Cultural meaning for women composers: Charlotte (“Minna”) Brandes and the Beautiful Dead in the German Enlightenment

Head, Matthew (2004) Cultural meaning for women composers: Charlotte (“Minna”) Brandes and the Beautiful Dead in the German Enlightenment Journal of the American Musicological Society, 57, (2), pp. 231-284. (doi:10.1525/jams.2004.57.2.231).


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This article explores the cultural meanings of female musical authorship in the late German Enlightenment through a case study of Charlotte ("Minna") Brandes, a composer, keyboardist, and opera singer. With Minna's death in 1788 at the age of twenty-three, her father, the playwright Johann Christian Brandes, and her close friend and teacher Johann Friedrich Hönicke prepared two memorials to her memory, a biography and a collection of her music, the latter titled Musikalische Nachlass von Minna Brandes (Hamburg, 1788). These memorials situated her authorship in the contexts of pedagogy and education, the composition of occasional works for the home, and the solace offered by music amidst bereavement and illness. The principal discourse was of death itself. Minna's memorialization shared with the novels of Goethe a topos of the beautiful female dead in which the female corpse (or its representation) was exhibited as a beautiful artifact. Death turned Minna from composer into a passive, aestheticized object of male authorship. These discursive contexts contained Minna's activities as a composer within a framework of bourgeois femininity. Both Minna's father and her teacher were at pains to stress that she sought neither fame nor fortune from her compositions. However, such representations of Minna were misleading. Her collected works suggest she was working toward a published collection of strophic German songs and toward the composition of operatic music for her own performance. The idealizing tropes of the memorials are also challenged by Johann Christian's later memoirs in which his daughter's turn to composition is situated in what he described as her multiple breaches of deferential daughterly conduct. Minna's reported profligacy during her final illness may have stimulated the posthumous publication of her music, which was possibly a form of fund raising for her multiply bereaved father, a corrective to his emotional and financial loss. The healthy list of 518 subscribers indicates that youthful female death was marketable as a topos occasioning the pleasures of melancholy.

Item Type: Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI): doi:10.1525/jams.2004.57.2.231
ISSNs: 0003-0139 (print)
ePrint ID: 40925
Date :
Date Event
Date Deposited: 14 Jul 2006
Last Modified: 16 Apr 2017 21:50
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