Music in the Dark: Soundscapes in Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in The Polar Night




Christiane Ritter, Sound, Music, Silence, Svalbard


In A Woman in the Polar Night (Eine Frau erlebt die Polarnacht, 1938), Christiane Ritter, a well-to-do Austrian housewife, describes her experience as the first central European woman to overwinter on Svalbard (1934–35). Ritter’s prose is extraordinary in its lyrical simplicity, and in German editions the text is interspersed with her paintings of the scenes that at first were so alien and changing, yet became so familiar and loved.

Although stationed on the north coast of Svalbard with minimal human contact and without any recourse to the music with which Ritter had been surrounded in Austria, A Woman in the Polar Night is a text that is full of references to sound, natural sounds that are heightened by the absence of human music. This article offers a multimodal reading of Ritter’s depictions of the soundscapes of Svalbard in her memoir and shows how, 30 years before John Cage made the art world do it for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, Christiane Ritter spent 12 months listening to silence, and responding to it in words and paintings. In addition, the paper will also consider the silence of the text: what is not presented, but left to the reader’s imagination.

Author Biography

Kate Maxwell, UiT

Kate Maxwell is Professor of Music History, Theory, and Analysis at the University of Tromsø The Arctic University of Norway. Her research interests span both the medieval and the modern, and she is particularly interested in the visual aspects of music in different contexts. She has published on medieval music, popular music, notation, multimodality, gender, and cross-disciplinary music. She is also a clarinettist and graphic composer. She is currently working on the edited collection Queer Textures of the Past with David Carrillo-Rangel, and a book project entitled Music and the Pornographic Spectrum that considers eroticism and music in medieval manuscripts, opera, children's music, popular music, and internet pornography.


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How to Cite

Maxwell, Kate. 2020. “Music in the Dark: Soundscapes in Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in The Polar Night”. Nordlit, no. 46 (December):17–30.

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