Patriarchy, Publications, and Perspectives: Or, Why My Thesis Completely Changed Two Days Before the Due Date

A transcription of thoughts before the first draft due date:

Two weeks left: Wow! So, I’ve picked an exhilarating topic, I can’t wait to rip the patriarchy a new one with this paper, and I have so much to talk about with this composer – Judaism, Christianity, gender roles…this is going to be so awesome. Now I just need to find academic writing that ties together feminism, religion, and music in 19th century Germany – no problem.

One week left: Okay, I’ve found some great feminist writing about her, and I’m having trouble getting scores to her music, but I know I can nail down theses better than Martin Luther.

Four days left: So…it turns out parts of many sources I had planned to use are biased and exaggerated or even made up. So…that’s a thing. Apparently I had been under the false impression that academically written biographies need to have entirely correct information. Thank you, scholars and fellow feminists. I don’t feel betrayed even a little bit.

Three days left: …I should have picked something easier to major in.

Two days left: OF COURSE! There’s not a huge wealth of information on this topic because of our society’s religiously and sexually biased history, and some of the new feminist writing is over-correcting the situation by publishing sometimes unreliable information, and now that I’ve explored her story and her compositions from different perspectives, I understand that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and her music deserve so much better. THAT’S what I need to write about. [Cue “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone…”]

Thus was born my first Music and Religion research paper – “Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: A New Feminist Perspective.” As the transcription above indicates, it was both fascinating and frustrating to research this composer. Fanny Hensel, a Romantic era composer and pianist, wrote over 400 pieces that clearly demonstrate virtuosic performance skills, intelligent use of musical texture, and a thorough understanding of analysis and structure. Yet today, in spite of her impressive accomplishments and beautiful music, Fanny is mostly known as the sister of renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy – not as an influential and significant musician in her own right.

The more I read, the more I found myself absorbed by Fanny’s unique story – and simultaneously foiled time and time again by either the sheer lack of material or the lack of objectively written, detailed information. For example, I was perfectly happy reading Francoise Tillard’s feminist biography Fanny Mendelssohn until I encountered an article called “The ‘Suppression’ of Fanny Mendelssohn: Rethinking Feminist Biography” by Marian Wilson Kimber. It did indeed force me to rethink feminist biography. Although I didn’t agree with everything the article had to offer, Kimber presented a completely different (and generally more accurate) perspective on Fanny’s life and music that completely reshaped my ideas for my writing. All in all, it was illuminating research because I saw how musicians and musicologists have treated female composers over the last few decades (sometimes insightfully, sometimes not) and how we might balance our modern perspectives with historically accurate contexts to best understand music history.

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