Women’s innovative music-making in the 19th-century home

Small-scale ‘take-home’ versions of Beethoven, Mozart and other European public music of the 19th century reveal a lot about the social lives of women – that, for instance, at-home music-making was not just a way to have fun, but also a chance for education, canon formation and social-networking.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony arranged for string quintet. Credit: University of Auckland, Special Collections, Te Tumu Herenga Libraries and Learning Services.

Beethoven called his era a ‘fruitful age of translations’, in reference to the fashion for scaled-down versions of large-scale compositions which were performed in the domestic realm, often by women.

These works are described as ‘arrangements’ and the finding, playing and contextual analysis of them is the focus of research by Associate Professor Nancy November, School of Music. She has been awarded $623,000 by Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden, the Marsden Fund, to further her investigations.

The era around 1800 in Vienna is commonly considered as ‘Beethoven’s Vienna’ and associated with high-classical culture. This might suggest that the music most people performed and heard was faithful to the original composition, which wasn’t always the case.

In the days before the live concert had become commonplace, and before the development of take-home music which can be heard on our home stereo (or, these days, our mobile phone), arrangements provided a way for people to re-hear, re-live and re-understand public music, in private.

“It was rare and expensive to be able to go to a symphony performance,” says Dr November. “If you wanted to make music and you were a woman, you rarely made it to the stage - you almost never played in an orchestra, or in a string quartet.”

“Beethoven would have done quite well through these
arrangements, in the dissemination of his music, in this take-home form. 

Associate Professor Nancy November School of Music

In some ways Vienna circa 1800 had much in common with most cities around the world in 2020. “Large assemblies, including symphony concerts, were often forbidden before and after the Napoleonic wars. There was a form of social isolation caused by surveillance under the Metternich system.”

Where there is a creatively-minded will, there is invariably a creative-minded way. Musically-inclined women and men of the time created or performed what Dr November describes as take-home versions of a concerto or opera, which could be performed by small groups in the home. “For women, this was practically the only hands-on performance of public music they would ever have,” says Dr November.

These arrangements filled a number of gaps in women’s lives in 19th century Vienna. “They allowed women to develop their musicianship. It meant they could take leadership roles and do their own arranging, and repurpose music for other instruments. In these ways they gained some agency, in an oftentimes male-dominated musical culture.”

Dr November points to one music reviewer from 1829 who decried such musical arrangements as ‘derangements’. That reviewer also saw them as a potentially productive, transformative part of musical culture.

“And what women were doing in music then intrigues me, because  it’s a world of private music-making that isn’t documented. As we know, most histories of music have been written by men, and with a strong emphasis on the public sphere. To find out about the music of women of that era, in the domestic sphere, requires a lot more digging, and more lateral thinking.”

Her research also involves ‘research by playing’ – not only finding the arrangements and editing them to suit contemporary musicians, but inviting musicians to perform them.

She has recently worked with a quintet of five string players to perform an arrangement of Beethoven’s Eroica. “This is music that hasn’t been played for 200 years. This is a large work, which has been scaled down, that these days would be played by an orchestra of 100. And what you find out, when you play it as a quintet, is that one of its purposes was to have a lot of fun and social interaction.”

Dr November’s research will also involve exploring how these domestic arrangements contributed to the canonisation of our most renowned musicians. “Beethoven would have done quite well through these arrangements, in the dissemination of his music in this take-home form. It helped broadcast his name, and kept his repertoire alive in an era before people were more easily able to go to public concerts.”

Creativity has a way of combatting isolation, she adds. “For women that were in the home all day, playing these arrangements was an opportunity for sociability, even having almost physical contact with the opposite sex, in a permissible space. So it allowed for a very interesting social space, full of possibilities, maybe even a bit of transgression.”

Associate Professor Nancy November. Photo: Dean Carruthers

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