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Eduard Hanslick on why women can’t compose

September 24, 2010

The extract is from E. Hanslick’s The Beautiful in Music.

With special reference to the creative action of the composer, we should bear in mind that it always consists in the grouping and fashioning of musical elements.  The sovereignty of the emotions, so falsely reputed to be the main factor in music, is nowhere more completely out of place than when it is supposed to govern the musician in the act of composing, and when the latter is regarded as a kind of inspired improvisation.  The slowly progressing work of moulding a composition – which at the outset floated in mere outlines in the composer’s brain – into a structure, clearly defined down to every bar; or possibly, without further preliminaries into the sensitive polymorphous form of orchestral music, requires quiet and subtle thought, such as none who have not actually essayed it can comprehend.  Not only “fugato” or contrapuntal passages, but the most smoothly flowing Rondo and the most melodious air demand what our language so significantly calls and “elaboration” of the minutest details.  The function of the composer is a constructive one within its own sphere, analogous to that of the sculptor.  Like him, the composer must not allow his hands to be tied by anything alien to his material, since he, too, aims at giving an objective existence to his (musical) ideal, and at casting it into a pure form.

Rosenkranz may have overlooked this fact when he notices the paradox (without, however, explaining it) that women, who by nature are highly emotional beings, have achieved nothing as composers.  The cause, apart from the general reasons why women are less capable of mental achievements, is the plastic element in musical compositions which like sculpture and architecture, though in a different manner, imposes on us the necessity of keeping ourselves free from all subjective feelings.  If the composing of music depended upon the intensity and vividness of our feelings, the complete want of female composers, as against the numerous authoresses and female painters, would be difficult to account for.  It is not the feeling, but a specifically musical and technically-trained aptitude that enables us to compose.

Hanslick, Eduard, The Beautiful in Music, A Contribution to the Revisal of Musical Aesthetics, 7th edition, Leipzig, 1885, trans. Gustav Cohen, Novello and Co. Ltd., 1891, pp.100-101.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Max permalink
    September 24, 2010 8:51 pm

    While I agree emotions have little to do with the act of joining notes on a page, the implication that it is only the male mind which is capable of a “technically-trained aptitude” is outlandish. There is most certainly an audience for everyone from Schumann to Zwilich.
    And to think that Nadia Boulanger let her feelings get in the way of her teachings on form and analysis – a cornerstone of composition – is downright laughable.

    What disturbs me most about these statements is that an author felt the need to say it in the first place. This imponderable topic produces little more than to subject the reader to the author’s own lack of musicianship.

    • September 27, 2010 9:35 am

      Hanslick probably made this comment as a result of him not being aware of any women composers of note either in his own time or in history. There are a couple of points here. First, Hanslick’s knowledge of history would not have been that great and anyway he had little understanding of anything before the classical period. Second, there don’t seem to have been very many women composers around in the middle of the nineteenth century, though Hanslick might have known that Clara Schumann composed. Rather sadly Clara Schumann gave up composing because “no woman has been able to do it”, to use her own words. Hanlsick’s argument is. of course, an absurd one from the perspective of today.

  2. Trecor permalink
    October 14, 2010 5:44 pm

    It makes sense, I suppose, if you grant the axioms the “general reasons women are less capable of mental achievements [than men]” and that women are always, always, so emotional they are incapable of objective, abstract thought, always.

    Hopefully, I would not have been so bigoted if I had grown up in the same time.

