Songbirds on the Literary Stage

The Woman Singer and her Song in French and German Prose Fiction, from Goethe to Berlioz

by Julia Effertz (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 292 Pages
Series: European Connections, Volume 38


This interdisciplinary study, situated at the cross-section of music, literature and gender, examines the woman singer and her song as a literary motif in French and German prose fiction from the 1790s to the mid-nineteenth century. Through selected case studies, this diachronic history of motifs offers a fresh perspective on canonical singer archetypes, such as Goethe’s child singer Mignon and Madame de Staël’s ground-breaking artist Corinne. The volume also examines lesser known narratives by authors including Caroline Auguste Fischer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Hector Berlioz and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, some of which have not been considered critically in this regard before. This allows for a re-evaluation of the significance of the singer motif in musical narratives from the Romantic era to the July Monarchy. The sometimes polemic, often ambivalent, yet always nuanced and multi-layered reflection on the woman singer in literature bears testimony to the complexity of the nineteenth-century musical-literary discourse and its fluid negotiation of gender relations and female performance, fitting well with that ineffable, enigmatic essence of the woman singer herself who, as a literary motif and a cultural icon, continues to resonate and fascinate well beyond the nineteenth century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations for Journals
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Into the Sublime Unknown: Writing Female Song in the 1800s
  • Chapter 2: Archetype or Cliché? Goethe and the Child Singer Mignon in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
  • Chapter 3: The Plight of the First Woman: Madame de Staël and the Female Performer in Corinne, ou l’Italie
  • Chapter 4: Beyond the Canon: Singing Strategies in the Works of Caroline Auguste Fischer
  • Chapter 5: Between Entgrenzung and Realism: The Romantic Twilight of E.T.A. Hoffmann and George Sand
  • Chapter 6: Realistic Divas: The Singer in the Works of Balzac and Sophie Ulliac-Trémadeure
  • Chapter 7: Finding a Female Narrative: Madame de Thélusson, Madame de Taunay and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
  • Chapter 8: Hoffmannesque Dénouements: The Nightmare of the Romantic Singer in Hector Berlioz’s Euphonia, ou la ville musicale
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →Abbreviations for Journals


Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung


Acta Musicologica


Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung


Ästhetik und Kommunikation


Cambridge Opera Journal


Cahiers Staëliens


Dalhousie French Studies


Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift


French Historical Studies




German Life and Letters






Journal of the Association for the Interdisciplinary Study of the Arts


Jahrbuch für Internationale Germanistik


The Journal of Musicology


Journal of the Royal Musical Association


L’Année balzacienne


La France musicale


Leipziger Literaturzeitung

← ix | x →MDF

Mercure de France


The Modern Language Review


Musik und Bildung


Neophilologica: A Journal of Germanic and Romance Languages and Literature


Publications of the English Goethe Society


Publications of the Modern Language Association of America


Revue des Deux Mondes


Revue de Paris


Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris


Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France


Revue des langues vivantes


Romanistische Forschungen


Revue des Sciences Humaines


Revue de l’Université d’Ottawa


Victorian Studies


Women in French Studies

← x | 1 →Introduction

The privileged yet ambivalent rapport between women and music as a source of fantasy, myth, creative inspiration, and controversy in a patriarchal society has been documented since the beginnings of European culture and literature. Some of the earliest images of female song are also some of the strongest iconographies, indicative of a female music practice that has been viewed with suspicion from the beginnings of European musicality.

As the first singers in European folklore, the Muses came to embody the idealized and accepted face of non-threatening, passive female art practice, which in turn nourished male artists and inspired them to express their artistic genius through their own work. The Muses remained the primary teachers and guardians of the arts and of artists throughout the centuries – it is to them that we owe the term itself, ‘music’.1 At the other end of the spectrum, the sirens – active performers exemplifying a threatening kind of femininity – came to embody the contrasting face of female song in their various incarnations throughout history.

In stark contrast with the ideal male singer Orpheus, who had been taught by his mother, the muse Calliope, the siren came to represent the archetypal imagery of female song as a threat to society and to the patriarchal order.2 Whereas the muse was considered a ‘safe’ type of female musician, one who passively inspired the male artist to create but remained silent herself, the siren has remained firmly anchored as a representation of the dangerous (active) female musicality that has always surrounded the singer herself, playing with the uncanny nature of both music and womanhood: half-woman, half-animal, the siren sang to draw men into her deadly embrace, thus reuniting the utmost rapture that one experienced when listening to her singing voice with certain death for those who did not plug their ears in time, as the Odyssey tells us.

