Women in the history of 19th century’s french music





by Anja Weinberger

Women in the French history of music in 19th century

by Anja Weinberger

Such a boring and scientific title! Women in the history of 19th century’s french music !??

But even after pondering for a very long time, I couldn’t really think of anything better or even more fitting. This headline simply says exactly what it is supposed to say; and presumably the inclined reader now fears that a large part of the coming lines will deal with the neglect of women in French music history. Actually, however, that is not my aim at all. Actually…

Being a musician myself – and a woman – I simply felt like tracing these biographies. I have played music by some of the artists myself, heard works by others and was enthusiastic, or I stumbled across their names somewhere, became curious and then wanted to know more about them.

Of course, by being born as girls, they were per se disadvantaged in many aspects of life. However, one will also be able to read that there were exceptions. And it must be said quite clearly: In many bourgeois-conservative families of the time, the career aspiration of “musician” did not necessarily cause a storm of enthusiasm, even among sons – presumably little has changed in that respect to this day. It is possible that daughters even had a small advantage in this respect, since they were willingly given music or drawing lessons, if financially possible, in order to better prepare them for the role of the educated but dilettante wife and mother.

If I have learned anything from the diverse research of the last few years, it is that there are many exceptions to every rule. Or, to put it even better: hardly any life fits into one pigeonhole, everyone is finally the same, whether man or woman.

Quite early in my life as a musician I came into contact with works by Mel Bonis and Cécile Chaminade. Of course, this is also somewhat due to my profession, because I am a flutist. And both of them composed beautiful works for my beautiful instrument during the Belle Époque and the Années folles. Accordingly, I am not at all sure whether cellists, for example, would also know their names.

I would also like to include Louise Farrenc in the round, because she again composed for us flutists in a time when string instruments and the piano still outranked the flute – she lived half a century earlier than the other two, i.e. in the period we now call Romanticism and in which Theobald Böhm’s revolution in flute making was still far away.

Two other female composers – Augusta Holmès and Pauline Viardot – round out the whole thing. They did not compose anything for us flutists, but have interesting, unusual lives to show.

Finally, of course, a look beyond the borders of the 19th century is taken.

And here we go:

Louise Dumont was born on May 31, 1804, into a family full of painters and sculptors. She soon took piano and solfège lessons and met Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. At the age of 15 she was able to enter the composition class of Anton Reicha at the Paris Conservatoire – at that time unusual for a woman or even a young girl. Reicha was one of the most respected composition teachers of the time.


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In 1821 Louise finally married the flautist and music publisher Aristide Farrenc and from then on bore his name. She traveled extensively with Aristide, and her husband actively supported her in the career that was now beginning. Louise Farrenc published her first piano works and had long been convincing as a pianist.

From the 1830s on, she wrote the orchestral and chamber music that was to make her famous. She had developed a completely unique style, lively and elegant, which on the one hand was in the classical tradition of the Viennese School and on the other hand was influenced by her research in the field of early music. In addition, this style was characterized by her delight in unusual instrumentation. Louise’s works were very soon performed internationally.

Beginning in 1842, she was the first woman in Europe to hold an instrumental professorship in piano at the Paris Conservatoire, founded in 1795, for over 30 years. To be fair, it must be said that she had to fight for full pay over her male colleagues. Many of her female students, including her own daughter Victorine, were among the crème de la crème of the piano world. Louise Farrenc’s Trente Études op. 26 then became official teaching material at the conservatories of Paris, Brussels and Bologna from 1845.

Aristide Farrenc dissolved his publishing business in 1837 and from then on only published works by his wife. From this time on, he devoted himself mainly to music-historical research as well as to an active collecting activity in the field of early music. In this context, the piano anthology Le Trésor des pianistes, which was jointly edited by the Farrenc couple, was particularly well received. It was one of the first editions of European music for keyboard instruments from the 16th to the 19th century that was faithful to the sources.

There are two more things to know about this:

Music by Bach or even Mozart hardly appeared in the program books at that time. Musicians and musicologists, such as the Farrencs, were only just beginning to reappraise the music of the Baroque and early Classical periods and to think about historically accurate performance practice.

