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Topic Thursday

The Shadow of the Courtesan

Today’s Topic Thursday is all about how women who composed and made music were perceived by their contemporaries. Although the specifics varied between eras and countries, one of the unfortunate mainstays was the sexualization of female musicians. In Anna Beer’s Sound and Sweet Airs, she refers to this phenomenon as the “shadow of the courtesan” and shows time and again how it affected women who composed. 

Today I’ll look at why this stereotype followed all women in music to an extent, why it developed, and how it influenced women’s lives.

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When Did This Start? 

Anna Beer argues that the shadow of the courtesan goes all the way back to the Book of Samuel, where it states that “listening to a women’s voice is sexual enticement.” Even today, women are not allowed to sing in Orthodox synagogues, partially due to this line. 

The Catholic Church stayed on the same track. Nuns were only permitted to sing certain types of music, and never in front of men. Even in areas where Lutherism or other Protestant religions replaced the Catholic Church, the story remained the same. Women’s compositions and performances have always been viewed in terms of their sex. Many composers received reviews complimenting their pieces, saying they almost sounded like a man wrote them. 

Reputation Mattered

For much of western history, the reputation of a woman – and the intactness of her virginity – were decisive factors in her ability to function in society. With the increase of distinct noble families and national structures in the Middle Ages and beyond, virginity and purity became a large factor in women’s marriageability status. Marriage was a key instrument in connecting families and making alliances in Europe. To expand their power, influence, or rise in rank, families used tactical marriages. A “spoiled” daughter was of no use to them. 

Aside from the often intrusive examinations and extensive bedding ceremonies, which included a next-morning check for bloody sheets, women could also lose purity through reputation alone. Through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, powerful men in nobility and the Church structured society so that it favored them and used the threat of ostracisation to restrict women’s movements. Women couldn’t be alone with a man (what if people talk!), couldn’t use their creativity (what if they enticed a man sexually?!), and above all, couldn’t perform in front of men. In Shakespeare’s time, all the women’s parts onstage were played by men because of this societal restriction. 

Women in music in the 1600 and 1700s suffered from these strict societal rules. Some women were able to participate in music by only performing in private concerts for female royalty. Many princesses and queens, including Princess Anne, in whose court Josina van Boetzelaer worked, asked their ladies-in-waiting to perform for them. (Netflix and chill wasn’t an option for entertainment yet). 

Other women braved the reputation hit and performed in the open royal court for both men and women. However, there were limited options for them. Many performed as young children and were taken under the protective wing of a lady of the court, like Jaquet de la Guerre or Francesca Caccini, and they were rarely if ever, offered the position of court composer. A notable exception to this rule was, in fact, Caccini, who became the highest-paid member of the Medici Court under Maria Magdalena.

Choices for Women

For much of western history, and in some cases, until women received the right to vote, the choice for women has been the convent or marriage. Some talented musicians chose the church, joining particular convents renowned (and often denigrated) for their music writing and singing. If a woman wanted to pursue music outside the Church, she would either have to hope that her husband allowed it or remain unmarried. 

Unfortunately, many of these unmarried singers were pressured into relationships with their benefactors, like Barbara Strozzi. Others chose this route as the best option that allowed them some semblance of independence outside the rigid social structure. In some areas, there was more leeway for courtesans. If a woman gained a noble’s attention, she could become influential, like Madame de Montespan in France. As the mistress of Louis XIV, she had enormous influence over the court. She often influenced his decision when choosing musicians for the court and composers for his official events. 

In the 1800s, the acceptance of courtesans had waned in polite society. Composers like Mariana Martines and Clara Wieck-Schumann had to navigate a new world where music-making was delineated by gender lines. Men wrote symphonies and operas, while women remained in the home concert sphere, writing songs and small chamber pieces.

Even in the 1900s, Amy Beach struggled against society. She wasn’t permitted to study abroad, and her husband forbade her from performing in public more than twice a year (for charity, of course!). It wasn’t until the death of her husband that she was able to travel to Europe. 

Today

Even today, the shadow of the courtesan lingers. Perhaps our reputations aren’t affected by our interactions with men, but singers continue to experience harassment, even on the biggest stages in opera. #MeToo hit the opera world hard. If we haven’t experienced this type of harassment ourselves, we have a friend who has

Why am I talking about singers? Because most women who composed throughout history were singers first. The idea of a composer, and not a performer, is a relatively new one (although that’s a whole other post). 

The Impact

I could write a whole book on this. In fact, Anna Beer has. The shadow of the courtesan has informed women’s decisions throughout history. How many talented women didn’t pursue music because their husbands forbade it? Or wrote fantastic pieces only for small groups of friends without publishing it? 

And how many composers have been forgotten because they were merely courtesans?

Unfortunately, we can’t know the answer to this, but many talented researchers are searching for more composers from every era. The great thing is that we do have many composers who broke the mold and shared their talent with the world. I think we owe it to them to perform it. 

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By lisanewillsmith_soprano

American soprano Lisa Newill-Smith’s Despina was described by the Hastings Observer as “one of the must subtle performances I can recall, splendidly sung and totally alive to the text.” 2019/2020 highlights included a role debut as Servilia. In 2020, she transitioned to lyric soprano, studying roles like Ilia, Infantin, Marguerite, and Giulietta. In previous seasons, she has sung Despina, Echo (Ariadne auf Naxos), Gretel, Hélène (Hin und Zurück), Prima Ancella (Medea), Josephine (H.M.S. Pinafore) and Wanda (La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein). Lisa has performed in two world premieres, and is an advocate for the performance of classical music written by women. She has been a finalist in the Iuventas Canti Competition, Chicago Oratorio Award and the Opera Classica Europa competition.

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