Thus, what is so interesting when looking at the cultural history of music and, in particular, of human song, is that the perceived beauty of the human voice, and in extension of music, has always been linked to its ← 1 | 2 →underlying threat, to the rapture and the death that awaits the listener should he follow the singing voice. Since the beginnings of musical culture, (male) critics have admonished the ‘proper’ performance and called for regulations to keep music in check, attempting to avoid a situation in which music – considered a powerful art form capable of arousing passion and immorality – might pose a threat to the social order.3

So who is the woman singer? Is she a muse or a siren – or perhaps something else entirely? And who gets to decide on the nature of the female performer, on whether she may sing at all, and if so, what and how she may perform? It is this fascinating imagery of woman and song, potentially threatening yet infinitely enticing, at the crossroads of myth and reality, of music, culture and literary discourse, and most importantly as a motif of debate for female agency, that lies at the heart of the scintillating character that is the woman singer – and at the heart of this book.

The woman singer emerged as a literary phenomenon during a time when authors were gradually integrating music into their narratives as the ineffable other of language and reason. Contrary to the words on the page, music was able to express the inexpressible: to convey meaning beyond mere spoken language and beyond the physical, worldly realm. At a time when women were establishing themselves increasingly as professional musicians as well as starting to partake in the aesthetic discourses surrounding them as writers and intellectuals, emerging aesthetic art concepts codified music and woman as poetic ideals and relegated women to the realm of female passivity that was to serve male artistic procreation.

Against this aesthetic backdrop, the treatment of the woman singer in the literature of the period is as stunning as it is, in fact, complex. A socio-cultural commodity of the drawing rooms, recital halls and operatic stages, yet at the same time an ideal(ized) messenger of music as mysterious, otherworldly and sublime, the woman singer features prominently in both German and French literature of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century.

What makes the singer as a literary motif so fascinating as well as revealing is not only the breadth of texts dealing with the motif and the degree of preoccupation with it that we encounter on the part of writers, but more importantly the fluidity of the literary discourse and the willingness of authors to use the singer motif as part of their negotiations of ← 2 | 3 →socio-cultural norms and aesthetic concepts pertaining to art and music in particular. Some of the most fascinating singers of the literary canon (and beyond) were created by French and German writers from the 1790s onwards, during a time of strong and rich French-German literary relations and as part of an ongoing, nuanced discourse on music and femininity.

As a true socio-cultural myth of her time, the woman singer appears as a complex reflection and negotiation of diverging musical-literary aesthetics and art practices; she appears as much in high discourses and treatises on art as in the trivial, popular texts read by the masses; and she expresses herself in a multitude of forms and performance spaces, from the intimacy of the salon to the spotlight of the opera stage, from the ideals of song as poetry to the mundanity of operetta songs and street performers, from the struggles of the woman music teacher to the acclaim of the celebrated operatic diva.

The case studies featured in this book include key figures of the French and German canon such as Goethe, Hoffmann, Madame de Staël, Berlioz and George Sand, as well as lesser-known authors such as Caroline Auguste Fischer, Sophie Ulliac-Trémadeure and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. What unites these authors and creates the thread running through each critical analysis in this book is the complex treatment and fresh appraisal of a character in a manner that transcends a socio-cultural cliché or a narrative commonplace. Reflecting on the difficult relations between the idealist fantasy of female song and its realist predicament in nuanced, multi-layered ways and creating alternative narrative spaces for female artistic expression and agency, these authors wrote potentially subversive, empowered figures of female song performance that re-negotiated the representation of women in nineteenth-century literature and that are indicative of both male and female authors’ own fluid, performative role in shaping the socio-cultural context within which they wrote.4

Writing the woman singer constitutes both representation and performance through which authors negotiate certain stereotypes while inscribing their own performance of the motif and aesthetics into an ongoing discourse. This books aims to show the diversity of authors’ voices in the literary representation of the singer, and thus the potential of the motif and its possible subversion of aesthetic stereotypes. Therefore, the analyses propose a re-assessment of the traditional, binary readings of literary texts ← 3 | 4 →that have dominated scholarship of the early Romantic period as well as a questioning of fixed notions of literary epochs such as ‘Romanticism’, which have more recently been put to critical discussion as aesthetic concepts. Beyond the constraints that terms relating to aesthetic periods such as Romanticism or Empfindsamkeit impose, the authors’ textual embodiments of the singer and their aesthetics relating to the motif contribute to a fascinating history of the motif of the woman singer – and thus to one possible evolution of the singer motif, between France and Germany, from the late eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century.

