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Songbirds on the Literary Stage

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


Julia Effertz

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.
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Chapter 6: Realistic Divas: The Singer in the Works of Balzac and Sophie Ulliac-Trémadeure


← 172 | 173 →CHAPTER 6

‘Qu’est-ce qu’un chanteur? Un seul corps qui doit donner des âmes à ceux qui n’en ont pas’.1

Following on from the German Romantics and, in particular, from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s legacy of the music novella and the musical fantastic, French music culture during the July Monarchy period was a frenzied mass vogue, a genuine socio-cultural and literary ferment2 that gave birth to a reformulation of the musical-literary discourse between the negotiation of emancipated artistic genius and the pronounced social agenda that sought to shape contemporary society.

In that regard, French literature treating music between 1830 and 1848, as compared to earlier German texts, widens its reflection on song and the singer by placing the figure of the musician at the centre of its narratives, and, in doing so, raising the question of the artist in society. Although music became as much a societal spectacle in French culture and literature as a power shaping important artistic discourses, French musical narratives of the 1830s and 1840s, embracing tendencies of both Romantic and realist aesthetics, put the question of the singer and her status as woman and artist forward with renewed vigour. The resultant new discussions of this evolving female artist, together with the rise of opera in the nineteenth century, rendered her one of the iconic figures of the century.

The political, economic and socio-cultural caesura of 1830 in France marked the start of a new type of musical-literary discourse, and writers...

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