Woman as Musician: Fanny Raymond Ritter

Written in 1877, this small booklet was a defense of women in music. Although a product of the lack of knowledge of women's music at the time, and of gender assumptions of the society in which Ritter lived, it is still remarkably insightful and encouraging. This excerpt speaks of 'woman' as composer.

That many of the famous songstresses of past days were capable of interpreting the works of composers in an almost independently creative manner, the scores of old operas prove. In many of these the melody is reduced to a mere thread, in order to give the songstress perfect liberty in varying the theme according to the passion and action of the poetry she was to interpret. But it is impossible for the most ardent disciple of woman's progress to point to such a galaxy of celebrities among female composers, as may be placed, without losing their brilliancy, beside the names that add lustre to womanhood in other branches of art, and in literature. In musical composition we cannot boast stars of such distinction as Mrs. Browning, Heloise, Mrs. Lewes, Mrs. Siddons, Mdme. Sand, Rosa Bonheur, Aspasia, Miss Cushman, Mdme. de Stael, Miss Bronte, Dora d'Istria, Miss Thompson, the nun Roswitha, Fernan Caballero, and all the rest. The list of feminine composers is a brief one, and most of its members are now living. There was the princess Amalia, of Prussia, sister of Frederick the Great, who composed operas and cantatas; Leopoldine Blahetka (daughter of a professor of mathematics in Vienna), who published more than 70 pianoforte pieces and songs, some of which were greatly admired by Beethoven; Josephine Lang, the friend of Mendelssohn, who composed a number of charming songs; Madame Farrenc, whose inspiration and science attained masculine proportions ; Madame Fanny Hensel, sister of Mendelssohn; Louise Puget, whose vocal romances lately enjoyed an enormous popularity in France, and won a large fortune for their composer; Mdme. Schumann and Mdme. Garcia, who have composed some fine works, though few ; Madame Dolby in England; Virginia Gabriel, the balladist; Elise Polko, who, carefully educated as a singer, lost her voice prematurely, then wrote for many years a number of novelettes, and now appears before the world as a song composer; and a few other ladies.

 

But women have only lately realized the depth and strength of the science of music, and what long years of severe mental discipline and scientific training are necessary in order to master the art of composition. This is not much to the dishonour of their courage and patience, indeed, for a comparatively small number of musical students among the other sex in America are willing to devote themselves to such self-sacrificing study; too many who do commence it become discouraged when they begin to understand the amount of labor required, and the thorough training necessary to insure perfect development to their talent for composition, and lasting fame to its results. Mathematics, acoustics, psychology, languages, as well as general literary acquirements, the practice and technicalities of several instruments, and the science of music, must all be mastered by the aspirant in composition, and gradually, through the application and assimilation of long years of study, become the " second nature " of his mind. It may be some encouragement to the sincere student to know that the grandest original idea of a Handel or a Mozart, demanded as perfect working out, as fine polishing, as the smallest fancy that ever issued from the brain of a ballad writer. And why should not women of sufficient intellectual and especial ability to warrant the possibility of their obtaining honourable distinction, make an effort, and, discarding the absurd idea that composition is an affair of instinct, study to compose for immortality also 1 There is surely a feminine side of composition, as of every other art. And I would suggest the adoption of the science of composition as an elective, if not obligatory, branch of the higher course of study in ladies' colleges. From actual personal experience, I do not hesitate to pronounce it equal— merely as a mental discipline—to mathematics, while it enriches the mind to a far higher degree, and is far more likely to prove of practical benefit to women in after life, than the study of the other science.