Johanna Kinkel: Composer, Author, Revolutionary

Poet and playwright Emanuel Geibel wrote of Johanna Kinkel, “Generally, boundlessness is her failing, for she is so endowed with talent that she is not a genius in any one area.”

Johanna was born in Bonn on 8 July 1810 to Peter Joseph Mockel and his wife Marianna. Much to their alarm, their daughter proved to be exceptionally intelligent and musical.

She began studying under Franz Anton Ries, a violinist who had tutored Beethoven a few decades earlier. Ries’s pupils formed a group known as the Singkränzchen, or the Singers’ Circle. Johanna must have demonstrated great character and ability, because she assumed leadership of the Singkränzchen when she was just a teenager. She mined her experiences as a choral director for her op. 1, “The Birds’ Garden for Five Voices with Piano Accompaniment: A Musical Joke,” in which five birds hold a rehearsal and argue with one another over who has more talent. (A modern edition of the piece is available here.)

In 1831, Johanna met a pious Catholic bookseller and music merchant named Johann Paul Mathieux. Desperate to escape the oppressive home of her parents, she agreed to marry him. Almost instantly, she realized she’d made a terrible mistake. Mathieux had been faking his religiosity and he abused his wife. Six months after the wedding, she moved back into her parents’ house and filed for a divorce (which Mathieux refused to grant). The town gossips blamed the failure of the marriage on Johanna’s un-feminine nature. Her doctor diagnosed her with a “nervous breakdown with emaciation fever” brought on by the “abuses conveyed by [the] selected torments” of her ex. (x)

She only began to recover in the mid-1830s. To earn her keep, she taught piano and also returned as director of the Singkränzchen. She even presented and directed entire operatic acts in the musical homes of Bonn.

In 1836, she secured an introduction to Felix Mendelssohn via his spirited, strong-willed aunt, author Dorothea von Schlegel. He pronounced Johanna talented and encouraged her to move to Berlin. There she studied piano with Wilhelm Taubert and composition with Karl Böhmer, earning her living by teaching and composing.

In 1838 she published her op. 7, a volume of songs. Critic Oswalk Lorenz, writing for Robert Schumann’s Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, labeled the work “ladylike.” She wasn’t happy being pigeonholed based on her gender. To protest, when Schumann himself wrote Kinkel and asked for another of her compositions, she mailed him “my wildest drinking song for a male choir.” (x)

In Berlin, Johanna became a live-in music teacher to Bettina von Arnim‘s daughters. She also found her way to Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel‘s famous star-studded musicales. Eventually she earned enough money to rent her own apartment.

Her career might have continued blossoming unabated, but in 1839, she received a letter that would change the course of her life: Mathieux was finally agreeing to the divorce. The catch was that she’d have to return to Bonn as the legal process played out.

Back in Bonn, she taught piano, resumed her choral directorship, and began mounting salon concerts à la Fanny Hensel. She also began making friends with local intellectuals. Together she and those intellectuals founded the Maikäferbund, or the Cockchafers’ Association. The Cockchafers sought to break free of the constraints of bourgeois conformism. It was the 1840s, and revolution was in the air.

Johanna’s Sechs Lieder, Op. 19, No. 2 and No. 3. (The score is here.)

One of the Cockchafers was a man named Gottfried Kinkel, a twenty-five-year-old theology professor who became a dear friend of Johanna’s. He was engaged to the daughter of a Protestant pastor, so he was, romantically speaking, off-limits. Their bond developed on an intellectual plane, and Johanna denied having any feelings for him. But everything changed on 4 September 1840. Gottfried and Johanna were in a boating accident on the Rhine and, both convinced they were about to die, fell into each other’s arms and kissed. Kinkel’s engagement to the upstanding Protestant girl was over. For her part, Johanna was hesitant to remarry, but ultimately she gave in. She converted to Protestantism, and on 22 May 1843 Johanna and Gottfried were wed.

Their scandalous relationship proved professionally harmful to both of them. Gottfried lost his teaching position and all hope of securing a faculty appointment as a theologian. (He began pivoting his expertise to art history instead.) Johanna also lost most of her students, as she was ostracized by Bonn society yet again.

Despite others’ disapproval, the marriage was a generally happy one. Johanna had four babies in quick succession: Gottfried in 1844, Johanna in 1845, Adelheid in 1846, and Herrmann in 1848. During her time as a mother to toddlers, she wrote:

I no longer get the chance to hear any music. My grand piano is only used for the purpose of drying freshly ironed diapers. But things cannot continue like this. I shall open it up next week, for I yearn for a note of music. If I could give lessons to my stupidest pupils and play four-hand pieces by Wanhal, it would be a refreshment for me. But I must deny myself the possibility of swimming in my own element until the children have grown beyond the first dangerous years during which one dare not lose sight of them at any time. (x)

Despite being consumed by motherhood, she somehow found the time to direct concert performances of Gluck’s Iphigenie in Auslis and Spohr’s Pietro von Abano, as well as write a novella called “Musical Orthodoxy.”