  3. Philipp Rinnhofer permalink
    February 26, 2011 11:29 am

    I have to admit the discussionists in this forum are adressing some interesting and spot on statements of the whole scope of femininty. The fundamental epistemological dilemma most women have been submitted to by nature that there are mostly incapable of abstracting and objective thinking since they are in most cases commanded and controlled by there emotions.
    So they are not prone to achieve great mental deeds, such as doing science and philosophy or painting and composing on a very high level. Most or nearly all of women cannot marshall their ways of thinking in a way that enables them to understand the principle of causality, the connection between cause and effect. And most of them are totally at loss when it comes to grasp any reasonably intelligent joke or a pune of words. And nearly all the females are stubborn and headstrong like a locomotive: enormously powerful but impossible to steer. Normally they have a very limited vocabulary and chatter and chatter without saying anything. And they take the surface of things for the essence of any given phenomenon may it be one taken out of everday life in terms of social interaction or any kind of fundamental scientific problem. So the afore mention axiom holds definitely true and it is no miracle that the great philosophers, poets, painters, composers and scientists of all time were men. So in essence the deep philosophical and scientific truths transcend their small dimensioned and limited mental vision in a profound way. To give an analogy its ressembling an airplane equipped with a radar device which will never have a lock on target. I am not a sexistic man by the way, but I am always truly objective because thats the way god created the universe. And if you envision a certain ontological hypostasis and make a calculation between the male and the female principle in a metaphysical fashion you will find that men are associated with the platonic ideas whereas women are related to matter. The conclusion this distinction entails is that if the platonic ideas are the core element and the primary source of objective thinking and matter is the true opposite always focusing on the outward appearance of a specific topic then the label genius can never be applied to a woman. And in order to perform real intellectual tightrope stunts you have to be born as man. You may call me a sexist but I am not. I dont despise women. They are definitely wonderful creatures and some of them are quite intelligent but not in the way that they understand the true essence of the universe. They have oftentimes good and intelligent thoughts, but they are mostly superficial. As god created the universe he was forced to do it the way that I depicted before because there is no other metaphysical mechanism to do it. So the universe is an absolutely perfect and arithmetically finely tuned machinery invented by the most ingenius creator, god himself. But why god did it the way he did will always be shrouded by the veil of mystery. He himself is the most cunning magician and he will never show us his cards. And if you could ask him why the constructed his creation this way he would probably answer: “In order that it works in the way it does.” So I tell you my friends this whole cosmical theatre where we are both spectators at and players in like puppets played by the puppet master god being attached to the strings of causality is true a kind of magic.

  4. Aria permalink
    August 8, 2012 7:39 pm

    @Philipp–
    Your comments are quite interesting, but many historical examples of female writers, painters, and other intelligentsia would probably be more than enough to prove you wrong in your analysis of all women as superficial. Although, I have to agree with you on some points (“stubborn and headstrong like a locomotive: enormously powerful but impossible to steer”). However, your attribution of these traits (and of the platonic superiority of men to women) to “a true kind of magic” is enough to demolish your credibility.
    That said, I have a few questions for the commenters:
    -If it is not impossible for a woman to compose, why is it that none have yet achieved the status of virtuoso composer?
    -Why is it that women have been great writers of words, but not music?
    -Does an insurmountable obstacle exist to all women composers?
    -What about transgender composers?

  5. Sarah permalink
    October 15, 2012 4:23 pm

    It’s “their” emotions, Philipp, “that’s” not “thats”, “don’t” not “dont” and “pun” not “pune”. Part of me is wondering whether this was a misguided attempt at an intelligent joke. I won’t say any more in case I get accused of chattering.

    Yours sincerely, a woman with a PhD in Music.

  6. Alice permalink
    May 9, 2013 7:19 am

    Okay first of all, were all of the following pieces really written by some sort of emotionally clouded half-wits? It seems to me that plenty of ‘quiet and subtle thought’ as well as personal integrity went into the construction of these pieces:

    If you want to quibble that these aren’t MASTERPIECES that’s another topic, but you have to admit that the raw talent is there, which is what this ridiculous argument is about.

    As far as biology, it’s been proven over and over that men are simply susceptible to DIFFERENT emotional pitfalls than women.. Just use common sense: aren’t all the endless displays of one-upsmanship and aggression, all the wars, senseless fights and skirt-chasing of men just as ‘irrational’ as women’s various emotional predilections? We are ALL somewhat dominated by our biology. Women are hard-wired to be more sensitive to intimate relationships, in order to be responsive to children, sometimes to the point of over-sensitivity – but men are hard-wired to aggrandize themselves at all costs and have an almost paranoid obsession with personal status.

    All this biological reductionism aside, my real suspicion as far as the lack of women composers relative to the other arts is that there is something about the EGO required of composers that is considered masculine and unladylike. One can look away from a painting or put down a novel, but sitting down for a concert is a serious commitment and sign of intellectual respect, and not many women are taught to view themselves as worthy of this kind of consideration.

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