The sometimes polemic, often ambivalent, yet always fascinating reflection on the woman singer that we see in this context bears testimony to the complexity of the musical-literary discourse of the time, one marked by a fluidity in gender relations and gender performance and one that corresponds well to the ineffable, enigmatic essence of the singer herself – who, as a cultural icon, continues to resonate and mystify.


1 See Charles Segal, Orpheus. The Myth of the Poet (Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1989); Alexandre Auguste Hirsch, Calliope enseigne la musique au jeune Orphée, 1869. Périgueux; Musée du Périgord.

2 On the topic of the siren, see for instance Anna-Maria Stuby, ‘Sirenen und ihre Gesänge. Variationen über das Motiv des Textraubs’, in Frauen: Erfahrungen, Mythen, Projekte, ed. Anna-Maria Stuby (Berlin: Argument-Verlag, 1985); Sehnsucht und Sirene: Vierzehn Abhandlungen zu Wasserphantasien, ed. Irmgard Roebling (Pfaffenweiler: Centauras, 1992). This compilation contains an excellent study on the siren as a cipher for otherness (Ute Guzzoni, ‘Die Ausgrenzung des Anderen’, pp. 5–34).

3 ‘Use not much the company of a woman that is a singer, lest thou be taken with her attempts’ (Ecclesiasticus, 9.4). See also Plato’s Protagoras (347d, p. 48), and his Republic, in which he allows only certain modes and rhythms that do not indulge one’s emotions (Republic, 398c-400c, pp. 95–8).

4 See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Thinking Gender (London: Routledge, 1990).

← 4 | 5 →CHAPTER 1

Into the Sublime Unknown: Writing Female Song in the 1800s

From the late eighteenth century onwards, the woman singer appears as a multi-faceted literary motif. This motif evolved as part of a fluid discourse on music and femininity, as well as alongside profound socio-cultural changes with regards to music practice and the music business.1

The ambiguity, if not suspicion, with which women musicians2 (and in particular singers)3 have been treated by society has been well documented. Furthermore, scholarship in the area of music and literature has shown the intensity of the musical-literary discourse towards the end of the eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century in France and Germany,4 as well as the close bond between music, literature and culture5and their encoding in feminized terminology and imagery.6

Underpinned by eighteenth-century theories on gender and by the Rousseauesque ideal of the musical origin of language and humankind, the aesthetics of song and music throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were encoded in feminized imagery, while the imagery and fantasy of musical practice was linked with idealized concepts of women as demure, emotional and naturally musical creatures.7 Diametrically opposed to the rational, male realm of language, music was perceived as the ‘other’ language, a carrier of the sublime – emotional, irrational, uncanny and thus ideally symbolized through femininity. The German Romantics in particular formulated strong views on musical aesthetics that were firmly tied to the feminine imagery of the sublime, the irrational-emotional and the uncanny.8 Unsurprisingly, the perceived natural link between music and femininity, paired with the de facto rise of professional singers performing on stage during the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century, led to a surge in musical narratives depicting scenes of women making music. ← 5 | 6 →The juxtaposition of these two stereotypical sides of musical women often blurred the boundaries between the musical ideal embodied in woman as a (passive) muse9 and the woman musician herself as an (autonomous) artist-character in her own right. In contrast to the rapidly developing musical scene as well as the increased professionalism of women performers and their access to the musical markets, the Romantic view of women singers, fuelled by the long-standing perception of music and women as potentially threatening, implied a carefully circumscribed and sanctioned space that confined women musicians to the realm of abstract poetic ideals on the one hand and to their naturally predetermined roles of wife and mother at home on the other.10 At most, women were able to perform within the realm of the ‘private-public’ space of the salon,11 where they could present themselves musically without risking their reputations or their status as respected women in society.12 A major part of female musicality was thus confined to the realm of musical dilettantism.13


X, 292
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Goethe Carline Auguste Fischer Realism Entgrenzung First of Woman
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 292 pp.

Biographical notes

Julia Effertz (Author)

Julia Effertz is a comparative literature scholar and an actress who specializes in women in the literature and culture of the nineteenth century from a comparatist perspective. Her work has appeared in the journals Cahiers Staëliens, Jahrbuch für internationale Germanistik and French Studies as well as in the collected volumes Staël’s Philosophy of the Passions (2013), Musique et littérature: rencontres Sainte-Cécile (2011), Violence in French and Francophone Literature and Film (2008) and Paragraphes: parcours figuratifs et configurations discursives du roman africain (2006).


Title: Songbirds on the Literary Stage