Fatefully, the Kinkels found themselves swept up in the revolutionary fervor gripping Europe in 1848, and as time went on, both became increasingly convinced of the necessity of a German democratic republic. Gottfried became the editor of the Neue Bonner Zeitung, as well as a spokesman for the revolutionaries. After his political duties took him from Bonn, Johanna assumed the editorship, along with one of Gottfried’s students named Carl Schurz. It was a weighty responsibility: Johanna labeled the Neue Bonner Zeitung the “last free press in our region.” (x)

In 1849, Gottfried joined the Rebellion of Baden, which ultimately failed when the revolutionaries’ last stronghold, the Rastatt fortress, fell to Prussian troops. Gottfried was arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad. A desperate Johanna leveraged her influential social connections, seeking clemency. Ultimately, his sentence was reduced to life in prison.

But Johanna wasn’t satisfied. She and Carl Schurz planned his escape from jail, which involved bribing the prison warden. Incredibly, their gamble paid off. Carl Schurz and Gottfried Kinkel fled to London in November 1850, and Johanna followed with the children in 1851.

Although elated to be reunited, life in London as a refugee family proved to be difficult. Gottfried’s daring escape had brought him renown within the emigrant community, and exiles were constantly descending on the Kinkel household, all searching for employment, housing, and money. Johanna supported the family by teaching, but it wasn’t easy to find good pupils.

Before they had much of a chance to get settled, Gottfried decided to capitalize on his newfound notoriety to promote his political interests. He left Britain for America in September 1851, and stayed there for months, attempting to fundraise for another German rebellion. In January, an exasperated Johanna wrote him, “You men talk about glory, sacrificing the family for the fatherland. Have you also thought out all the consequences, and do you know what a sacrificed family looks like?” (x) Johanna, for all intents and purposes a single mother of four children under the age of eight, certainly did.

“How am I?” she wrote author Fanny Lewald in November 1851. “I could be splendid if I could live just for my own affairs. But countless people claim me for their concerns. Each one needs perhaps just a few of my days or hours, doesn’t even feel obliged to thank me, thinks I could have done ten times as much – but these days and hours add up to a burden that destroys my existence. I am being buried alive with all my talents, am nothing but a duty machine.” (x)

Things seem to have improved somewhat upon Gottfried’s return in early 1852. (The hoped-for revolution, however, never materialized, and the Kinkels would remain marooned in England.) As her children got older, Johanna began returning to intellectual pursuits, visiting the British Museum regularly, and even giving lectures on music. “I have been engaged to give lectures on music,” she wrote, “and it seems that these have been successful. This gives me joy, not so much because it’s better business than teaching lessons, but because I have discovered within me the ability, at an older age, to embrace a completely new life activity… What had lain under the snow, now suddenly wants to sprout forth.” (x) Although she’d never had any formal musicological training, she presented groundbreaking lectures on Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, and Mendelssohn.

She added another feather to her creative cap when she wrote a two-volume novel, Hans Ibeles in London. It was semi-autobiographical, focusing on a musical emigrant family exiled to Britain. Shortly before her death, she confessed to her doctor that she felt guilty about using her friends as inspiration for various characters, which may be why the manuscript wasn’t published in her lifetime. Gottfried had Hans published posthumously in 1860, and the first English translation was made in 2016.

Johanna’s health deteriorated while in Britain, and she was eventually diagnosed with heart trouble. (It’s possible that her suffering was aggravated by the chest-tightening symptoms of depression and anxiety.) On 15 November 1858, she fell out of her open bedroom window and died. No one knows if it was a suicide or not. It appears from his letters that Gottfried may have been unfaithful, and the pressures of her creative work combined with her domestic duties continued to be immense. On the other hand, she may have had trouble breathing, opened the window for air, then suffered a stroke or heart attack.

It is impossible to pigeonhole Johanna Kinkel, and it would take a lifetime of study of music, literature, and mid-nineteenth century political history to fully understand and appreciate her countless contributions. Despite all there is left to discover about her, however, one thing is clear: she deserves to be remembered.

There are three words inscribed on Johanna Kinkel’s tombstone: Freiheit, Liebe, Dichtung (Freedom, Love, Poetry).


A huge shout-out to the patrons who make this series of articles on forgotten musical women possible! It wouldn’t happen without you. These articles come out every other Wednesday. If you want to support the series for as little as a dollar a month, click here.

If you want to learn more, here’s a list of sources:

Wikipedia page on Johanna Kinkel

Musik Und Gender im Internet page, by Melanie Ayaydin biography of Johanna Kinkel

Voice of Lyrics biography of Johanna Kinkel

Modes of Exile: Revisiting Johanna Kinkel, by Ruth Whittle

Towards Emancipation: German Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century, by Carol Diethe

Translating Johanna Kinkel’s Hans Ibeles in London, by Angela G. Sacher


Filed under Women In Music

3 responses to “Johanna Kinkel: Composer, Author, Revolutionary

  1. What a wonderful post! Off to explore this amazing musician. :)

  2. Heide

    What a tragic — yet beautiful — story. You truly have a gift of bringing these forgotten histories to life. Thank you …

  3. Thanks for the post! You are welcome to visit my YouTube Channel, and my Facebook Page where I have shared excerpts from Kinkel Birds Cantate and Trinklied, which I conducted last March and July in Madrid. Greetings! Patricia Kleinman, Proyecto compositoras

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