By Arthur Elson
The casual reader imagines that women in ancient times were wholly wrapped up in household affairs— the “Kinder, Küche, und Kirche” that some unprogressive Germans have prescribed for the fair sex in modern days. It is true, that the average wife of the Greek or Roman epoch was kept at home pretty regularly, but even in that early period there were some who stood for women’s rights and an emancipated feminism. The profession of music offered them publicity, even then.
Perhaps the earliest women musicians were to be found in ancient Egypt. Among other picture relics of that historic country, there is a set of drawings (or is it chiselings?) showing the daily life of a musical conservatory that flourished in the reign of Amenhotep IV. Many rooms are depicted, with instruments and furniture. In one of them a teacher is portrayed as listening to the singing of a young girl, accompanied with a harp played by another girl. Another room shows class instruction. In still another, two girls are dancing to instrumental music. The institution contained also lunch rooms and hairdressing parlors, which gave it quite a modern effect. Most of the girl students became participants in the temple services of the time; but some of them entered the secular field, and appeared at court.
The old Hebrew music was undoubtedly a copy of Egyptian models at first; but it soon grew into something original. There were bridal songs, vintage songs, and mourning songs, the shrill voices of the women in the last- named class being a prototype of the laments of the Irish Keeners, or mourning women. Still another sort of Jewish song was sung in celebration of victories. The Song of Moses and Miriam (Exodus XV) and the Song of Deborah and Barak (Judges V) are conspicuous examples. These songs formed part of public festivals of rejoicing. The leader would sing of the battle, not forgetting a due amount of sarcasm at the enemy’s expense; the others would join in certain verses, making a choral effect; the dancing women would participate with timbrels, or tambourines ; while the onlookers would clap their hands, much as the negroes used to do in the old plantation camp meetings. The Song of Solomon is a set of Bridal lyrics, while the book of Lamentations echoes the dirge style. The fifth chapter of Isaiah begins in the cheerful vintage style, but changes suddenly to a mourning song, making a most artistic contrast.
In ancient Greece, the term music included both poetry and accompaniment, which formed an artistic unit. Even the narratives of Homer, composed before the year 1,000 B. C, were sung with a minstrel-accompaniment on the harp.
Sappho’s Romantic Career
Most famous among the musical women of Greece was Sappho. Her career seems all the more wonderful because in her time (about 600 B. C.) the Grecian wives were kept closely at home. She conformed to strict convention by teaching her sons and instructing her daughters in domestic duties. Few of her poems remain to us, the best being a strong ode to Aphrodite. But their effect must have been remarkable in their day; for when Solon heard one of her lyrics, he expressed the wish that he might not die before having time to learn such a beautiful song. A pioneer among poetesses, she departed still more from
domestic routine by starting a school for girls, at Mytilene, which was probably her birthplace. She was soon the leader of a large but select circle, whose members she instructed in poetry, music, and social graces. Her work among her fair followers has been compared to that of Socrates among the gilded youth of Athens. Her real history is little known. She was forced to flee from Mytilene to Sicily, for some unknown reason; and it is claimed that she leaped from the Leucadian rock, in the island of Leucas, because of unrequited love for Phaon. The rock, a rugged promontory, was the scene of annual festivals to Apollo. At these, it was customary to cast a criminal off the cliff, with birds tied to him to break his fall. If he survived his involuntary dive into the sea, he was given his liberty. Some have claimed that the phrase, “Jumping from the Leucadian rock,” was
merely metaphorical, and referred to any death accompanied by trouble or disappointment. These writers assert, with some show of reason, that Sappho had this phrase applied to her, but did not come near the rock in reality.
Myrtis, Corinna, Aspasia
Two later poetesses who deserve mention were Myrtis and Corinna, both of whom instructed Pindar and competed with him. The latter once offered to beautify Pindar’s early work by mythological allusions. The pupil, nettled by this, produced a poem of six stanzas, which contained references to every episode of the Theban mythology. Corinna corrected this excess of zeal by remarking, “One must sow seed by the handful, not by the bagful.”
