I am in the throes of all-things-Romantic. Capital “R” Romantic, not “romantic.” I am doing course preparation for a gen ed class called “Music in the Romantic Era.” As with all things that you have to teach undergraduates, most of it is stuff that you learned quickly and without any deeper investigation as an undergraduate. That makes course-creation of this type extra awesome (kinda sarcastic). It has been an educational and nearly inspirational process to retread the path of European Romanticism. Everything seems to be coming back (with a new understanding of the Schopenhauer and Hegelian philosophies that permeate the historiography of Romanticism). Hey, even the music in the post-Beethoven, pre-Brahms era (i.e. Liszt, Schumann, and Mendelssohn) is starting to even sound more interesting to me, along with my fading annoyance with Bellini’s and Donizetti’s “bel canto” cavatinas/cabalettas.
Yet, there is something that constantly nags at me. What about the women composers? Clara Wieck Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Bettina Brentano, or Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, to name some, among many I am sure. I don’t pretend to be even close to an expert on the topic of female composers of 19th Century Europe. Yet, most of what I have read seems to leave these women either 1) out of the picture completely or 2)inserted as novelty composers to fill some sort of requirement to satiate our modern (progressive) world view regarding equality of women in the arts and sciences. Both of these approaches seems inaccurate. Then, I came across this gem from Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation.
“There is no attempt here to revive those few women composers whose work remained almost completely repressed during this time. To do so would be, I think, a distortion of the real tragedy of the creative female musician in the 19th century. It is misleading to emphasize the claim that there were women composers whose considerable achievements were pushed aside and went unrecognized; the fate of the greater talents––Clara Schumann, for example––was even more cruel: they were never, in fact, allowed to develop to the point where they could have taken a justified pride in work that was unheard, invisible––even that was denied them. They were harshly excluded from history, and attempting to bring them uncritically and naively back into it neither does them the posthumous justice nor acknowledges the difficult reality of their lives.” p.xi, Preface
This quote seems to encapsulate the complications with the history of women composers inside the History of Music. It seems like Rosen seems earnestly concerned about the non-existence of women composers in Western music history while trying to maintain the sturdy and rigorous discipline of historical truth-telling. But, it still seems to come out not quite right to me. Regardless, I am still devoting a unit to these overlooked and understudied women of the Romantic era.