Maria Theresia Von Paradis:
A Blind Composer’s Place in Eighteenth Century Vienna
Women performers and composers well known in life have often been forgotten as time moved forward. One such woman is the Austrian, Maria Theresia von Paradis. A contemporary of Mozart, Paradis was a traveling concert pianist and composer who may be best remembered today for being blind(1). One of her most significant contributions to the field of music, namely her school of music for young women, however, has been disregarded and left out of historical accounts almost completely.
Paradis was given rare opportunities that would propel her career beyond that of the average woman. She was born in Vienna in 1759 and died in 1824. Her father was the Imperial Secretary and Court Councilor to the Empress Maria Theresa, for whom Paradis was named. Paradis seemed to have a normal childhood until she went blind on December 9, 1762, which is believed to have been caused by a nervous ocular disorder. In spite of her blindness and unsuccessful attempts at treating it, Paradis started showing musical talent. The empress was impressed and granted her a stipend for a musical and general education. She proceeded to study piano with Leopold Kozeluch, who was Music Director and Court Composer to the Hapsburg monarchy of the Austrian Empire. She also studied singing and composition with Vincenzo Righini, a renowned opera singer, and Antonio Salieri, the well- known court composer whose students included Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Franz Liszt.
Paradis enjoyed a successful performing career as a concert pianist, beginning a three-year tour of Europe in 1783, during which she met Mozart, who later wrote a piano concerto for her. She was well-received on the European stage and was once even invited to accompany the Prince of Wales as he played the cello. While on tour, she met Valentin Haüy, whom she assisted in establishing the first school for the blind in Paris in 1785. This school would later welcome its most famous student, Louis Braille.
In 1777, Paradis began her career composing for solo piano and expanded her composition genres as she developed. Most of her compositions have been lost, especially those from this early period. By 1789, she spent more time composing than she did performing. Her friend and librettist, Johann Riedinger, developed a special composition board, which was a tool she used for writing. She composed several piano and vocal works, including a book of twelve lieder, or German songs, at least five operas, and three cantatas.
More of her works could have survived if she had published more. A remark from Paradis gives poignant insight into why she chose not to have more of her works published: “Would male fellow artists withdraw from me if I, as a woman—and especially as a blind woman—dared to compete with them?” (2) Paradis was suggesting here that the association with other artists was so important that she was willing to make a sacrifice in her own career to maintain those connections. This reasoning raises the question over whether or not other female artists at the time may have wrestled with the same struggle.
To briefly paint a picture of what the creative climate was like for Paradis, let us examine a quote from her contemporary, Hans von Bülow, a pianist, conductor, and music writer: “Reproductive genius can be admitted to the pretty sex, but productive genius unconditionally cannot….There will never be a woman composer, at best a misprinting copyist….I do not believe in the feminine form of the word ‘creator.’” (3)
Although Paradis had a successful performing and compositional career, those accomplishments alone do not necessarily warrant a significant place in music history. The common threads in the few sources that mention Paradis address her blindness and her connection to Mozart—neither one showing that she was significant on her own. Only one small piece of information mentioned in these sources suggests the possibility of innovation and influence, and that was her school of music for girls.
Her school went beyond teaching just piano and singing, which were the common subjects for women to study at the time. That is, typically girls learned music to make themselves more desirable for potential mates. What made Paradis’s school different from the standard education for women was that she taught composition and music theory, neither of which was considered important for women to learn. As mentioned earlier, due to the position Paradis’s father held, she had been exposed to the empress, who gave her a generous stipend for the education she received, a rare circumstance that made Paradis the exception and not the rule for eighteenth century women and their musical careers. Her successful performing career separated her from other female music teachers of the time further. Most female teachers were those who didn’t marry and had only received a light covering of subject matter, whereas Paradis was trained by some of the best in her field and was an experienced performer.
In addition to its demanding curriculum, Paradis’s school also featured performers critics lauded. One anonymous writer for the well-known European music periodical Allgemeine musikalische Zeitnung, or General Musical Journal noted that at these performances he found “good [female] students, which reveals a magnificent school.” (4) A year later he declared Paradis’s “great altruism and her striving for a clean presentation on the one hand and her growing reputation on the other do not permit the petty reluctance on her part which is occasionally so much a part of some masters. For this reason she has continued her own musical practice in a certain period as an intentional energetic drive toward competitiveness.”(5) Here we can see that Paradis constantly sought to improve her school and raise the standards of excellence for her music students, and the music community recognized these efforts.
This same unnamed critic said he observed that Paradis had found ways to speed up the teaching process, another reason her school warrants study. It is possible that its influence reached beyond those students who attended, perhaps even influencing other schools.
One person sources tell us was influenced by Paradis’s school of music for girls was the Bohemian music educator, Joseph Proksch, a teacher of the famous Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. He too was blind and visited Vienna in 1817 through 1818 for an eye operation. There he stayed with Paradis, at which time he observed how she ran her school and was inspired to change the way he taught music. According to Marion Fürst, Proksch returned to Prague after his visit and began rethinking the way he would approach music education. One of his innovations was teaching piano in a group setting, a concept he may have borrowed from Paradis. Fürst claims, in fact, that the changes Proksch made were directly influenced by his visit with Paradis. (6) While it is unclear exactly how Paradis taught her students piano, it is certain that she found ways to speed up teaching and that Proksch began group piano lessons shortly after his visit with her. It is very possible therefore that Paradis created the group setting for piano, and the origins have been mistakenly attributed to Proksch, as well as other pedagogues. The significance of this possibility cannot be understated given the frequency with which piano today is taught in this manner in collegiate settings.
Sufficient evidence exists that suggests that Maria Theresia von Paradis was and is significant to music history, innovative as both a musician and an educator. If further research yields results that prove conclusively she was the first to create group piano instruction, she could reclaim her place in history as a pivotal innovator, rather than living in the shadow of her male contemporaries.
1. Carol Neuls-Bates, ed., Women in Music: An Anthology of Source
Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present, (New York: Harper
& Row Publishers, 1982).
2 Karin Pendle, Women & Music: A History, (Bloomington: Indi-
ana University Press, 1991), 89.
3 Eugene Gates, “The Woman Composer Question: Philosophical
and Historical Perspectives,” Kapralova Society Journal. 4.2
4 Hidemi Matsushita, “The Musical Career and Compositions of
Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824),” Ph.D diss., Brigham
Young University, (1989), 45.
6 Marion Fürst, Maria Theresia Paradis: Mozarts berühmte Zeit-
genossin, (Köln: Böhlau, 2005), 180-181.
Fürst, Marion. Maria Theresia Paradis: Mozarts berühmte Zeitgenossin. Köln: Böhlau, 2005.
Gates, Eugene. “The Woman Composer Question: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives.” Kapralova Society Journal 4, no. 2 (2006): 1.
Matsushita, Hidemi. “The Musical Career and Compositions of Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824).” Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1989.
Neuls-Bates, Carol, ed. Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1982.
Pendle, Karin. Women & Music: A History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.