In later days, music became the pursuit of courtesans. That such women might win high position was shown by Aspasia, who lived at the court of Pericles, and charmed him by her high mental qualities as well as by her personal beauty. Another very famous musician was the flute player, Lamia, who was beautiful enough to have a temple dedicated to her as Venus Lamia, but of no great mental cultivation.
Rome borrowed its music largely from Greece, and originated very little. The Romans, in fact, were so
unmusical that they did not know that notation could repeat itself for higher octaves; and they kept right along down the alphabet. As in Greece, female slaves did a large part of the performing, and probably much of the composing or improvising. The public music of Rome consisted of rather monotonous flute playing, or rather blatant work for the trumpets; but the private concerts were probably much better, and Apuleius speaks very highly of a combination of voices, flutes, and kitharas.
It was a Roman lady, however, who became the patron saint of music. The story of Cecilia has come down to us with somewhat varying details; but it is certain that she was of high position. She was forced into an unwilling marriage with Valerian, a pagan. Having previously embraced Christianity herself, she succeeded also in converting her husband and his brother. All of them were martyred because of their faith. One account places this occurrence under a prefect named Almacus, but no such name appears in history. The date of this event is placed by some at 180, and by others at 230 A. D. Her connection with music was shown only by the passing statement that she “lifted up her voice in praise of the Lord;” but that seems to have been enough to make her the patroness of the tonal art. A well-known painting represents her as playing the organ.
Civilization suffered a setback with the fall of the western Roman empire, in 476 A. D. The Franks and Goths, though racially virile, were barbarians when compared with the effete Romans. The ensuing centuries are called the Dark Ages, and learning was kept alive chiefly in the monasteries. Musically, the one bright episode of this period came with the advent of Charlemagne. That monarch, who conquered and baptized most of the races of western Europe, was very fond of music. He not only kept the Gregorian compositions to a high standard, but collected folk-songs as well. He often had his courtiers sing, directing their chorus with a large staff, and sometimes treating the laggards to unexpected blows with this precursor of the baton. The musical women of the time are represented by his accomplished daughters.
With the rise of the Troubadours, woman received the exaggerated homage that knightly chivalry could offer. This sometimes took rather fantastic forms, as when Pierre Vidal, in love with a lady named Louve, or she-wolf, called himself Loup, or he-wolf, and let himself be hunted by dogs after dressing in a wolfskin. The excessive emotion of the time is shown also by the case of Geoffrey Rudel. He devoted himself to the renowned Countess of Tripoli, without having ever seen her. After celebrating her charms by many songs, he finally decided to visit her. But the excitement of landing on her shores at last threw him into a collapse; and when the Countess was brought into his presence, he actually died of the excitement.
Among the women troubadours, the most prominent were Eleanor of Acquitaine and the Countess of Champagne. These ladies, besides composing poems and music, would often preside over the so-called Courts of Love, which decided points of amorous etiquette. Sometimes the verdicts were sensible, as when a lady who refused a knight’s love was ordered to give back his presents. Sometimes the decrees were made in an amusing spirit of mischief; and a young lady, who had promised when a child to kiss a certain youth whenever he visited her, was forced to keep her promise when both grew up, and the youth returned from foreign parts as an accredited knight. Sometimes the decisions were an absurd example of hair splitting, as when it was debated that true love could not exist between married people, because marriage implied compulsion, and love was not to be subject to dictation.
Eleanor was a person of rather adventurous tastes. When wife of Louis VII, in her earlier days, she insisted on accompanying him to the Crusades. But she went rather for the sake of novelty than because of wifely devotion. She assembled a number of kindred spirits, and all equipped themselves with the most fetching combinations that armorers and milliners could produce. Eleanor and her friends then put themselves at the head of the army. She chose the route for scenic beauty rather than for safety, and sometimes brought the army into great danger. She varied the monotony by several love episodes, and even carried on a flirtation with a young Emir in the forces of the Sultan Noureddin.
Jongleuse and Glee Maidens
When the Troubadours disappeared, their followers, the Jongleurs, kept popular music alive. They became wandering minstrels, and entertained with tricks as well as songs, giving rise to the modern word Juggler. There were women among the Jongleurs, and in England these women were known as Glee Maidens. They led a picturesque existence, traveling from place to place, often alone, except for the company of a pet dog or goat. There were glee maidens of high position and ability also; and we may read that William the Conqueror gave an estate to his Jongleuse Adeline. Still more famous was Marie de France, Jongleuse of William Longsword. Her valuable Arthurian Romances are now preserved in the British Museum. But after the downfall of the Troubadours, all the wandering musicians were classed as rogues and vagabonds.
