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  • Music and New Woman Aesthetics in Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus
  • Anna Peak (bio)

The names of the great composers of classical1 music—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and so on—are all of men. Why have there been no great women composers? In 1894, an essay addressing that question—“Is the Musical Idea Masculine?”—gained immediate popularity, being reprinted multiple times on both sides of the Atlantic. Its author, Edith Brower, begins her essay by acknowledging that there have been a few women composers of note (Fanny Mendelssohn, in particular) but none, she argues, who were truly great. “What,” she asks rhetorically, “is the reason?” before going on immediately to state that it is an innate lack of ability, with which unfavourable circumstances have had nothing whatever to do:

When it is asked, in regard to other matters, why women have accomplished so little, the question is promptly answered by saying that they have not been given the opportunity, or that opportunity has not as yet been theirs long enough to show their full capabilities. But this reply will not serve for the present case. If there is one thing, outside of household affairs, the pursuit of which has been permitted to women in all ages, that thing is music. Whatever else was denied her, this was granted. The lute was put into her hands many centuries before the pen.…


Yet, Brower reiterates, there have been no great women composers. Brower’s argument is simple: women have had ample exposure to music; they have learned to play instruments; they have long been familiar with musical notation; yet few compose music, and those few who do, do so at a level below that of the greatest men composers. Ergo, women are incapable of great artistic achievement. This line of thought was hardly original to Brower,2 but her formulation of it was particularly widely cited, perhaps because it was perceived as useful to the anti-feminist cause that such arguments should be made by a woman. As women made strides in education and in arts other than music but remained little represented in the ranks of composers, anti-feminists taunted women about their musical failures, arguing that in this of all fields, women should have most succeeded, and precisely there they had most failed. The usual reason given for this failure was that music and women are fundamentally emotional, but that only men [End Page 135] can control their emotions and “measure them out in the ordered frames of art” (“Miss Clara A. Macirone” 194).3

One response to the question of why there have been so few great women composers is to argue that there have been, in reality, more and greater women composers than critics such as Brower want to admit, and this is the line of thinking that contemporary feminist musicologists have largely pursued.4 Yet, in suggesting that women were able to achieve to their highest ability despite sexism, this argument sometimes comes perilously close to suggesting that sexism makes little difference, hindering only the recognition of achievement and not achievement itself. Further, as women’s compositions in the nineteenth century tended to be in different genres than those of men (songs versus symphonies, for example),5 this line of thought can also imply that women and men innately think and compose differently, a problematic argument given the way that the differences between men’s and women’s compositions have changed over time. A different response to the same problem is to argue that musical composition requires different training than musical performance and that women have primarily been trained in the reproduction rather than the production of music. This is the argument that was made during the nineteenth century, when an argument against ideas like Brower’s was made at all.6 Yet over the course of the nineteenth century, women were increasingly given access to training in musical composition; French-born composer Maude Valerie White, for example, not only studied composition under George Macfarren at the Royal Academy of Music starting in 1876 but also won the prestigious Mendelssohn Fellowship in 1879 (Bernstein 251), and composers like Frenchwoman Cécile Chaminade and...


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pp. 135-154
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