Women and Music in the Early 19th Century, by Sharon Lathan

Women and Music in the Early 19th Century, by Sharon Lathan

As is typical, I approached my blogging day with no idea what topic to discuss. Then I read Riana Everly’s excellent blog on Classical music and Beethoven from a few days ago. If you missed it, scroll down a bit on the Home page, or click this link: Historical Tidbits: A Heroic Symphony.

Now, I would be lying if I claimed to be a Classical music aficionado, as Riana clearly is. (As an aside, I would bet money on more musical-themed blogs from Ms. Everly in the future!) As for me, unless chatting about 1970s and 1980s rock-and-roll, I am clueless. For this reason, when I decided to write Georgiana Darcy as a gifted musician and composer for Miss Darcy Falls in Love, I was almost biting off more than I could chew! Luckily there is Google, and in my case a dear friend who is a highly trained pianist and composer. For months I kept him on speed-dial!

But before the technicalities of musical theory and correct terminology came into play for writing the novel, I needed to discover if my hazy idea of a future for Georgiana in the professional world of music was remotely possible. For many years after this kernel of an idea sprang into my head, I honestly did not think it was feasible. As we all know, women in the past, particularly within the upper classes, had few acceptable options at a career or profession. It wasn’t impossible, of course. Look at Jane Austen! There were many famous female painters and sculptors, for instance, as well as other authors. Even a dubious career in theatre worked for Sarah Siddons, just to name one of dozens. “So why not music?” I asked myself. Seems reasonable enough but an author needs facts to write a logical, plausible storyline.

Delving into the evolving history of music would take too much time, and is probably a better topic for Riana to tackle. To sum up, the shifting styles and compositions within what is generously termed “Classical Music” dramatically changed over the Baroque decades of the 1600s to the true Classical period beginning in the 1750s to the Romantic era of the 1820s. The late-18th to early-19th centuries, particularly, were periods of intense change in the musical arts. Freedom of expression burst forth, aided in large part by musical composition no longer under the control of wealthy patrons, the aristocracy, or the Church. Artists were unafraid to experiment and break established rules, adding their unique twists and embracing the emotional elements of music. England tended to move slower than the rest of Europe, as is evidenced by the preponderance of Italian, French, German, and Austrian composers versus English ones. The influence was certainly felt in merry ole England and the compositions crossed the Channel to be enjoyed by audiences large and small.

The Music Lesson (1871) by George Goodwin Kilburne

A woman of Georgiana’s class would have begun studying music at a very young age. Probably from her mother at first and then from a governess and tutors. If she showed a greater aptitude and the desire, she might be allowed to receive instruction from a “master”— an educated man (typically) with experience as a practicing musician. She would attend the opera, symphony, and concertos while in London, expecting to be knowledgeable on music, as well as all the topics encompassing the arts. Books on musical theory were also plentiful. Yet sadly, at the end of the day, while an accomplished woman was valued and expected to converse with men on these acceptable subjects, her skills need only be adequate enough to entertain her husband and guests. Not to say this was an undervalued talent in an age before cinema for entertainment. Music in every variety was the prime form of entertainment at gatherings and quiet family nights at home, as evidenced by the thousands of paintings of women and men with instruments and/or singing to rapt onlookers.

Nevertheless, to our modern eyes, this appears wholly a sexist attitude, and in part I suppose it was. Yet to be fair, England had simply not quite caught up with the more liberal countries on the European continent when it came to education for the gentler sex. During the previously noted decades of rapid change, institutions for learning music (and all the arts) were established across Europe for men and women to study and enhance their talents, no matter their class or finances.

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While it would be well into the 20th century before all the barriers were broken, females as singers, composers, and performers on instruments were not only accepted in most of the top institutions in Europe but encouraged and, in a few cases, exalted. Women and Music: A History by Karin Pendle is a wonderful book giving an exhaustive history on the subject. Vienna in the 17th century had four conservatories that offered education to girls with musical talent. France was by far the front runner with women trained for sacred chorus and opera for over two centuries. A number of musical institutions came and went, but women always participated to some degree.

In 1789 Bernard Sarrette established the Ecole gratuite de Musique de la Garde Nationale (Free School of Music for the National Guard). The main goal was to organize music for the army, but in 1795 the institution was changed with the prime goal being to embrace all branches of music. It was renamed the Conservatoire de Musique under the presidency of Sarrette, who “extended to 125 professors and 600 pupils of both sexes to receive free instruction” with the purpose of “teaching and performance in public celebrations” for national holidays.