Early Women Composers
With the development of contrapuntal music, women composers of higher position began to appear. In the sixteenth century, they were to be found in many countries. Italy offered Maddalena Casulana, Vittoria Aleotti, Francesca Caccini (daughter of the operatic pioneer), Cornelia Calegari, Catterina Assandra, and several others, who composed motets, madrigals, and finally operas. France boasted of Clementine de Bourges, a really gifted composer. The unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots, showed the influence of French models in some of her songs, which were successful in their day. Madelka Bariona was a German composer of the same period. Another remarkably gifted woman was Bernada de Lacerda, of Portugal, to whom Philip II wished to entrust the education of his children.
From that time to the present, the list of women composers is fairly continuous. The change from counterpoint to the harmonic style found the women ready to meet the new conditions, Francesca Caccini and others in Italy composing operas as well as madrigals. France, too, soon became a home of opera; and Elizabeth Claude de la Guerre won some success in this field, earning the respect of Louis XIV.
Some Distinguished Names
The eighteenth century found women composers flourishing in nearly all the European countries, from England and France to Bohemia and Poland. They even numbered royalty among their ranks. Princess Anna Amalia, sister of Frederick the Great, composed the sacred cantata, Der Tod Jesu; and one of her organ trios is published in a Leipsic collection. Maria Antonia, daughter of Charles VII, composed operas, two of which have been recently published. Marie Antoinette, the undeserving victim of the French Revolution, wrote several pretty songs, including Florian’s Song (“Mon Ami”), besides helping Gluck to a Parisian success.
The most interesting figure of the time was undoubtedly Maria Theresa von Paradies. Born at Vienna in 1759, she became totally blind during childhood because of an accident. But this did not prevent her from becoming a great musician. When eleven years old, she sang the soprano part in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, and accompanied herself on the organ. This brought royal attention and patronage, which resulted in her having the best teachers. She soon became a great pianist, winning remarkable successes because of her expressive powers. Her memory was so phenomenal
that she could play no less than sixty concertos, in addition to an amazing number of solo works. Her compositions, which were of the greatest merit, included the successful fairy opera, Rinaldo and Alcina, the melodrama, Ariadne and Bacchus, a pastoral operetta, several cantatas, and many piano works. Mozart thought so highly of her that he dedicated a concerto to her.
Another prominent Viennese composer of the same generation was Marianne Martinez, whose singing was praised by the historian Burney. She, too, wrote in the large forms, producing Isacco and other oratorios, as well as symphonies, overtures, piano concertos, and lesser works.
The line of French operatic composers was continued by Henriette de Beaumesnil, and by Lucille Gretry, daughter of the famous Gretry who followed Monsigny. Mlle. Gretry was especially precocious, producing Le Mariage d’ Antonio when only sixteen years old. She met with an untimely death at twenty-four. Emilie Candeille, Mlle. Duval, and Mlle. Kercado were other opera composers of the time.
In Italy, Maria Theresa Agnesi produced four successful operas, while Maddalena Sirmen, a pupil of Tartini, composed violin concertos. England was the home of a Mrs. Chazal, who composed an organ concerto and became an orchestral conductor. Among other English women, Maria Parke wrote a piano concerto; Mary Linwood published the oratorio, David’s First Victory, Jeanne Marie Guest left some manuscript concertos as well as organ works, and Ann Valentine published Ten Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin. Belgium was represented by the Countess de Lannoy, Bohemia by Veronica Dussew, and Poland by the Countess Grabowska.
In the Nineteenth Century
In the first half of the nineteenth century, England went into a musical decline. The songs of Virginia Gabriel, and of Mrs. Charles Barnard (“Claribel”), showed the prevailing weaknesses, which were an extreme simplicity and a tendency to sentimentality. The songs of Ellen Dickson (“Dolores”) were somewhat better, while Charlotte Sainton-Dolby, a friend of Mendelssohn, produced larger vocal works, and Ann Shepard Mounsey composed an oratorio, The Nativity. Elizabeth Stirling, a famous organ composer, applied for an Oxford degree with an excellent orchestral setting of the 130th Psalm; but that college could find no authority for granting a degree to a woman.
