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  • Women Writing Music in Late Eighteenth-Century England: Social Harmony in Literature and Performance
  • Mary Ann Parker (bio)
Leslie Ritchie . Women Writing Music in Late Eighteenth-Century England: Social Harmony in Literature and Performance. Ashgate. 2008. 280. US$114.95

This book provides a fascinating account of social interaction and musical production in late eighteenth-century England. Ritchie begins by laying out her theoretical starting points, the most significant of which is the premise that we can deepen our understanding of the issues by considering musical harmony as related to social harmony. Bolstered by evidence from a wide variety of historical sources, her argument is convincing.

The focus is on published songs associated with British women of 'the middle, genteel, and upper classes.' The reader may not be entirely comfortable with Ritchie's blanket characterization of this repertoire as popular song. Nevertheless, the discussions in the three chapters on songs of charity and love, pastoral songs, and songs relating to national identity are enlightening and entertaining. Throughout the book, the narrative is enriched by illustrations, most from eighteenth-century printed editions.

The chapter on caritas begins with an examination of hymns and songs written for the benefit of charitable institutions like the Magdalen Hospital for penitent prostitutes. Moving on to songs about tragic female figures such as 'Crazy Jane' (music by 'Miss Abrams') and 'Poor Mary of Buttermore' (words by 'a Lady'), Ritchie demonstrates how women manipulated the 'charitable affect' for their own benefit. Similarly, her rich expose´ of the pastoral song reveals the subversive potential of that seemingly innocent genre. Here, Ritchie reminds the reader that her critical skills extend to musical analysis, such as in her fine discussion of Mary Worgan's 'The Dying Nightingale.' The topic of British identity may be well-trodden ground, but many readers will be unfamiliar with examples like the 'Roast Beef Cantata' or the various 'Hindoo' airs. Highlighting the role of female performers, the author presents 'God Save the King as Sung by Signora Banti, at the King's Theatre,' [End Page 348] a popular print featuring the ornaments sung by the Italian singer Brigida Giorgi Banti in the 1790s.

Perhaps the most striking revelation is the extent to which women's participation in music was not confined to the domestic sphere. For example, in the chapter on the pastoral, Ritchie includes discussions of a number of theatrical works with either words or music by women. Furthermore, she challenges what she calls 'the cherished myth that any eighteenth-century woman who wrote music or lyrics only published her work in embarrassed anonymity, or with much self-abasement, or preferably, posthumously.' Using Michael Kassler's transcription of the list of compositions registered at Stationers' Hall, Ritchie shows that significant numbers of women did not hesitate to publish their works, many under their own names.

The high quality of the discussions and the consistently interesting content of this book deserved better editing. At times, the writing style is stiff and awkward, particularly in the conclusion. The citation style is inappropriate for a full-length monograph. Even after sifting through all three sections of the bibliography, I never could find the publication details for William Parker's sermon cited in the Introduction (until I resorted to an online library catalogue). When footnotes are used, they frequently appear in the middle of sentences, where they are distracting and visually unappealing.

Overall, Women Writing Music in Late Eighteenth-Century England is a valuable contribution to the field of eighteenth-century studies. It will appeal to specialists in many areas, including musicology, women's studies, literary studies, and the history of publishing.

Mary Ann Parker

Mary Ann E. Parker, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto



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pp. 348-349
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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