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Topic Thursday

“Feminine” Instruments

For centuries, women were restricted not only from publicly performing but also from playing specific instruments. These restrictions, like many for women throughout history, created a barrier that deliberately kept women at home.

Although many upper-class women were expected to know how to make music, they were only allowed to perform in private (or perhaps at a carefully organized house concert). They were expressly prohibited from joining the orchestras of the day. Although opera performances utilized female singers, they were usually viewed as low-brow and often faced accusations of impropriety. 

So, what instruments were women allowed to play? Here’s a list of “permitted” instruments and some of the reasons others were discouraged. Of course, this is not an all-encompassing list, and there are always exceptions to the rule. These traditions mostly deal with the Western European classical music world.

1. Harpsichord

Harpsichords, and eventually pianos, were great. Most well-to-do families had one in their parlor, and their daughters were expected to entertain guests with a cute, appropriate ditty. However, a professional career as a virtuoso pianist was not easily accessible to women. Clara Schumann is a clear exception, but she faced backlash even from her own husband as she supported the family with her piano tours. 

Learning to play a keyboard instrument was essential for young women of standing for centuries. An ability to play well was essential to securing a husband. Pianos were also acceptable because you could play it delicately, with no inappropriate facial expressions, and the actual music production was not visible.

Composing for the public was discouraged, but some women kept at it despite this. 

Fanny Hensel composed many pieces for the piano and held renowned concerts at her home in Berlin. She would perform her own works or have friends play with her. However, she shied away from giving public performances, partially because her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, believed she should keep her music in the home.

2. Lute/Guitar

Another acceptable option was the lute and later guitar. These were considered feminine, and again, were suitable for parlor music. It was also easy to play the lute as an accompaniment to your singing, making it perfect for a house concert. 

Many of Francesca Caccini’s pieces were written for lute and voice, with a simple accompaniment under florid singing. 

3. Singing

Having a clear, in tune singing voice was a sign of a well-bred lady. Of course, she should never show this ability in public, only in the company of family or acquaintances. Mariana Martines pushed this idea further than many women in Vienna by having well-publicized home concerts that featured her performing her own music. 

Other composers who used singing as an entry to compose include Caccini, Strozzi, and Boetzelaer. Strozzi, in particular, faced a lot of discrimination due to her status as a singer.

That’s it.

Yeap. That’s pretty much it.  In Anna Beer’s book, Sounds and Sweet Airs, she talks about how the choice of instrument was gendered. Women were not allowed to play the violin because, although the instrument itself was considered “female,” the player uses a “phallic” bow to play the violin (or the woman). Therefore, it was entirely unacceptable for a woman to play a woman. How scandalous would that be? On the other hand, Menuhin (a famous 19th-century violinist who considered playing the violin the same as a master making love) believed a cello could be acceptable because it sits between a woman’s legs and somehow reduced her narcissism. 

As we know today, these restrictions are utterly ridiculous. Instruments do not have a gender, and people of all backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, or class, can be an incredible musician on whatever instrument they choose when given the opportunity. 

This way of thinking has also created a dramatic barrier for women in the classical orchestral industry. Until the 20th century, women were entirely excluded from professional orchestras. The Vienna Philharmonic didn’t allow women until 1997. In 2018, out of 20 orchestras examined, 69% of players were men, with some instruments played only by men (like the Tuba). 

Although this is changing, I believe this barrier is partially due to the long-term belief that women should only play specific instruments or risk losing their femininity. Hopefully, this gap will close as we move further into the 21st century.