its bearing on the works of great composers. The sublime utterances of the great tone-poets deal nearly always with the love of man for woman, or the sacrifice of woman for man, and only in the light of experience could such utterances be evolved. Woman’s influence for all of us begins at the cradle, and it is by the soft lullabies with which our mothers lull us to sleep that musical consciousness is first awakened. Instances innumerable exist which go to show how much some of the greatest of our composers owe to the influence of their mothers. Notably was this the case with Handel, whose mother secretly encouraged him in spite of the opposition to a musical career offered by his father. The affection which existed between the two was one of the prime factors of Handel’s life. Otherwise he was not very susceptible to woman’s influence, and had a short way of dealing with obstreperous prima-donnas. Rochstro relates how, “at the first rehearsal of ‘Ottone,’ Francesca Cuzzoni flatly refused to sing the lovely aria ‘Falsa immagina,’ which Handel had written expressly for her. Said Handel: ‘I know, madame, that you are the very devil, but I will let you see that I am Beelzebub, the prince of devils;’ and with that he seized her in his arms and threatened to throw her out of the window, whereupon she yielded in terror to his superior will, sang the song in exact accordance with his directions, and achieved in it one of her most brilliant triumphs.” His letter in reply to the one which informed him of the death of his mother, however, shows how strongly his mind was influenced by his love for her. “I cannot yet restrain my tears,” he says. “But it has pleased the Most High to enable me to submit with Christian calmness to His holy will. Your thoughtfulness will never pass from my remembrance until, after this life, we are once more united, which may the All- good God in His mercy grant us.”
One of the most striking examples of what a mother’s love can do to aid young genius is found in the early life of Gounod. His father died when the composer of “Faust” was too young to remember him. Mme. Gounod was thus left to provide for her two boys. Gounod, in his autobiography, shows how much he was indebted to her for his musical development. “She always sang while she was near me,” he says, “and I can faithfully say I took my first lessons unconsciously, and without being sensible of the necessity so irksome to any child, and so difficult to impress on him, of fixing my attention on the instruction I was receiving. I had acquired a very clear idea of the various intonations, of the musical intervals they represent, and of the elementary forms of modulation. Even before I knew how to use my tongue my ear appreciated the difference between the major and minor key.” Gounod’s mother did not wish that her son should adopt a musical career, but his own importunity and the advice of her friends decided her to allow him to study music in addition to his other work. After he had won the Grand Prix de Rome, and had proceeded to Italy, Gounod affords us an opportunity of perceiving the devotion his mother had for him in his autobiography:
“In spite of her professional duties. which engaged her on week-days from morn till night, my mother still found time to write to me often and fully. She must frequently have cut short her hours of sleep so as to give me this proof of her constant and tender care. The very length of her letters bore sufficient witness to the amount of time, robbed from her nightly rest, she had devoted to them. I knew she had to rise at five, to be ready for her first pupil, who came at six, and that often her breakfast hour was absorbed by another lesson, during which, instead of a proper meal, she would swallow a bowl of soup, or perhaps take nothing but a crust of bread and a glass of wine and water. I knew her daily round lasted till six o’clock every evening, and that after her dinner she had a hundred and one household duties to attend to.”

The mother-influence in the days of childhood is paramount. In after-life many of the great composers have married with varying success. Bach married twice, and in both cases appears to have been uneventfully happy. He reared a large family, nearly all of whom were good musicians, and one, John Philipp Emanuel, was the first to make use of the form which has developed into the modern sonata. Jean Sebastian Bach’s second wife was herself a musician, and her husband took the greatest interest in her musical welfare. For her benefit he composed a whole volume of music, preludes, rondos, minuets, etc.. and for her also seven songs and a wedding poem, which are doubly interesting on account of their being the only short songs written by Bach not dealing with religious subjects.

Haydn was less fortunate than Bach in his feminine affairs. He fell in love with the daughter of a wig-maker, but his affection was in no way reciprocated, so he accordingly married her sister. His wife proved to be a lady of most unamiable temper, entirely out of sympathy with his music making. Eventually they separated, and Haydn granted her an annual stipend—which she usually exceeded. Haydn was a genius, and in spite of the monotonous life as capelmeister to Prince Esterhazy, and his unhappy marriage, he contrived to write music of lasting importance. It is impossible to estimate the heights to which he might have risen had he been united with a woman who would have brought to him the deep sympathy and understanding which he so well deserved.

