The Puzzle of Periodization

The traditional way that classical music is categorized – in Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary eras – doesn’t always work as well as you might think when you add music by women composers to the mix.

A copy of Marcia Citron's book "Gender and the Musical Canon," with a folded pair of black-framed eyeglasses sitting on top. A yellow mug of coffee sits next to it, half outside the photo's frame.

Although “women’s music” is not a separate genre, many underlying assumptions about characteristics of these eras don’t always fit the way historical women engaged with classical music. This could range from stylistic choices, like treatment of dominant “masculine” themes versus passive “feminine” themes in sonatas, to the “bigger is better” mentality from the 1800s that promoted larger forms and ensembles, while most women wrote and performed chamber music in smaller salons.

So why do I organize my database in those eras? For the simple, practical reason that in order to be found on Google, the keywords on my webpage need to match the most common search terms. Most flutists looking for intermediate and advanced level repertoire have probably learned traditional music history from a private teacher or a standardized class in high school or college, and are used to thinking in those terms. If my goal is to make the information I’ve collected accessible to as many flutists as possible, my database also needs to be easily found.

Timeline with the title "Traditional Eras in Classical Music" outlining the following eras: Baroque era, 1600-1750; Classical era, 1750-1830; Romantic era, 1830-1900; and Contemporary era, 1900-Present.

However, my blog posts are often a place for me to think out loud, sort through, and process the things that I’ve learned about historical women musicians. And the farther I get, the more I want to tweak the timeline. There are a few spots where trends I’ve noticed among women musicians fall a few decades off from the standard eras – but I’m not sure how approach making adjustments without creating additional complications or confusion.

Although I have a performance degree, I’m also an anthropologist – so the way I approach music history also takes into account the socioeconomic context of women from each period. As a result, I tend to group women by the types of resources and opportunities for education and employment that they could access. Those also had a ripple effect in what women, as performers and as composers, were able to achieve – including the types of music that were socially acceptable for them to engage with, and what restrictions they had to find ways around.

Here’s a brief outline of my thoughts so far on what a women-centric periodization of classical music (with an emphasis on instrumental music) might look like:

1685 – 1795

I don’t know a ton about the economy of 17th and 18th century Europe, so I tend to group everything from the Enlightenment up until the French Revolution into a general category of “pre-capitalism.” Also, I haven’t done much in-depth research on music from earlier than the 1690s, so for me, the beginning of the Enlightenment makes a convenient endpoint.

Four 18th century women, wearing longsleeve lace dresses and caps, play a quartet together on flute, violin, cello, and harpsichord.
Philippe Mercier, “The Sense of Hearing,” ca. 1740s

In this era, musical skills were commonly learned through an apprenticeship, like learning a trade. I’ve come across several sources suggesting that this included women as well as men – and that there weren’t as many restrictions on women musicians compared to the 1800s. We tend to see women in family bands, convents, and salons of the nobility (as both patrons and as amateur musicians). However, most surviving music comes from noble courts or the church, since preserved records created from high-quality materials were expensive during this time.

1795 -1870

This era begins with the establishment of the Paris Conservatory during the French Revolution. This was the first time that music was taught in a centralized educational institution, and also the introduction of gender-segregated classes in musical instruction.

Excluded from mainstream musical societies and venues, women tended to perform in salon concerts. As a result, women composers primarily wrote short piano solos and chamber music – and by the 1830s, “salon music” had evolved its own publishing category.

Art deco cover for Cecile Chaminade's flute piece, "Serenade aux Etoiles." A tall bush of small white flowers grows out of a rocky riverbank, with a blue night sky in the background.

It’s also important to note the technological advances of this era – pianos became more accessible to the growing middle class, and improvements in the printing press made sheet music cheaper to produce. This brought in a lot of new consumers – especially amateur musicians, many of whom were women who helped fuel the popularity of salon music.

1870 -1945

Sometime around 1870, upper-class Victorian women decided that the piano had become too popular. They wanted a different instrument to distinguish themselves, so they chose the violin and made that the cool new thing for stylish, respectable ladies. As a result, we start to see more women becoming interested in playing orchestral music and composing for a wider range of orchestral instruments – including woodwinds and brass.