And second, in the 18th century, the fortepiano appeared alongside the harpsichord, which had reigned virtually alone until then. Music for keyboard instruments took many a new path from that point on. Louise Farrenc and her colleagues were pianists, no longer harpsichordists. How to play the so-called early music was therefore rather unknown at that time.

In 1859, the highly gifted daughter Victorine Farrenc died of tuberculosis at the age of only 32. She was Louise’s only child. From this time on, one hardly finds any press reviews; apparently Louise Farrenc no longer gave concerts, but devoted herself mainly to editing, planning and performing the Séances historiques. She had initiated this concert series together with her husband and they played works from the Trésor des pianistes, some of which were also explained to the interested audience.

In 1861 and again in 1869 Louise received the Prix Chartier chamber music prize from the Académie des beaux-arts.

Finally, in 1865, Aristide died and Louise was alone.

Throughout her life, she has considered herself a pianist, composer, and musicologist. She completes work on the remaining 15 volumes of the Trésor without assistance and teaches at the Conservatoire until 1872. Louise Farrenc dies in Paris in 1875 at the age of 71.

On the occasion of her 200th birthday in 2004, a Swiss publisher finally published a complete edition of her work.

In 1821, also in Paris, Pauline Garcia was born into a well-known Spanish family of singers – it was the year that Louise Farrenc entered the Conservatoire.

Pauline’s father was already successful as a tenor and set new standards with his ability. Her brother Manuel was also a singer and probably the most influential singing teacher of the time. Her sister Maria, 13 years older, soon became a celebrated soprano and the first diva in opera history under her married name Maria Malibran. She performed everywhere in the musical world, enchanting audiences and even attracting them magnetically. It was in this artistic environment that Pauline first took piano lessons and studied composition. Only after the early death of her world-famous sister did she begin to sing.

In 1840, at 19, she married Louis Viardot, a writer, art historian, theater director, translator (and, in the early years of his professional life, lawyer) 21 years her senior. The two met through George Sand, a friend of Pauline’s, whose divorce Louis was promoting as a lawyer.

A happy marriage the Viardots led – at least most of the time – Louis loved his wife very much and supported her career with all his strength.


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Pauline Viardot, as she was known from then on, had already made her operatic debut a year earlier and delighted audiences not only with her charismatic mezzo-soprano, but also with an unusually forceful performing talent. She undertook concert tours lasting several months, during which many of her own compositions were also performed. On these tours she sang Norma, in Italian of course, but also works by Glinka and Tchaikovsky in Russian. Meyerbeer composed for her the Fidès in Le Prophète – in French. In addition, there were composers as diverse as Gluck and Verdi. She also arranged foreign works as well as traditional songs of various national origins to bring them to the wider public. As early as 1838, her compositions and arrangements were published in several languages and countries, including Copenhagen, Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, London, Saint Petersburg and New York. Pauline Viardot was one of the most versatile artists of the 19th century.

On one of these trips in 1843, Pauline met Ivan Turgenev in St. Petersburg, then an aspiring young writer from the best family.He immediately fell in love and from that moment on devoted his life and vocation to Pauline. Until his death in 1883, this triangular relationship would define his life. For Louis, Pauline’s clearly older husband, will also always remain on friendly terms with Ivan. Turgenev’s daughter, who comes from another love affair, is even taken into the family by Pauline after his death. Unusual.

In 1863, at the age of only 42, Pauline almost completely retired from the stage and moved with the family to Baden-Baden. There she taught and gave concerts and opera performances with her students and children in a small, more private setting. A specially built garden theater and the villa they lived in were ideal for this purpose. Pauline’s matinées there were famous. Wilhelm and Auguste Victoria of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, Artur Rubinstein, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Theodor Storm, Ivan Turgenev, who lived with the Viardots during this period, and of course George Sand – they were all there. Pauline’s close friend Clara Schumann also came and they played Chopin, Brahms – and of course Schumann.


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Pauline now also devoted herself more to composition again. The performance of her fantastic operetta Le Dernier Sorcier (The Last Sorcerer) was conducted by Johannes Brahms in 1869. In return, she sang the premiere of his alto rhapsody. Meanwhile, Pauline also enjoyed a similarly legendary reputation as a singing teacher as her brother Manuel had years earlier.

