Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Angela Mace Christian

Dr. Angela Mace Christian is a writer, lecturer, and pianist working in the field of music history. She specializes in music, culture, and society of the “Long Nineteenth Century”(1789-1914). Christian’s work focuses on the life and work of Fanny Hensel (born Mendelssohn), and her research interests include the Mendelssohn family and their circle, early nineteenth-century piano music and German art song, and issues of style and influence, gender, society, and kinship. Dr. Christian received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Music from Duke University, and her B.Mus. in piano performance from Vanderbilt University. She has given 600+ lectures in university classrooms and conferences in 7 countries, and she has published books, essays, articles, encyclopedia entries, and blog posts on Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn.

Take it away, Angela!

Are there special challenges in writing about a woman whose biography is overshadowed by that of a famous man?  

Absolutely. And the biggest battle ground is in my own thought process. Like so many pianists before me, I discovered Felix Mendelssohn’s music as a teenager. I was an avid reader, so I read all of the biographies of Felix I could get my hands on. Larry Todd’s authoritative biography of Mendelssohn did not yet exist, of course, so I only encountered Fanny as a shadowy figure in Felix’s life. I vividly remember performing Felix’s Lied ohne Worte, op. 85 no. 4 for a regional competition; in the edition I was using, the work had the title “Elegie” and I imagined that Felix had written it for Fanny after her death. Little did I know that the work was neither written after Fanny’s death, nor given a title by the composer! So, from my earliest engagement with the Mendelssohn family, Fanny was an amorphous figure, standing completely in the shadow of her brother. I think this is true for many people who often don’t even know that Felix had a sister, much less one so talented and highly accomplished.

Many years later, in graduate school (by then a Ph.D. candidate writing a dissertation on Fanny), I read Virginia Woolf’s seminal A Room of One’s Own in which she posits the existence of a sister for Shakespeare. She very well could have existed and could have been just as talented – or even more talented than – her brother William, but we will never know because society had no use for lower class women who wanted to create. It barely had any use for upper class women who wanted to create. By Fanny’s time, this had partially changed due to the Enlightenment and nascent ideals of equality in the education and treatment of women. But still, Fanny had to fight a very hard battle to fulfill her creative calling. And much of her battle was in her own mind, just as mine is, to convince herself that the rewards of her creative endeavor were worth risking her family’s name and her place in society. As a child, she was rigorously discouraged from any public display of her talents, but was able to cultivate them highly in the private sphere. As an adult, she struggled with seeing herself as worthy of public interest and downplayed her skill, like many women did. Even when her husband and friends begged her to publish something, still she resisted, claiming that she was “as afraid of her father and brothers at age 40 as she was at 14.”

So, I find myself consistently needing to stop and think carefully about if what I’m thinking is based on a long-held assumption about the relationship of a female artist to her brother, or whether what I am thinking is an objective analysis of evidence. I find that this issue crops up frequently when analyzing the music. It is incredibly tempting to compare the music of Felix and Fanny, because it truly does share a sort of genetic fingerprint. I find that many of us also fall into the habit of comparing composers to everyone who came before them; it’s hard not to, especially when a composer like Beethoven was very much alive and working when Felix and Fanny were teenagers. It can even be completely appropriate for some works, such as Fanny’s “Easter” sonata. But what if we didn’t compare them? What if we dug into the music of Fanny, just like we dig into the music of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms? What could we find that we’ve missed? What happens if we truly level the playing field, take gender and kinship out of the equation, and approach the work of art head on, regardless of its composer?* That’s incredibly difficult for me, since I do primarily write on the social context around Fanny, with a special interest in kinship, but it might be the best way to overcome those inherent biases in our minds and the historical record.

How do you define women’s history?

Women’s history is the history of all humans. It just hasn’t been written or acknowledged until more recent times because, as we know, those who hold the power get to write the narrative. It’s incredibly frustrating to think about all those centuries of brilliant women who contributed in endless ways to the formation of our world who we can know nothing about. And even more frustrating to think about all the brilliant women whose contributions were never made because they were (and still are) denied access to even basic education.

For example, a high class, educated woman in 19th century Western culture (like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and her mother, Lea) could be in charge of running a large home, which could include managing staff, the household budget, menu, care and education of children and elderly parents, and social calendar. In this era, the business was the family, rather than an unconnected corporation, so it was crucial to make these connections in the social, private realm – the domain of the women. Thus, a woman could enable her husband’s business success by hosting social events with strategically seated guests, by carefully choosing discussion topics, or by matchmaking. These tight-knit family structures and social calendars also allowed young women to absorb the education and intellectual pursuits of the men around them (or in some cases, exceptionally talented mothers or aunts). Some of these young women were encouraged not only to observe, but also to take part in the advanced pursuit of knowledge or skill. These are the women we know about – Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Caroline Herschel are both excellent examples – but still we know the struggle even they faced. Imagine the struggle of the intelligent women who did not have access to the “right” circle of people, but still managed to glimpse the possibilities. These are the women lost to history.

Today, two centuries later, we still struggle to ensure that all women get the education and opportunities they need to add their voice to the historical narrative. But I believe that we are starting to do a better job of calling out the inherent bias in the historical narrative not just in academia, but also in popular culture. That movement and the opportunity to take part in it extends to people – women and men – of all races, national origin, sexual identity, and religion. We still have a lot of progress to make, of course, but I am encouraged that I can now purchase books for my child that portray heroines with all shades of skin color that made history from the jazz club to moon. Now THAT is a giant leap for mankind.

