Voices from the 18th Century: Johann Mattheson on ‘female singers in the cathedral’



If there is one German writer from the Baroque Era I admire most, it’s Johann Mattheson (pictured). Virtually peerless when it comes to the influence and volume of writings he published during his lifetime (compositions, notwithstanding), Mattheson tackled subjects such as music theory, composition, criticism, basso continuo accompaniment, comportment, biography, and often in combination.

The most important of Mattheson’s books is Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739), a comprehensive and detailed tome on everything an organist needs to know in order to do a proper job, including some practical advice, often expressed in a brutally subjective manner.

He was nothing if not opinionated and iconoclastic, to boot.

For example, his attitude and practice of incorporating women into his choir at Hamburg Cathedral was, to put it mildly, ahead of its time. He gives us an interesting perspective in “Capellmeister”:

“The female is indispensable among these persons, especially where no castratos are available. I know the toil and trouble it cost me to introduce female singers in the cathedral here. In the beginning it was required that at all costs I should place them so that no man would be able to see them; though finally they could not be heard and seen enough. I remember the time that all priests scolded about wigs; now there is not a one who does not wear or approve of them. Opinions change so. Yet in the other choirs of the city the female sex is not yet permitted.” (Translation: Ernest C. Harriss)

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