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Josephine Lang: Her Life and Songs (review)

From: University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 78, Number 1, Winter 2009
pp. 313-315 | 10.1353/utq.0.0379

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Composer, pianist, singer, teacher, and mother of six, Josephine Lang once wrote that her songs were her diary. Treating her life’s works exactly as such, Harald Krebs and Sharon Krebs have created a compelling biography of the nearly forgotten musician who was widely known during her lifetime.

Lang was born in 1815 in Munich, where she lived until her marriage to Reinhold Köstlin in 1841. Her family was a musical one and from an early age she was encouraged to pursue her craft as a musician. She was an acclaimed performer in local salons, and soon her talent attracted attention beyond the boundaries of Munich. As the authors reveal, Lang was connected to and known within some of the most influential artistic circles of nineteenth-century Europe. Most notably, her music received glowing reviews from Felix Mendelssohn, Stephen Heller, Ferdinand Hiller, and Robert Schumann. Lang published her first song collection when she was only sixteen years old, and prior to her marriage she taught private music lessons.

Her married life was fraught with tragedy, as she was widowed by the age of forty-one and lost her three eldest sons before her own death in 1880. She herself suffered ill health most of her life, and her husband’s untimely passing left her struggling to support their family. Nonetheless, Lang continued to compose, finding refuge in her music, and published over forty collections of songs and piano music over the course of her life – a tremendous accomplishment for a female musician in an age when few women continued to practise their music, let alone compose, after marriage.

The authors have based their work on a rich variety of sources, drawing largely from contemporary correspondence as well as biographies written by Ferdinand Hiller and Lang’s youngest son, but also treating such documents as Lang’s autograph albums as biographical snapshots. Their final product is a well-researched, clearly written book that should hold appeal not only to music scholars but to a broader readership interested in women’s music. The authors present their material objectively, without over-glorifying Lang’s career, but also without succumbing to the temptation of blaming the men in Lang’s life for her inability to achieve the stature of Mozart or Beethoven. They treat Lang as an artist in her own right, situating her firmly within the history of nineteenth-century female musicians. From this perspective, they reveal why Lang was able to achieve professional status while her contemporaries, such as Fanny Hensel (neé Mendelssohn), could not, without undermining the significance of Lang’s achievements.

Lang’s songs serve as the focal point of this book, and each chapter contains numerous analytical discussions of her works. These analyses are insightful, focused, and well-explained, flowing seamlessly in and out of the biographical text. In addition to illuminating Lang’s compositional style and skill, the analyses also serve as further documentary evidence of Lang’s life. Treating each song as a diary entry, the authors probe Lang’s unique approaches to text-setting and her subsequent revisions of her work to show how her music offers deep insight into her personal life and vice versa.

Josephine Lang: Her Life and Songs also comes with a companion compact disc, featuring thirty of Lang’s songs performed by Sharon Krebs, an active singer, and accompanied by Harald Krebs, a pianist and professor of music at the University of Victoria. This recording is a great asset, especially considering the relative unavailability of Lang’s music, and the authors’ performances bring vivid illumination to their text.

Potential buyers should examine the book carefully before making a purchase, though: in preparing this review, I encountered two copies that were missing chapter 5 (in its place was a duplicated set of pages 117–48). This unfortunate publication flaw aside, Josephine Lang: Her Life and Songs is an insightful biography and a valuable addition to the literature on women’s music, and on nineteenth-century music in general.

Michelle Boyd  

Michelle Boyd, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto

Copyright © 2009 University of Toronto Press Incorporated
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