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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 7: Finding a Female Narrative: Madame de Thélusson, Madame de Taunay and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore


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In French literature of the 1830s and 1840s, the motif of the woman singer develops as part of a strong social discourse on the liberated artist in general and as part of a female writing tradition in particular. As can be seen with the likes of George Sand and Sophie Ulliac-Trémadeure, women authors are, even more than their male colleagues, preoccupied with the key issues of female song and dramatize them as a mise en corps of female song, explicitly focusing on the singer as heroine between ideal femininity and female artistic empowerment. At the same time, one cannot deny the implications of a female author writing a female character from a different position than her male peers, negotiating the narrative space for music as well as for the woman artist, and, through her, reflecting on her own narrative voice.

It seems that the cantatrice, who takes centre stage and sings with a claim to publicity, critical acclaim and artistic sublimation, and as such renews the long-standing debate surrounding women performers, serves as a prime literary character in that regard and allows especially women authors to partake in the musical-literary discourse, at times bringing forward fresh ideas.

Apart from George Sand and Sophie Ulliac-Trémadeure, women authors wrote musical narratives, in part for the roman-feuilleton, and with varying quality. As with their male peers, these enthusiastic musiciens-littérateurs produced trivial pieces for the most part – but some cases are...

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