“Reclaiming Creativity and Convention: Female Musicians and the Germanic Ideal in the Late ‘Aufklärung'”

The idea of exceptionalism evolves concurrently with our changing perspectives of each historical period. As one example, standard historiography has often represented the late Enlightenment as prohibitive to women, yet recent scholarship in musicology now elucidates a lost history at the end of the eighteenth-century, when female musicians participated in androcentric genres and practices to a greater degree than at any other time. Women openly and actively engaged in performance, composition, and publication in operatic, sacred, and orchestral production, their elevated cultural agency eclipsing prevailing legal and social restriction.

In this essay, I rehabilitate this history and argue that heightened female agency in “public” artistic practices articulated both the progress of native culture, exercised within the Germanic ideal, and the maturation of Enlightenment tenets for both genders – at a time when women saw themselves less as subordinates or objects of idealization than as autonomous keepers of artistry and intellect.i I suggest that a common strategy for male writers was to situate female executants and composers within patterns of (not necessarily male) excellence and emerging nationalism by framing female performance and production within the order and unity of German rationality. By invoking the aesthetics of the great masters in their reviews, modern critics granted female musicians native appeal; by associating their works with the weight and power of German tradition, they situated production by women within an acceptable framework of legitimacy by musical heredity.
i To Matthew Head, “women featured in the historiography, political theory, aesthetics, and artistic practices of this period less as a subordinate term, still more rarely as “Other,” than as an emblem of social, moral and artistic ideals.” Matthew William Head, Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 4. Prior to the publication of Sovereign Feminine, a similar approach regarding women’s agency and cultural capital (not idealization) was articulated in the introductory argument of Laureen L. Whitelaw, “Music Beyond Spheres: The Public Compositions of South German Female Composers of the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries” (PhD diss., Northwestern University, 2013).


Laureen L. Whitelaw is a Northwestern University postdoctoral scholar. Her present research explores the tension between ideological, political, and religious movements and the various aesthetic trends in Germany (and in Europe, as a whole) at the end of the Enlightenment – and how these movements may have stimulated creative involvement by female composers. Introducing research in this and other areas, she has presented at national meetings of the American Musicological Society and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and is published internationally. Her dissertation, “Music Beyond Spheres: the Public Compositions of South German Female Composers of the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries” (2013), introduced and critically analyzed large-genre works of female composers of Bavaria; of note, two keyboard concertos attributed to Antonio Rosetti in modern publication are shown through detailed comparative analysis to have been composed by a talented woman employed at the Oettingen-Wallerstein court. While at Northwestern, Laureen was voted to the NU Faculty Honor Roll, and during the 2015 season, she served as Artistic Coordinator for the Piano and Strings Program at Ravinia Festival in Chicago.