At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, the Viardot family returned to Paris via London.

In 1874 Louis suffered a stroke that confined him to the house until his death in 1883. Pauline nursed her husband, ran a salon, composed, and taught until her own death at age 88 in early summer 1910.

In 1830, the careers of Louise Farrenc and Maria Malibran, Pauline Viardot’s older sister, were well underway when a baby girl named Marie Félicie Clémence de Reiset was born at the Cour de Bois chateau, near the hamlet of Saint-Remy des Monts, on January 20 of that year.

She was lucky, the family was well-to-do, her mother a writer and her father a high-ranking military man.

From the age of six, Marie received piano lessons from Frédéric Chopin and also lessons in singing and composition. There, too, big names were involved, for her composition teacher was none other than Friedrich von Flotow; and she took singing lessons from Laure Cynthie Damoreau, Rossini’s and Auber’s prima donna.

Soon Clémence, as she preferred to be called, appeared in public with her own compositions, and gained the attention of the young Saint-Saëns with a performance of her song La Source (The Source). It was not so much her singing voice that captivated him, but rather her “calm, flowing, pure playing without unnecessary nuances […] which she had probably learned from Chopin.”

She quickly established herself in the Parisian music scene and both her interpretation and compositions were highly praised.

Since the young woman had not completed any musical studies, she was considered a layperson in every sense of the word. Yet many a colleague praised precisely her “manner of composition unspoiled by scholastic pedantry.” Hector Berlioz not only praised her in the highest tones, but also supported accruing premieres. A memorable concert must have been the one on February 25, 1851, when Berlioz conducted the orchestra of the Grande société philharmonique de Paris. The program included new compositions by Clémence, the first four parts of his own Symphonie dramatique, Roméo et Juliette, and several arias sung by Pauline Viardot.

Also in 1851, Clémence married. The chosen one was Charles Grégoire Amedée Amable Enlard Vicomte de Grandval, with whom she had two daughters in the next few years. Despite her already considerable success, she took up composition studies with Camille Saint-Saëns and in the following years, now under her married name Clémence de Grandval, became one of the most successful composers in France. She also runs a salon, which will always be reported on in the relevant magazines and journals.

Although her very varied and extensive oeuvre encompasses almost all instrumentations, between 1860 and 1892 she is celebrated primarily for her stage works, and from the 1890s onwards her song work also came to the fore. For her oratorio La Fille de Jaïre she finally received the Prix Rossini in 1879, which had just been newly established by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Probably her greatest success, with the highest number of performances over the years, was the Stabat mater of 1871.

From this year on, Clémence de Grandval was also intensively involved in the newly founded Société nationale de musique as a composer, singer and pianist, and four years later she was admitted to the Société des Compositeurs. It was during this period that she wrote her five-movement Suite for Flute and Piano, the premiere of which was played by Paul Taffanel, to whom the work is dedicated. Taffanel was one of the most famous flutists in France at the time. What a pity that nothing is known about the genesis of the work.

A large number of works are also dedicated to her herself, indicating that she encouraged young composers. Unfortunately, the state of research on her life and work is very poor, as is the case with many formerly famous women composers. Clémence, however, is one of the few who is at least listed in Joseph-François Fétis’ Biographie universelle des musiciens.

In 1892, her last opera Mazeppa was published, followed by several songs and mélodies.

The artist remained present in French musical life, but slowly withdrew from the concert podium. In November 1907, Marie Clémence de Grandval died in Paris a few days before her 77th birthday.

In 1847, again in Paris, Augusta Holmès was born into a family of Irish descent. It was not until 1871, when she became a French citizen, that Augusta added the accent grave to her surname.

The pretty girl grew up in Versailles. Military music dominated there and so she was surrounded mainly by wind instruments. Possibly this is also a reason why she would later be very fond of opulent wind instrumentation.

Augusta was not only exceptionally pretty, but also a very talented little girl, learning several languages at an early age and making very rapid progress in piano playing. Even for her first self-composed songs she was able to use her own lyrics.