Mozart, like Haydn, chose between sisters, and surprised his friends by not marrying the one they expected him to take. In his letter to his father he describes how his selection was made: “But now, who is the object of my love? Do not be startled, I entreat. Not one of the Webers, surely? Yes, one of the Webers—not Josepha, not Sophie, but the third daughter, Constance. I never met with such diversity of disposition in any family. The eldest is idle, coarse and deceitful—crafty and cunning as a fox. Madame Lange (Aloysia—an early love) is false and unprincipled, and a coquette. The youngest is still too childish to have her character defined; she is merely a good-humored, frivolous girl—may God guard her from temptation! The third, however, namely, my good and beloved Constance, is the martyr of the family, and probably on this account the kindest-hearted, the cleverest, and, in short, the best of them all… . She is not plain, but at the same time far from handsome. Her whole beauty consists of a pair of bright, black eyes and a pretty figure. She is not witty, but has enough sound sense to enable her to fulfil her duties as a wife and mother.”

This is not very rapturous, coming from the composer of “Don Juan,” but had Mozart been as wise in his commercial affairs as he was in the selection of a wife, he would not be lying in an unknown grave in Vienna. He was an unstable individual as a man, and not over-loyal to her. Yet she remained near him in sickness and in health. and it was always to her that he turned at the last. His letters contain many tributes to her influence.

Of all the love affairs of composers, by far the most ideal was that of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck, afterwards his wife. Here, if ever, was a perfect musical union. One of the greatest corn- posers of all time, Schumann found inspiration and sympathy in the greatest woman musician of her age. Many of his most beautiful compositions owe their influence directly to her. She identified herself with him completely, and was always at hand after their marriage to inspire him to his most sublime efforts. And not less was she at hand in the dark days when his dream-encumbered brain became clouded and the awful fact became apparent that Schumann, the kindly critic, the interpreter of obscure things, the faithful, loving husband, was a lunatic.

If Schumann’s relations with woman were the most ideal, Chopin’s were the most romantic. George Sand did more than influence him. She inspired him. Her peculiar disposition, strange fascination and startling originality lured him on. Through her eyes he saw strange visions which he interpreted marvelously by means of his music. The precise relations which existed between them are impossible to define. Chopin, the dreamy consumptive, had the sick man’s reticence. Moreover, he was a gentleman, and regarded an undue intrusion into his affairs as an impertinence. George Sand’s accounts of her dealings with Chopin are entirely untrustworthy.

Three women went to the making of Mendelssohn, and each one had a profound influence on his career. They were his mother, his sister and his wife. Mendelssohn, the happy, was fortunate in this as in most other things. Of the three women, the one who had the most influence on him musically was undoubtedly his sister Fanny. Brought up together from childhood amid surroundings of the highest artistic and intellectual nature, a kinship existed between them as rare as it was beautiful. Even her marriage was a blow to Mendelssohn, though his unselfish nature prompted him to be among the first to rejoice at her happiness. Her death was a shock to him from which he never entirely recovered. His own death occurred within a few weeks afterwards. It is known that she is the real composer of many of the “Songs Without Words,” ascribed to her brother.

No account of the part played by women in the lives of the great composers is complete without mention of Cosima Wagner. In his first marriage Wagner had chosen a woman totally unsuited to his temperament. She was an actress of no great ability, just a commonplace girl with a disposition entirely unfitted to be the life companion of a stormy iconoclast like Wagner. For some years before her death they had separated. Wagner needed a wife who could appreciate him; who could, so to speak, tend the sacred lamp of genius which burned within him. The only woman who was fitted by nature and intellectual power to be all in all to Wagner was Cosima Liszt, who had previously married Hans von Bülow. It says much for von Bülow that he himself perceived the fitness of the union, and continued to champion the cause of the Wagner music-dramas. This is surely one of the most remarkable sacrifices on record.

The need of man for woman, and woman for man, is primordial, but in no way can a woman justify her existence more thoroughly than in aiding genius, either by the tender sympathy of a wife for a husband, or by the yet more mysteriously wonderful love of a mother for her child.


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