Women and Musical Salons in the Enlightenment, by Rebecca Cypess

Women and Musical Salons in the Enlightenment
By Rebecca Cypess
Reviewed by Dan McHugh

Dr. Rebecca Cypess specializes in the history of women and Judaism in classical music. As a harpsichordist and scholar, she has written extensively on Salon culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and recorded albums with the Raritan Players, most recently “In the Salon of Madame Brillon: Music and Friendship in Benjamin Franklin’s Paris.” Her new book, Women and Musical Salons in the Enlightenment, explores the overlooked role of the Salon and the women who hosted them in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Salons were fundamental to musical life during the Enlightenment. These liminal spaces, neither public nor private, filled in the gaps of royal courts, churches, and subscription concerts in eighteenth-century Europe. Artists, intellectuals, scientists, the growing business class, musicians, and others gathered at Salons for conversation, music, and food. Hostesses, known as salonnières, exercised their agency on the boundary of the home and public life. Music was central to Salon life, and the art of conversation can be clearly heard in the rhetorical style of composers such as Haydn and Boccherini.

Women and Musical Salons in the Enlightenment is structured around the history of Salon culture and focuses on different hostesses around Europe and America. Sarah Levy, a Jewish salonnière in Berlin, who studied with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, collected a large music library, and hosted events attended by both Christian and Jewish families. Another salonnière, Madame Brillon, befriended Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador to France. Brillon, a brilliant composer, owned keyboard instruments from across Europe and actively participated in the exchange of musical ideas across the Atlantic. While whisked away to the whimsical Salon, we are also reminded that societal expectations still constrained women. For example, one salonnière was rebuked by her father for establishing a subscription concert series because that business was not becoming of a lady.

The strength of the book lies in Cypess’s engagement with recent scholarship. Setting aside the Beethoven hero narrative, Cypess’s exploration of music history from a social and cultural perspective opens the door to new ways of thinking about the past. Cypess’s analysis of the established historical narrative only adds to the enjoyment of the book.

This book is recommended to anyone interested in a fresh perspective on the history of classical music. It includes portraits, musical examples, and an up-to-date bibliography, offers a completely new look at the accomplishments of women in music history as well as how Salons played an important role in the development of music and culture. For an even more interactive experience, listening to Cypess’s many recordings of music from this period is highly recommended.