Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Abstract

Sovereign Feminine is a splendid book. An important contribution to eighteenth-century studies, it explores the activities of female musicians in a variety of roles–as composers and performers, and especially as participants in the cultural ideology of the time. In this way, Head offers perspectives that potentially revise our sense of Enlightenment music-making and women’s place in it.

 

Content

Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany. By Matthew Head
Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany. By Matthew Head. pp. xxi + 326 (University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 2013. 㿘.95. ISBN 978-0-520-27384-9.)
Marcia J Citron
+ Author Affiliations

Rice University
Sovereign Feminine is a splendid book. An important contribution to eighteenth-century studies, it explores the activities of female musicians in a variety of roles–as composers and performers, and especially as participants in the cultural ideology of the time. In this way, Head offers perspectives that potentially revise our sense of Enlightenment music-making and women’s place in it.

Several themes pervade the volume. Head sees the female sign as sovereign in eighteenth-century Germany, creating a feminocentric world with musical woman as an ideal, a civilizing force, and a marker of sensibility. Embodying the best in social values, she serves as a sort of ‘living muse’. Around 1780 this positive view starts to change, and in the nineteenth century the category of ‘woman composer’ and its connotation of limited agency become negative for women. This does not mean that authorship is irrelevant in the eighteenth century. Indeed, it figures prominently in several chapters (3, 4, 5), where Head demonstrates that authorship is not unitary and is subject to historical context. In addition to substantive matters, methodology itself emerges as a theme. Head recognizes that his approach is a departure from second-stage feminist work. In his formulation, second-stage research focused on real-life issues as defined by the historiography of the late twentieth century, including canonicity, professionalism, formal reception, and practical containment. In Sovereign Feminine, Head avoids these categories and argues that in eighteenth-century terms woman as an ideal was positive for women, not negative.

Although my characterization suggests a standpoint of certainty, Head is often ambivalent about the privileging of idealization over practicality, revealing his awareness of the complexities involved in the binary. This strengthens the book–it would be hard to accept a study that reverses foundational work on women without the nuanced self-questioning found in Sovereign Feminine.

http://ml.oxfordjournals.org/content/95/2/280.extract

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