She was refused admission to the Conservatoire de Paris because of her Irish citizenship. She was eventually able to take composition lessons with the organist Henri Lambert and learned orchestration with Hyacinthe Klosé. (A small insertion, especially for the flutists among us: Klosé, himself a clarinetist and professor at the Conservatory, was the one who, along with Louis Auguste Buffet, transferred Theobald Boehm’s ingenious system from the flute to the clarinet).

Private composition lessons were then – finally – given to her by César Franck.


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Her sonorous alto voice, with which she often interpreted her own songs, henceforth caused a sensation in the Paris salons. She also caused a sensation as a pianist at home and abroad. During these years her works were published under the pseudonym Hermann Zenta, presumably to hide the fact that she was a woman.

Wagner impressed Augusta greatly; she even traveled to Munich to attend the premiere of Rheingold. Above all, she embraced the ideal of the poet-composer, which can be found in most of her works.

Augusta’s appearance must have been overwhelming for many. The painter Georges Clairin, who painted the famous portraits of Sarah Bernhardt, called her “more a goddess than a woman.” No wonder, then, that her name appeared not only in the feuilleton but also frequently in the gossip columns of the press.

Liszt is said to have courted her, and Wagner adored her after the death of Minna.

Augusta Holmès, however, remained unmarried, although for a time she lived in a wild marriage with Catulle Mendès. The couple had five children. A well-known painting by Auguste Renoir entitled Portrait of the Daughters of Catulle Mendès shows three of their daughters together at the piano.

Augusta was commissioned to write a work for the centennial of the French Revolution. The result was the Ode triomphale en l’honneur du Centenaire de 1789, premiered at the Palais de l’Industrie on the occasion of the 1889 World’s Fair. Cast: solo soprano, mixed choir of 900 singers, orchestra (300 musicians) – a gigantic spectacle.

In 1895 she had her greatest success with the opera La Montagne noire, performed at the Palais Garnier.

Her special compositional voice also helped French national music out of its entanglement with Wagnerism. After Augusta Holmès’ untimely death in 1903, her works remained an integral part of Parisian musical life. It was only after the First World War and with the beginning of a reorientation of musical aesthetics that her music slowly but surely fell into oblivion.

In 1857, only ten years after Augusta Holmès, Cécile Chaminade was born in Paris at the foot of Montmartre. In her family we find mainly officers and sailors, only her father belonged to the upper middle class.

Her mother, a pianist, initially taught the little girl herself, and it soon became apparent that a special talent had to be cultivated here. Soon the eight-year-old was playing for George Bizet, who referred to her as the “Petite Mozart.” Subsequently, Cécile was also able to take private lessons in harmony and counterpoint. There are some very early sacred works by Cécile Chaminade, when she was not yet ten years old, and at the age of eleven two of her mazurkas for piano appeared in print.

At the age of eighteen, Cécile Chaminade finally gave her first concert, and two years later she performed at the famous Salle Pleyel in Paris. From about this time, her compositions also became increasingly popular. One thing still distinguishes Cécile Chaminade’s music today: It pleases immediately, even at first hearing, but it is never trivial. Again and again one hears the word “salon music”, which is meant pejoratively here, but that does not do her work justice at all. Rather, Cécile possessed the rare gift of combining euphony with thoroughly virtuosic passages and could also write very appropriate character pieces and onomatopoeic songs.


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Now she became an active member of the Société nationale de musique, in whose concerts some of her compositions were performed. In 1891, when she was 34 years old, her most successful song L’Anneau d’argent (The Silver Ring) was published in an impressive 200,000 copies.

After earlier concert tours through France, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland, her English debut finally took place in 1892. There, in England, Cécile was particularly revered. She played several times for Queen Victoria, who even invited her to spend a few days at Windsor Castle. Her often extravagant clothes were gladly imitated by the English fans.

Now she performed in the Balkan countries and finally also in the USA, where she was euphorically celebrated by her audience not only in New York’s Carnegie Hall – people founded Chaminade clubs, traded in Chaminade souvenirs.