Violinist Wilma Neruda, in a longsleeved pale yellow dress, stands in the front of a salon filled with people, ready to perform.  A spiral staircase on the left is filled with additional audience members, sitting on the steps.
James Tissot – “Hush! (The Concert),” ca. 1875, depicting a performance by violinist Wilma Neruda in the Kensington salon of Lord and Lady Coope.
Josephine Amann-Weinlich stands onstage facing the audience, gesturing to present her all-women orchestra. The ladies onstage wear longsleeve white lacy dresses, with a row of potted palm trees behind them. A table with two men and two women from the audience is in the bottom right.
The Erstes Europäisches Damenorchester, conducted by Josephine Amann-Weinlich, in a woodcut by Vinzenz Katzler (1874)

This time period overlapped with the suffrage movement and first wave feminism. It also includes the World Wars – when women entered the workplace in many industries to help fill the absences created when men were drafted. There was a lot of activism by women’s musical organizations as a result – and although they were not allowed to keep the orchestral chairs they won after WWI, they finally became more accepted in major ensembles following WWII.

As far as the music itself, this is a transitional late-Romantic/early 20th century period where we see many women cracking the glass ceiling – Cécile Chaminade was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, Lili Boulanger won the Prix de Rome, Katharine Eggar founded the Society of Women Musicians, and Ethel Smyth published her first writings on feminist musicology.

1945 – Present

I considered splitting this period up, since it encompasses a lot of musical trends – but I feel like we’re still kinda stuck in terms of progress in women’s representation. Almost all women’s clubs disbanded as their musicians moved into the newly co-ed major orchestras, and the need for outside educational opportunities and peer support groups diminished as women were allowed to earn degrees from universities and conservatories.

However, when women entered those spaces, the history of the struggles and achievements of women musicians from the previous era was not incorporated into the educational curricula – and as a result, we’ve lost a lot of traditions and knowledge that came about from those women’s experiences.

This period includes 2nd wave feminism – and the 1990s saw the publication of a few influential books in feminist and queer musicology and academic conferences highlighting studies of women musicians and composers. However, that resurgence in interest is only a start – or maybe a next step. In order to actually move on, we’re gonna need to start teaching this side of music history and thinking more outside the box.

Periodization… more like guidelines, anyways?

I’m not sure what I would actually name these periods… which is another reason I’ve been hesitant to rearrange my blog post tags. Additionally, some traditional categories do line up with trends among women composers – for example, 1830 is generally considered the beginning of the Romantic era, and it’s also the decade when salon music became a big thing.

I guess that’s all to say, there’s no one right or wrong way to categorize your music – it just depends on your priorities, and the information you want to emphasize. And while periodization, as a framework, can provide a useful tool for learning, it’s also important to remember that history deals with real human beings – who are multifaceted and rarely fit neatly into categories.

GIF of Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean saying :The code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules."

So maybe the more important thing is to be open to flexible thinking, instead of blindly accepting that popular historical narratives are simply “just the way things were.” Because I honestly doubt that any single all-encompassing method of classification that works for everyone is even possible – but maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Additional Resources

Black and white photos of a flute laying horizontally across a handwritten music manuscript.  Words on a white label read: "3 Books On My TBR List for Gender Studies & Classical Music."

Want to learn more about the intersection of gender studies and musicology? Check out this post for 3 suggestions on recommended reading!

A flute lays diagonally across several pages of sheet music spread out on a pandanus leaf mat. On a square, semi-translucent white overlay, text reads: Virtuosa Flute Solos: Flute Music by Women Composers

Explore the world of flute music by women composers with my database of 250 flute solos!  This list includes music from both historical and modern times, so whether you’re looking for an alternative to C.P.E. Bach or are curious about extended techniques, I’ve got you covered!

An unknown 18th century woman in a blue and white longsleeve dress and cap, with a matching blue lace choker. She holds a wooden flute as if getting ready to play, and an open book of music rests on the desk behind her.

Just because women instrumentalists aren’t commonly discussed in music history classes doesn’t mean they never existed. Read this post to meet 24 trailblazing women flutists, from ancient Greece to 20th century America!