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Social Contexts of Keyboard Playing
The‘human element’ in keyboard
music: story so far
L 1 Affiliation of human body and touch sensitive
keyboard instruments
L2 ‘Topics’ as part of a musical language rooted
in this world, carrying affects and
associations: rather than music as ‘pure’ and
L3 Social contexts: the female amateur – music
as an ‘accomplishment’; the professional
composer – competition and reputation
What did it mean, socially, to play keyboard
instruments in the 18th century?
The question might seem odd – after all, isn’t
playing keyboard instruments ‘about’ playing the
music well? The answer is ‘yes’ but musical
performance always carries social meanings –
including implications for the social ‘identity’ of
the player. Consider what is at stake, socially, in
this scene of performance!
Thinking Socially About Keyboard
Involves being aware of:
1. conventions of who played, what kinds of
music, in what way, where, when, why (to
what end) and who (if anyone) listened?
2. sources of information for those questions;
3. how our thinking (our historical moment, our
intellectual frameworks, our values) might
influence our answers.
The ‘young lady at music’
What does this clip tell us about keyboard
Relatively Reliable Aspects of this
Ambiguous relationship to female agency
Primarily amateur and private
Links musical and physical beauty
Summoning a husband (courtship)
Musically ‘feminine’ character of repertoire
Medium of sensibility – self-expressive; being
carried away by feelings is dangerous
Misleading Implications of the Clip
Listened to, silently
‘Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of
every song, and as loud in his conversation
with the others while every song lasted. Lady
Middleton frequently called him to order,
wondered how any one’s attention could be
diverted from music for a moment, and asked
Marianne to sing a particular song which
Marianne had just finished’. Austen, S&S ch.7
Cinderella practice (the Dashwoods are newly
Musical accomplishment distinguished leisured
women from the lower social orders – from
servants. It was socially elevating. It testified
to leisure, to education, and enhanced ‘polite
society’. Conduct literature emphasised this
(e.g. Meier, 1771, cited in Head 1999). As did
J. Fr. Reichardt in the next slide:
Misleading Implications of the Clip,
About personal beauty, always amateur, and a way of
getting a husband (the ‘containment hypothesis’):
‘The young lady of the house [Josepha Barbara von
Auernhammer] is hideously ugly! – her playing,
however is enchanting ... She let me in on a plan that
she keeps secret, namely that she wants to study hard
for 2 or 3 more years and then go to Paris and make
piano playing her profession.—She says: I am not
beautiful, o contraire, I am ugly; and I don’t want to
marry some petty clerk in the chancellery with a salary
of 300 or 400 gulden ... I’d rather stay single and make
a living off my talent’.
Primary sources for understanding
women’s keyboard playing
• Music published specifically for ‘ladies’
• Iconography (paintings/drawings)
• Conduct literature
• Literary representations
But once sources are identified, they still need
to be ‘read’ (interpreted) and their meaning
is not necessarily self-evident. What might
we learn from the following two primary
J. Fr. Reichardt, ‘Songs for the fair sex’
‘With due consideration for the sensitive eyes and small hands
of the fair sex, I have written the middle voice that is
worked into the texture, in small notes, so that you [the fair
sex] may more easily distinguish the notes that are to be
sung from those that are only for the clavier, and also so
that you will be able to determine more readily which
notes you can leave out, if the pretty little hand won’t
stretch, and you would rather only play the vocal line [with
the right hand]. This also applies to the small notes in the
bass, so that you can find the real bass line more easily,
because I was truly worried about envious [neidische], red,
and squinting eyes. Gentlemen, on the other hand, often
have hands that can reach three or four notes beyond the
octave.’ (Preface)
‘Sovereign Feminine’: what does the
illustration tell us?
Sovereign Feminine argues against the
‘Containment Hypothesis’ (without
denying it)
In medicine, women sometimes deemed better
suited to intellectual and artistic activity than
men (finer nerves; greater sensibility)
A notion of woman as the civilised and civilising
centre of middle-class life, as well as repository of
sympathy and morality lend significance to music
Affinity of music and leisured women based on
shared notions of purposeless beauty and virtue:
emergence of an ‘aesthetic sphere’
Female keyboard playing a context for ‘subjectivity’
Connections between keyboard playing and becoming
& being a composer: professional status; authority,
Grounded in the fact of instruction of (male)
composers at the keyboard (such that fingers
became instruments of compositional
thinking); evident in widespread practices of
improvisation where ‘composing’ and ‘playing’
merged; male performers vied for leadership
and pre-eminence through publication of
treatises and music (esp. Op. 1 sonatas) and in
‘piano duels’.
Composer Portraits Feature Keyboards: Mozart,
aged 13-14, by Saverio dalla Rose (Venice)*
The Modern Orpheus Sits at a
Metaphors of the body as clavier had
implications ... Haydn is quoted as saying:
‘“Usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the
point of torture ... If it’s an allegro that
pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I
can get no sleep ... My imagination plays on
me as if I were a clavier.” Haydn smiled, the
blood rushed to his face, and he said, “I am
really just a living clavier”’. Albert Christoph
Dies, ‘Biographical Account of JH’ (1810).*
Haydn’s Daily Schedule
‘At eight Haydn had his breakfast. Immediately
afterwards Haydn sat down at the clavier and
improvised until he found some idea to suit
his purpose, which he immediately set down
on paper. Thus originated the first sketches of
his compositions. ... About four o’clock he
returned to musical tasks. He then took the
morning’s sketches and scored them,
spending three to four hours thus’. Dies,
Biographical Notes, 204.
Improvising and Invention
‘Haydn always composed his works at the
clavier. “I sat down, began to improvise, sad
or happy according to my mood, serious or
trifling. Once I had seized upon an idea, my
whole endeavour was to develop and sustain
it in keeping with the rules of art”.’*
Georg August Griesinger, ‘Biographical Notes
About JH’ (1810) in Gotwals, ed. and trans.,
Haydn: Two Contemporary Portraits, 61.
Little Keyboard Book for W. F. Bach
Begun January 1720 when WFB was 9
A didactic compilation in composition and/as
keyboard performance moving from
theoretical rudiments to preludes, small
chorale preludes, dance movements, 2 and 3
part inventions
A few items on KEATS: table of contents; clefs;
ornaments; ‘applicatio’; preludes.
Ornaments and Fingering
What is the source of JSB’s table of ornaments?*
What is distinctive about the fingering in the
first piece, ‘applicatio’?** What else can we
learn about the relationship between
composing and keyboard playing from this
piece?*** [audio]
Composing preludes
In the first of the ‘little preludes’, that in C major,
what does Bach seem to be demonstrating to
his son? [audio]
And, in the following piece that records W. F.
Bach’s attempts to write something similar,
what goes wrong (at least in terms of Bach’s
A Problematic Dichotomy
‘Amateur – Female – Easy – Played for Pleasure
Professional – Male – Difficult – Played to
teach/learn, demonstrate mastery, create art’
Problematic because it equates terms within
each category while contrasting them in a
hierarchical, value laden antithesis across the
two categories. Often called ‘binary
The Keyboard Books for Anna
Magdalena Bach (1722 and 1725)
Take a look at the contents page and excerpts uploaded
to KEATS – are they ‘easier’; are they different in kind
to those of the book for WFB? Overall how does the
book differ in purpose?
Includes chorales; J. S. Bach indicated the titles of three
works of devotional theology at the start of the first
book (1722); a variety of hands, some childlike,
appear, suggesting that AMB was also involved in the
musical education of her children and step children;
the aria of the Goldberg Variations appears here (the
earliest source) in the hand of AMB.