At first, Cécile was very skeptical about marriage, because she was aware that her life was dedicated to music and that a husband might have other ideas about togetherness. It was not until 1901, when she was already in her mid-40s, that she met Louis-Mathieu Carbonel, a music publisher much older than she, with whom she spent six very happy years until his death.

A commissioned composition for the Paris Conservatoire also falls into this period. The Concertino op.107 for flute by Cécile Chaminade was written in 1902 and every flutist knows and loves it – until today.

In 1913 she was the first composer ever to be inducted into the Légion d’Honneur, by which time her star was already beginning to fade. Only in England she was still very present for some time.

The experiences of World War I finally silenced Cécile. In 1914 she took over the management of a hospital for wounded soldiers, worked hard there and eventually became ill herself. She only came to compose at night. And then, after the war, her way of writing was not “modern” enough; her mostly short piano and salon pieces no longer fit the times. France now “sounded” different, a new generation with new ideas was waiting in the wings. Cécile Chaminade composed relatively little, mainly piano music. In 1937 she settled in Monte Carlo, where she died a lonely death in 1944.

In 1858, just one year after Cécile Chaminade, Mélanie Bonis was born into a Catholic family of craftsmen, also in Paris. Her musical talent was hardly noticed in the not particularly loving family environment and was therefore naturally not encouraged. Accordingly, she acquired her first musical skills during her childhood completely self-taught.

Eventually, Mélanie received piano lessons. Her parents hoped that this would increase her chances on the marriage market. At the age of 18, she became a pupil of César Franck, who was so enthusiastic about her talent that he strongly recommended that she attempt the entrance examination for the conservatory. Under the critical, even doubting eyes of her parents, she passed – naturally – and went on to study very successfully in a class with Debussy and Pierné. She won several prizes and worked diligently. When she finally fell in love with a fellow student, Mélanie’s parents abruptly ended her education and took her out of the conservatory, against the resistance of her teachers.

In 1883, she was pressured into marriage with Albert Domange, a twice-widowed industrialist 22 years her senior, who brought five sons into the marriage. The duties of a housewife and stepmother prevented further compositions for years to come. Mélanie herself gave birth to three more children until 1898. What’s more, Monsieur Domange had no interest in art or music – all he wanted was a functioning wife and mother. Thus, for many years, Mélanie lived a very bourgeois life between Paris and the seaside resorts of Normandy.


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In the 1890s, she met again by chance her childhood sweetheart Amédée Hettich, who had become a music critic and singing teacher and was meanwhile playing an important role in Parisian musical life. Married himself, he energetically supported her attempts to regain a foothold in the male-dominated music world.

In 1899, Mélanie secretly gave birth to Hettich’s daughter Madeleine, who had to grow up in hiding. Her music had changed during this time, becoming more emotional and increasingly depicting her inner life. For Mélanie struggled with her religious convictions and could never forgive herself for this double sin of adultery and secret birth. It was only during World War I that she was finally able to take in her daughter – but only under the protective claim that Madeleine was an orphan.

Mélanie tried to accelerate her career by using the gender-neutral pseudonym Mel Bonis. Although there were meanwhile some professional female pianists, the craft of composition was still firmly in male hands. From 1900 on, she wrote more again, and over the next nearly 20 years her most important works would now emerge. Her sensual, passionate, but never overloaded music was very well received, met with great acclaim from colleagues (especially we know this from Fauré, Debussy, Kœchlin, Pierné) and was played by the most famous performers of the time. The form is usually austere, but this austerity is overlaid by extraordinarily imaginative melodic writing and exquisite harmonic understanding. Mélanie also showed amazing ingenuity in instrumentation.

She received several composition prizes and became a member of the Société des Compositeurs, at times even its secretary. Her works were published by renowned publishers such as Leduc and Max Eschig.

Mélanie was very modest, reluctant to talk about her work, rarely promoted it herself, and never pushed herself to the fore.

In 1918 her husband died, with whom she had been not so unhappily married for 35 years, and in 1932 her youngest son died in an accident. This, her bourgeois strict Catholic upbringing and flight into religiosity on the one hand, the urge to compose, the “misstep” with Hettich and her feelings of guilt that never came to rest on the other, left a severely depressed woman who could hardly manage the struggle between convention and ambition.