French opera was continued by Edme Sophie Gail-Garre and Louise Angelique Bertin. Pauline Viardot-Garcia was a more interesting figure, being a daughter of the celebrated Manuel Garcia and a sister of Mme. Malibran. Pauline was With her father when he was held up by Mexican bandits, who added insult to injury by robbing him of the proceeds of his trip, and then forcing him to sing for their edification. She afterwards became a famous operatic soprano. Her compositions, including piano works, violin pieces and operettas, were written after she had left the stage. Jeanne Louise Farrenc entered the symphonic field, and composed piano works of such merit that Schumann thought she must have had expert help. A later composer of orchestral and operatic works was Maria de Reiset, Vicomtesse de Grandval, whose career extended into the latter half of the century.
Italian opera composers included Ursula Asperi, Carolina Uccelli, Adolfa Galloni and many others. Carlotta Ferrari, of a later date, seems to have been the real leader. She could not get her Ugo produced at first; so she bravely paid for its performance herself and scored a great success.
Holland boasted of Mlle. Broes, a good piano composer; while Madeleine Graever, also a piano composer, became known in America. Spain produced Isabella Colbran who married Rossini and produced vocal works. Bohemia offered Elise Barth and Augusta Auspitz, the latter dying at an early age. Polish women composers included Julie von Baroni-Cavalcabo, whose piano works were praised by Schumann. Poland also gave birth to Thekla Badarczewska, who produced the notorious Maiden’s Prayer.
In Germany, Emilie Zumsteeg, friend of Weber, wrote an overture, but was best known by her songs. Leopoldine Blahetka the famous pianist, composed several works for piano and orchestra. Emilie Mayer came before the public with a concert of her own works, including two symphonies and a concert overture. But the most noted musical women in Germany before 1850 were Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann.
Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the composer, held her talents in abeyance for a time, because of her brother’s objection to women composers. Some of her works were published under her brother’s name; but on one occasion, at least, this procedure brought proper punishment. When Mendelssohn was taken to Queen Victoria, she praised his song Italy, but he had to confess, with much shame, that it was one of his sister’s compositions. In 1846 she began to use her own name, publishing piano works, songs and choruses. Her best composition is a posthumous trio, given out after her untimely death, in 1847.
Clara Schumann was a daughter of Friedrich Wieck, who taught her to play piano so well that she made many youthful successes. When Schumann came to study with Wieck, he naturally met Clara also, and her younger sister, Marie. But the young man’s interest in Clara was not a case of love at first sight, for he paid much attention to Ernestine von Fricken, a fellow-pupil. The Carneval is dedicated to Ernestine, and based on the notes A, S (Es), C and H (B-natural), which spelled her native village of Asch. When the composer did finally turn his attention to Clara he met with much parental, opposition. Some claim that he composed his Warum as a query supposed to ask why there should be such opposition; but this story has no foundation in fact. What Schumann really did was to improve his position by getting a doctor’s degree from Jena, and to go before the courts to prove that he could support his fiancee in the style to which she was accustomed. He won his case, and they lived happily ever afterward.
Although Clara Schumann’s works are almost entirely for piano, they are of such excellence as to make her a leader among women composers. Her only orchestral composition was a piano concerto, which has too much solo work in the first movement. But her piano trio, op. 17, is very great. The piano pieces include Polonaises, Romances, Scherzos Characteristic Pieces and Valses. There are also three excellent Preludes and Fugues. The composer wrote also a number of songs. Her greatest work however, was not her own productions, but her noble efforts to make the public acquainted with her husband’s great compositions. He was so little known at first that after a court concert, given by her in 1846, someone turned to him and asked, “Are you, too, musical?” But her work soon gained results and his greatness was made manifest to the world. The union of this pair was artistic as well as domestic; and Liszt summed it up well when he said “To admire one or the other is to admire both; for though they sang in different tongues, their life music made but one noble harmony.”