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Women composers in the Regency

Empire ladies, from's page, SP in Art. Click to make bigger

Olivia, my heroine in A Note of Scandal, is a high-born lady (daughter of a marquess), so you’d think she had it made. But what she longs to do – write music and perform it – was considered déclassé, and her parents feel so strongly about it she would never even think to do it. Until she does.

In many respects, being an artist, musician, or writer was seen as being “in trade,” the same as a shopclerk, shoemaker, or bricklayer. Ladies were expected to be proficient at their watercolors, their pianoforte, and their letters, but they did not perform for the public and certainly they did not earn money for their performance.

As a writer, I love these seemingly random distinctions. What would it be like to be a woman in Olivia’s position? What is the difference between giving a “private” performance to 200 people at a soiree and giving a “public” one to 150 subscribers at a concert hall? (And how did this opinion change over time so that nowadays we have the likes of “American Idol?”)

Starting with Wikipedia’s list of female composers, I sought out primary and secondary sources on the composers in roughly the right time. In my research, I found nothing like an exact match to model my lady on, but I did find some interesting details. For one, there were far more well-remembered (or published) female composers on the Continent than in Britain; this is also true for males. If I’d wanted to set my story in Austria, I’d have been in clover.

And there were some high-born lady composers, but they were very high-born, and they dabbled. One of the most famous: Queen Ann Boleyn in the 1500s. And in roughly regency times, the also much-maligned but unstoppable Duchess of Devonshire wrote at least one piece: “On March 17 [1784] Georgiana went to the opera to hear La Reine de Golconde, which include a little piece she had composed herself.” (Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, p. 136).

There were some “middle class” matrons (never single ladies) who composed, but they had to teach to make money. And Ann Hunter, wife of a celebrated surgeon, was commissioned to write verse to add to the music of others, including that of Hayden, and she wrote music to accompany her own poem “Song of the Indian.” I got that detail from The Girl in Rose, which is mostly about Rebecca Schroeter, an Englishwoman whom many consider a great love of the maestro, but also gives a great impression of the musical and social life of her time. (Careful readers will notice that maestro Hayden has a tiny cameo in my story, as well).

I’m not the only writer to find lady composers fascinating: If you’re looking for a literary story about a lady musician, try Clara: A Novel of Clara Schumann, by Janice Galloway (2002). Born in Germany in 1819, she’s post-regency, but her story is resonant. From the Washington Post review: “A moving portrait of an artist struggling to balance her extraordinary talent with the demands of daughterhood and duty, motherhood and marriage, a juggling act still relevant to the lives of women today.”

Some sources:

Wikipedia’s list of female composers by birth year

Clara: A Novel. Janice Galloway, 2002, Simon & Schuster.

The Girl in Rose: Haydn’s Last Love. Peter Hobday, 2004, Phoenix (Orion Books).

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. Amanda Foreman, 1998, Random House.

Concert Life in Eighteenth Century Britain. Susan Wollenberg and Simon McVeigh, eds., 2004, Ashgate Publishing.

Women & Music: A History, 2nd ed. Karin Pendle, ed., 2001, Indiana University Press.

Women in Music: An anthology of source readings from the Middle Ages to the present, revised ed. Carol Neuls-Bates, ed., 1996, Northeastern University Press.

The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. Julie Anne Sadie & Rhian Samuel, eds., 1995, The Macmillan Press.

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  1. Rosemary Shields wrote:

    Thanks for all the research! Yeah, it was okay to “display” your talents at soirees, mostly at the behest of your parents, in order to capture a husband. God forbid you became an entrepeneur, much less an artist. Thank God for pioneering women of the past who broke out of conformity. Not sure I’d have the courage, though I might have had the rage.

    Thursday, May 17, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  2. nickyp wrote:

    Olivia gets pretty mad, too. At one point, she contemplated beaning a particularly awful specimen of a men, but then…

    Thursday, May 17, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

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  1. Indulge! | Nicky Penttila on Saturday, September 20, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    […] by Romantic Historical Lovers | Goodreads page | a list of the major sources I used. | Posts on women composers in the regency, newspapers in the regency, and Napoleon in England | Play audio […]

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