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Romantic music and the rights of women

August 27, 2010 at 2:57 PM

Recently I was playing through a Clementi Sonatina on the piano and I started to wonder about music education in the era Clementi lived. At that point on history, during the Romantic age, music was just one of the many assets a young girl of high-class needed to have in order to be called accomplished. As I let my fingers fly over the piano I was suddenly struck with an overwhelming feeling that the music I was playing was so polite. It was a light sonatina, nothing more. There was no underlying emotion, no passion, no grandeur.

Suddenly I stopped playing. I just couldn´t play anymore of that sonatina. I kept on thinking about the high-class girls of the Romantic age that learned music like this for nothing more but the sake of being accomplished and showing off. They probably never got the chance of really exploring music, feeling the passion and emotion that true music brings. They probably never got the chance of playing the passionate works of Beethoven, Haydn, Bach, Handel and so many others. They were subjected to playing light and simple sonatinas and works that were just one side, compositions that offer no surprise or expressing of emotion. Letting them play passionate and grand work would have been considered improper. It wouldn´t have been "good" for them to play such music.

It made me in a way angry that music was used as a tool to keep girls proper, polite and virtuous. I felt sorry for those girls that never got to experience true music, instead just flat-surfaced boring tunes. They may never have experienced the chance of just letting their fingers fly over the keys and playing whatever tune they felt like playing, experiencing fully the emotion and passion of pieces.

I feel sorry for those girls, I truly do. I am sincerely glad that women have reached so far now in gaining their rights. I am so happy that I can explore music to my own enjoyment, not be kept down by it.

And I am glad for music most of all


From Emily Liz
Posted on August 27, 2010 at 3:31 PM

Thanks for this entry. We are indeed fortunate as women to live in the era that we do.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on August 27, 2010 at 5:44 PM

Mozart always said that Nannerl, his sister, was the true musician in the family, far better than he was.  It hurts to think what she could have given the world and how disappointed she must have been when the reality of her situation hit home.

From James Plattes
Posted on August 28, 2010 at 4:07 AM

These Clementi pieces were created for young piano students to study.   They are like little etudes.

Thank you for posting your blog.



From Nicole Stacy
Posted on August 28, 2010 at 5:24 AM

I am sorry to be a major killjoy here, but frankly, I find that most music is only as boring as the imagination of the person interpreting it.

Vladimir Horowitz himself was such an admirer of Clementi that he released an entire CD exclusively of his sonatas. 

Here's an interesting article about Mozart and Clementi:

Apparently though Mozart derided Clementi as a hack, he wasn't above "borrowing" themes from him (or perhaps he would claim to be rescuing them).  You can hear it here .

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on August 28, 2010 at 6:39 AM

I wonder about the historical facts vs the historical image.  Were young women really forbidden to play some of the "deeper" works by Bach, Beethoven, etc.?  Most women played the piano because of their predetermined social role.  How many of them had the talent or the interest needed to play the great works of the great masters?

As for contemporary women musicians, I am glad that the U.S. finally has a woman conductor of a major symphony orchestra (Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra).  She is really good. The BSO has improved so much under her leadership.

From Emily Liz
Posted on August 28, 2010 at 3:33 PM

In the early Victorian era and before, unless they were truly extraordinary players, women were indeed discouraged from taking on pieces that were considered to be too intellectually taxing. Or if they did learn them, they were discouraged from performing them outside the house. (See the pronouncement of Mendelssohn's grandfather Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-1786: "Modest learning becomes a lady, but not scholarship. A girl who has read her eyes red deserves to be laughed at.") Piano playing was considered first and foremost an asset to be used to enhance a girl's femininity, not a tool to express herself as an artist, or champion a composer. Speaking of music, Mendelssohn's father wrote his gifted daughter Fanny, "For you it can and must only be an ornament. You must...prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman - I mean the state of a housewife." There were thankfully exceptions to the rule (Clara Schumann, for one) but they were not as plentiful as we nowadays would wish.

So regardless of exactly what pieces were or were not off-limits to women, we can all agree that female musicians, on the whole and for a variety of reasons, were not able to fulfill their potential as artists, and I think this is what Anna Meyer is writing about. :)

From Janis Cortese
Posted on August 28, 2010 at 6:16 PM

Don't forget though, that these sonatinas were not really meant as showpieces for musicality and expression.  They were dry pedagogical pieces and still are.  Clementi's more involved pieces are much more significant -- the sonatinas were meant to teach theory and technique, especially fingering -- and not much else, really.

I completely agree with what you're saying and would further claim that the real purpose of "protecting" women from intellectually taxing pursuits was more a desire to protect fragile male egos from the humiliation (which is how they would see it, I'm sure) of being visibly and routinely outperformed by mere women, but these sonatinas are probably not the best example of that.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on August 29, 2010 at 12:27 AM

I can't comment about the sonatina issue since I know nothing about this.  I do know though that before (a few decades ago), a woman couldn't do anything considered "too vulgar" or "too energizing".    You know, all these notions that it's even worst for a woman to swear than a man or that a rebelius woman was less accepted than a rebellius man or that woman talked together while real men went and took cigars and strong alcohol...  These stereotypes were everywhere and surely in music too. 

Fourtunately, in some parts of the world, this is no longer true and woman can enjoy strong emotional and high energy/adrenaline hobbies/professions/things.  (btw swearing and heavy drinking is not a good idea for both genders...  but these were just examples...)  Morover, woman who do emotional and energizing stuff are usually considered "hot" by society because they have a so lively and willing personality.  

I didn't know this about Mozart!  Imagine if he and his sister would have worked together as a composing and performing association!!!

Thanks for the reflexions...


From Tess Z
Posted on August 30, 2010 at 2:25 PM

All sides considered...I've always enjoyed Clementi's sonatina's because they are gay-lighted hearted pieces that make you feel good when you listen to them (non-pianist here). 

Also consider that these earlier piano works were not designed for our modern pianos.  The Forte piano is a completely different instrument than the concert grand.  Much is lost in the translation of these works I feel.  Check out recordings on period pianos.

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