Mélanie’s life was overshadowed by these depressions for many years.

At the moment, Mel Bonis’ work is experiencing a renaissance after some sixty years of oblivion. She is considered one of the most important composers in turn-of-the-century France. One finds her music again and again in chamber music programs and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra shows that even large instrumentations would not have been a problem for Mélanie. What a pity that she left no further orchestral works.

Mélanie Bonis died in 1937 at the age of 79. Due to her advanced age, her last years were marked by artistic isolation, as she did not follow the path towards newer music. Her body also failed her at the end, she spent most of her time lying down. Her last joy: Until the end she had close contact with her youngest daughter Madeleine.


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Now we have arrived at the time around the 2nd World War. The Belle Époque and the Années Folles have already swept over Paris.

Never before had so many new things been created in such a small space, had life pulsated so colorfully, as in the Paris of these exciting years. In painting, artists were breaking away from the academic view; composers were evolving away from Romanticism, toward Im- and Expressionism. Sculpture, painting, literature, philosophy, architecture, arts and crafts, fashion and even music – everything was infected by this desire, this forward drive, this indulgence in material, sound, word and image.

Cécile Chaminade and Mel Bonis themselves lived through that time. But now younger people appeared on the scene, musicians and composers, who in the wake of this brilliant time threw or will throw their artistic productivity into the balance.

For example, the sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger, Germaine Tailleferre, Jeanne Leleu, Claude Arrieu and Elsa Barraine. They all contributed their part to the history of French music.

The highly gifted Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), from a family of musicians, won the Grand Prix de Rome and died at only 26. She was ill throughout her short life. Lili’s compositions have the depth and beauty of the works of a life-experienced, mature person.

Her sister Nadia (1887-1979) lived to be 92 and one of the most famous composition teachers of the 20th century.

For her part, Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) was a member of the Group des Six and was one of the first to conquer film and television.

Claude Arrieu (1903-1990) also left behind a very extensive œuvre with a large proportion of music for radio and film, but also stage works. She was also a producer for French radio.

Jeanne Leleu (1898-1979) excelled as a pianist and also won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome as a composer. Ravel, deeply impressed, dedicated his Prélude in A minor to her.

And Elsa Barraine (1910-1999)? She was one of the most talented in the succession of Lili Boulanger, professor at the Conservatoire de Paris and inspector of the state theaters.

Why her works are so rarely heard? Why hardly anyone knows her names?

These questions leave us completely perplexed. They won prize after prize, had occupied important positions, their work influenced composers of the next generation.

So the questions remain unanswered.  …

One – perhaps subjective – observation on my part I put right next to it: If you leaf through music or art reference books, you have to realize that the percentage of women listed there is tiny. Often one does not find even names of influential and actually well-known female artists.

And the following is in any case an – objective – fact: If the women’s movement had not actively worked on Mel Bonis’ rediscovery, this wonderful music would still be lost to us all today.

So here we come full circle. I withdraw my initial remark and redefine my goal.

Literature used

Borchard, Beatrix:  Pauline Viardot-Garcias: Fülle des Lebens, Köln/Weimar/Wien 2016

Fauser, Annegret: Holmès, Augusta, MGG online 2020

Furchert, Nicolas: Eine Priesterin der Musik, online 2020

Géliot, Christine: Mel Bonis, Kassel 2015

Heitmann, Christin: Farrenc, Louise, MGG online

Kesting, Jürgen: Die großen Sänger , Düsseldorf 1986

Kraus, Beate Angelika: Eine Frauenkarriere in Beethovens Heiligtum?
In: Louis Farrenc und die Klassik-Rezeption in Frankreich, Oldenburg 2006

Lücker, Arno: 250 Komponistinnen. Folge 54:Die Extremistin, online 2020

Launey, Florence: Domange, Mélanie, MGG online 2021

Rieger, Eva: Cécile Chaminade, in: FemBio online 2020

Rieger, Eva: Louise Farrenc, in: FemBio online 2020

Schneider, Herbert: Chaminade, Cécile, in MGG online 2021

Wigbers, Miriam-Alexandra: Johannes Brahms und Pauline Viardot, Tutzing 2011

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