Instantly, the Conservatoire became the leading school for singers, musicians, and composers. The Conservatoire grafted onto the existing Academie de Musique — the over two-century old Imperial company performing all of the arts in Paris — swelling the troupe’s number to 250 persons. Theatre dominated Parisian life during the rule of Napoleon, the brilliant epoch lasting until his overthrow in 1814. Political upheaval nearly saw the demise of the arts, but luckily Louis XVIII was a restorationist and lover of theatre. The Paris Conservatoire of Music persevered, thrived, and to this day is considered one of the largest and most prestigious conservatoires in Europe with branches for dramatic arts and dance added to the established foundation of music.

Entrance of the Paris Conservatoire de Musique et de Declamation, rue Bergere. From a wood carving c.1850.



Entrance of the Paris Conservatoire de Musique, a photo from 1906.


How many women were there in the Conservatoire in 1820 when Miss Darcy Falls in Love is set? The truth is I do not know. If precise records exist, I could not find them. There is no doubt whatsoever that male students, teachers, and performers vastly out numbered the women. Was this strictly due to antiquated beliefs in a woman’s inferior capabilities? To a large degree I am sure it was, but to solely claim misogyny as the cause is to forget that the overwhelming majority of women chose time-honored paths of marriage and motherhood. A female with a career of any kind, or attaining a higher education in any area, was essentially unheard of. Nevertheless, as much as it pains us, those passionately driven females who passed the rigorous testing for admission into the Conservatoire de Musique were not treated quite as equally as the male students, nor were they allowed to advance as far or study certain subjects. As with many areas of women’s liberation, equality would be a slow process over the subsequent decades.

Another hurdle in plausibility for my novel’s plot was that the Conservatoire prized French nationality almost as highly as musical talent. In other words, non-French students or teachers were rare until the latter half of the 1800s. Fortunately, I did uncover a handful of historical references for both female and non-French students.

  • Composer Louise Farrenc (1805–75) was appointed professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire in 1842, noted as “one of the first female instrumental professors in Europe.”
  • Julie Dorus-Gras, born in Belgium, was an operatic soprano admitted into the Conservatoire in 1820.
  • Alexandrine-Caroline Branchu, born in former French colony Saint Dominique, was an opera soprano and one of the first students at the Paris Conservatoire after it opened in 1795.
  • English composer and organist Edward Chadfield, born 1825 in Derby, studied at the Conservatoire for years before his 1861 appointment as the head organist at St Werburgh’s Church, Derby.
  • In 1852, Camille Urso became the first female student to win a prize on violin.

Not too surprisingly, the names of female operatic singers and actresses are extensive. Also, in any list of Conservatoire alumni, only those who acquired a measure of fame in their respective fields are recorded. It is logical to assume not every student completed their education and that the majority weren’t standouts worthy of historical note. As for writing my novel, with at least a few examples and a wee bit of “creative license” I felt comfortably within the realm of reality for Georgiana Darcy and her love-interest Sebastian Butler to become students at the Paris Conservatoire de Musique.

I hope everyone enjoyed this musical post.
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June 22, 2021 6:19 PM

Enjoyed the post!

June 13, 2021 6:38 PM

This interesting. I am not musically inclined and luckily my kids did not inherit that. I am amazed with accomplished people esp those who play their hearts out once they are with their instrument. That’s how I always envisioned Georgiana and she could have been one of those who stood-out.

Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
June 11, 2021 8:07 AM

Love this post. When I think of women in music about this time or a little later I can’t help think of Fanny Mendelssohn. Her first compositions were published under her brother’s name since her father did not think it becoming for a woman to be a composer. Crazy men. Loved your book by the way. Thanks.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
June 8, 2021 8:13 AM

Interesting post! A lot of ladies play piano in Austens novels,it must be something that A lot of young ladies did at that time. I used to play the clarinet in high school band!lol

Riana Everly
June 8, 2021 7:08 AM

I’m so pleased my post was useful. And yes, I could go on for ages about music. Maybe something about women composers in the 19th century? That would fit nicely with my WIP. So much grist for this mill.
I didn’t know about those exceptional women at the Conservatoire, so thank you for that! I am always delighted when I learn something new.
Have a musical day!

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