by Robert Percival
The first in an occasional series highlighting, as performers on historical instruments, things we don’t know, or things we choose to ignore.
Playing Georgian music with Past Pleasures at Kew Gardens, and for the dancing at Brackley Town Hall has sparked our interest in what we could or should be wearing for such occasions.
The common perception is that women in the eighteenth century did not play wind instruments. So to be “historically appropriate”, should the female members of Boxwood (who are often in a five-to-one majority) cross-dress (i.e. as male) or should we ignore the fact that women didn’t blow?
Which is the larger anachronism here?
Wind bands in England were largely the preserve of the militias and the military, and until around about 1800 (the situation varied from regiment to regiment) the bandsmen were civilians, and they were employed and financed by the officers. As with the continental Harmonien a band was a sort of status symbol, lending prestige and publicity, generating interest particularly, according to one published piece of advice, “amongst the ladies”. These bands played for parades and at other ceremonial functions, but they also accompanied dances, and could be hired out to generate some income as a way for the officers to recoup their costs.
Even though the musicians were civilian, they still wore a form of uniform, and in fact because they were civilian they appeared “more like harlequins and mountebanks than military appendages”, provided with the most outlandish coats possible to discourage them from spoiling their uniforms by wearing them on the streets and in the ales houses in public.
But, looking at some of the colour schemes listed here for a large militia procession (e.g. white faced with blue and blue with red; white faced with orange; red faced with green), and here on this wiki
of uniforms of the Seven Years War, it seems that to modern tastes these musicians coats must have been colourful indeed if one was to embarrassed to be seen in it!
Did the musicians still wear their coloured coats when performing at balls? Thomas Rowlandson’s famous image of the orchestra at Vauxhall in c.1784 seems to show them wearing matching hats and wigs, but with rather more variety in the style, cut and colour of their coats. Of course, this could be artistic license, or it could be a reflection of the wide age range of the players, or possibly of the differing relative levels of social standing, wealth, or fame amongst the various musicians.
And of course the players are all men.
But was that always the case? Come back next week for more musings...