Her father built pianos that Mozart venerated. She built pianos for Beethoven, a personal friend. Her son became one of Brahms’s favorite piano builders. In short: a woman was at the heart of one key music dynasty in Classical-era Vienna, and of that family it's the woman, of course, who remains the least known.
Nannette Streicher (1769-1833) had it all: professional success and international renown, and a loving family with a husband who adored her and children who followed in her footsteps. Standard biographies don’t do justice to this kind of success. You can certainly measure her achievements according to the standard template — child prodigy pianist, took over father’s business, moved business to Vienna, established her factory there with its own concert hall, a prototype of Steinway Hall, where Europe’s major artists performed when they came through town. (We have the Streicher-Saal to thank for Franz Klein’s bust of Beethoven, based on the only extant life mask of that composer: it was commissioned as one of a series to adorn the concert hall.) But much of the story of a fulfilled woman's life can slip through the mesh of the standard biographical filters. All too often, when it comes to composers of the Classical era, a lot of the texture and color of the past is winnowed away -- along with a lot of the influential women who populated it.
“Escapement,” a historical novel based on the life of Nannette Streicher, is an attempt to reanimate not just a woman's life, but a world that remains, for all of the books written about that period, remarkably obscure. Beethoven’s biographies tend to be more preoccupied with the outlines of a woman who didn’t exist — the Immortal Beloved — than the many women who did; Nannette gets only cursory mentions. Indeed, for many years scholars automatically assumed her husband was the piano builder, mainly because in his role as helpmeet he took over the firm’s business correspondence. Even today, when a new generation of musicologists is beginning to pay more attention to the women and people of color who have been written out of history, classical music biographies still tend to focus on the same names and the same sources, cited again and again -- just as classical music performance too often presents the same familiar pieces from the canon, over and over and over.
This book might appear to be a logical extension of my work on spotlighting women throughout my journalistic career. In fact, the book came first; it’s been hovering on the back burner while my thinking on the subject of women in this field gradually evolved (and, you might say, radicalized). I am thrilled finally to be able to give this project my full attention -- but before I can announce a publication date, I have to finish writing it. Stay tuned.
Nannette Streicher, reproduction of a contemporary portrait (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).
The Washington Post: The Women of Mozart's Day. A festival spotlights Nannette Streicher's best friend, Nannette von Schaden.
MPR: Anne Midgette: Changing the narrative about women in music. Nannette Streicher and other women in a male-dominated field.
The American Interest: The magazine hosts me in a discussion about women in music and my book in progress.