How did you get interested in Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel?

I became interested in Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel through the music of her brother, Felix Mendelssohn. Looking back, I’m a little annoyed that that’s how it happened, but given that I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, without access to the resources I have now, I can’t fault myself too much! I played a lot of Felix Mendelssohn as a high school piano student, and then played his Variations sérieuses, op. 54 in my Junior piano performance degree recital at Vanderbilt University, The Blair School of Music. That performance was the beginning of my serious engagement with the Mendelssohns; I embarked on a senior project on Mendelssohn’s music, and used the Variations sérieuses as my jumping off point. I remember clearly going to the library to find the “M” section in the library. It was on the very bottom shelf, so I sat down cross legged on the floor and pulled every book available on Mendelssohn off the shelf. Among them was the new critical biography, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). That moment, and that book, changed the entire course of my life. The critical approach, new evidence presented, and heartfelt treatment of Mendelssohn and his music captivated me. I went on to apply to Duke University for their Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Music specifically to work on Mendelssohn with the book’s author, R. Larry Todd.

When I arrived on campus to start my Master’s course work in the Fall of 2006, Larry was already starting to draft his new biography of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel; he felt compelled to do so because as he was writing the biography of Felix, it had become clear to him, and to anyone who read that book, that Fanny was on every page of Felix’s life. As I started to read Larry’s drafts and listen to Fanny’s music, I became increasingly drawn to her story and her work. I could not believe that this woman, about whom I had previously known so little, had done so much in her short life – over 450 works completed!

And so it was that I became increasingly called to take up the work of women’s history and to champion Fanny in particular. The resources were only just coming more fully to light, there was still a lot to discover (like the long-lost autograph manuscript of the “Easter” sonata!), and there was room for making new observations. All that made Fanny the perfect subject for a dissertation. I decided to examine the relationship between Fanny and her brother and try to determine what belonged to Fanny and what belonged to Felix. In the end, I realized that approach was the wrong angle. I found instead that Fanny and Felix were indeed unique and separate composers, but that neither would have existed without the other.

I’ve been incredibly privileged to spend almost half my life now working on Fanny and her life and music. I hope a new generation of performers, scholars, and music lovers growing up now, will find that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel is not a surprise, but rather a standard part of their lives. The Mendelssohn family more broadly presents an incredibly rich tapestry of possibilities for scholarly exploration, ranging from Enlightenment Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn to 200+ living descendants of the family. The international scholarly and performing community surrounding this family is just as wonderful; it’s an open, supportive and sharing community, dedicated to advancing the state of knowledge on the Mendelssohn family. There’s still much to do, so come on over to the world of the Mendelssohns and stay a while!

Angela asks a question in return: What do you see as the most encouraging trend in research on women in music? How does that reflect, or not reflect, broader developments in the non-academic or non-musical world? (For example, women running for US President, more and more women being named CEOs of large corporations, etc.).

I will be honest. I know almost nothing about research on women in music, so for me the most encouraging trend is that such research is being done. It is exciting to learn that the musical equivalents of Virginia Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister in fact existed and prospered against the odds.

The fact that Angela and others are bringing such women out of the historical shadows is clearly related to the broader interest in researching women’s lives, both learning more about women who have been lost to history and questioning why they were “lost” in the first place. (After all, this isn’t like losing a sock in the laundry. People made, and make, choices that result in women, and other marginalized groups, being dismissed, ignored and forgotten.) The broader interest in restoring forgotten women to history is intimately intertwined with growing opportunities for women in the world. It works both ways: seeing what women have done in the past makes it easier to believe women can do more now and opening doors in the present make it easier to ask questions about what women have done in the past.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when you put half the populations back into history, you get a very different story.

*Pamela butting in: Angela throws down the gauntlet here for all of us who deal with women’s history. What would we learn if we take gender out of the question when looking at a woman’s work? It’s hard for me to even picture it in the case of most of the women I write about, because their battle to do the thing in the face of opposition is as much of their story as the thing itself. It’s a fascinating question. (Brief pause while I make notes for a future newsletter.**)

**You didn’t know I also have a newsletter? Take a look at a recent edition: In which I write a dud and consider the nature of dud-ery

Angela shared several useful links for anyone interesting in learning more about Angela and about Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft (Mendelssohn Society)
The society for the study of all members of the Mendelssohn family, based in Berlin, Germany. They direct the Mendelssohn-Remise, an intimate museum and event venue at Jägerstrasse 51, one known site of the Mendelssohn family bank. They host a rich array of events related to the Mendelssohns and their circle, as well as supporting the broader musical and scholarly community in Berlin. Their website offers many resources on the family in both German and English.

Not Another Music History Cliché!
Musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason (†2020) finds articles about classical music that contain debunked myths and cliché descriptions.  [Pamela again:  Things have changed since Angela got me this information.  The first blog post that appears on the site is a farewell.  I was stunned.  consider yourselves warned. ]
My scholarly website, where the visitor can download my performing version of the “Easter” Sonata for free and read about its discovery.

* * *
Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with historical novelist Mary Sharrat.

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