What Not to Wear (Part II)

by Robert Percival

Returning to the question of women who blow…

In 1528 Baldassare Castiglione (1478 – 1529) wrote in his highly influential The Book of the Courtier (1528) “Consider what an ungainly thing it would be to see a woman playing drums, fifes, trumpets or other like instruments; and this because their harshness hides and removes that suave gentleness which so adorns a woman in her every art.” He also recounts the myth of Minerva, a Roman goddess of music, who, having invented the flute, threw it away after catching sight of the reflection of her distorted face as she sat playing next to a pool of water.

However, various medieval languages have gendered words for female musicians, even of the drums, and woodcuts taken from the work of Swiss artist Tobias Stimmer (1539 – 1584) depict women as the players of the flute, cornet and trumpet, amongst others.

Whilst these images, and others like them, are often described as being idealised depictions of the Muses, the modelling of the players is remarkably accurate and convincing, suggesting that Stimmer was working with a model that knew what she was doing. And, for me, there is the question of why the Muses would be depicted in activities that were perceived as “ungainly” or ugly?

Similar arguments continued into the nineteenth century. In 1817 the London Times carried a review of “Miss Tremean, a female child” who played a violin concerto “with unlooked-for excellence…[but on an instrument]… unsuitable to the prescriptive habits and accomplishments of a female.” And in Germany it was still considered that the physical actions required for the violin, or organ (but not the piano) “would do unfailing harm to femininity.”

Music’s own patron saint, Cecilia, is always depicted with an instrument, usually a harp or an organ, but Domenichino (1581 – 1641) and Nicolas Colombel (c.1644–1717) both chose to give her a bass viol or viola da gamba, one of the less feminine instruments she could have played.

In 1784 a German writer, thought to be the critic and composer Carl Ludwig Junker (1748 – 1797) wrote, “Certain instruments are not meant for ladies. … It is to be wished, for example, that the horn, the violoncello, the contrabass, the bassoon, the trumpet, be played by men only.”

Why keep commenting on something that people aren’t doing? Why proscribe something that isn’t happening? And, apparently, hasn’t been happening for at least 300 years?!

Note, however, that Junker appears to be writing in the present tense, and he continues:

“We find it ridiculous when we catch sight of a lady wearing a large skirt or even worse, a crinoline, at the double bass; ridiculous when we see her playing the violin with large sleeves moving back and forth - ridiculous when we see her blowing the horn in a fancy hair-do.”

Which suggests rather strongly to me that Junker has seen women playing the double bass, the violin, and even the horn.

Further interesting revelations come from the website of the Sophie Drinker Institute which, in German, provides a lexicon of some 750 articles on female musicians.

Of particular relevance to Boxwood & Brass is a concert listing from the London Morning Post of June 2, 1780, for Carlisle House, Soho Square, London, where “A concert of vocal and instrumental music, by several performers who never appeared in England, amongst whom are the two celebrated Misses Pokornys, who will blow several concertos and duets on the French horn…”

Vittorio Bigari (1692 – 1776)

Vittorio Bigari (1692 – 1776)

We know little further of the Pokornoy sisters, but another horn player, Rosalie Tognini, performed in Paris in 1810, and toured from Strasbourg to Berlin and Vienna. Described as "first horn player of Prince Kurakin in Paris" (the Russian ambassador) contemporary reviews said she “possesses an ability on this instrument, which many men are proud of, has a fine tone and has mastered the difficulties with precision.” She also possessed "the power and endurance that the Waldhorn requires in longer pieces" and a "very full, powerful, yet not rasping [knarrender] tone."


c. 1815, by Diethelm Lavater (1780-1827)

c. 1815, by Diethelm Lavater (1780-1827)

We know rather more about the Swiss clarinettist Caroline Krähmer (1794 – 1873), even what she looked like.Krähmer came from a musical family and began clarinet lessons with her father at the age of 9, and soon began performing as a trio with him and her brother. She also played the violin well, composed and even conducted. After extensive touring she arrived in Vienna where Beethoven heard her play: in 1822 she performed several times, including in the Weber Concertino. She garnered reviews that commented on her dexterity, her beauty of tone and the quality of her soft playing, even comparing her favourably to Baermann, reviews which also mention that it is now only on the bassoon and trombone that women have not performed. Krähmer continued to tour and perform until at least 1847.

So are we any nearer knowing what Boxwood & Brass could be wearing?! Well, small English wind bands of the 1770s and ‘80s were probably male, and wore military uniform, or something like it, when playing for the regiment, but something less formal when they were working elsewhere. But, at the same time women were to be seen, playing the clarinet and the horn to a high level, even in London, to the extent that it was no longer a novelty, and in ensembles with male colleagues.

Perhaps we weren’t so far from the mark at Kew!

Sadly nobody got a snap of me on this occasion, but I quite like the look of this dapper oboist's outfit, although I'm not sure how good I look in red!

Anneke, Emily & Kate at Kew Gardens

Anneke, Emily & Kate at Kew Gardens

Johann Christian Fischer c.1780, by Thomas Gainsborough

Johann Christian Fischer c.1780, by Thomas Gainsborough

Further reading:

The starting point for the discussion of instruments and gender, and some of the quotes above, comes from an article by Rita Steblin: The Gender Stereotyping of Musical Instruments in the Western Tradition, available in full here

And see Hoffmann, “Klang und Geschlecht” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 145 no.12 (1984) 11-16 for further discussion on the Junker article “Vom Kostüm des Frauenzimmer Spielens”, Musikalischer Almanach auf das Jahr 1784 (Freiburg [1784]) 85-99.

Also: Martin Harlow’s 2004 PhD thesis “Viennese Chamber Music with Clarinet and Piano, 1783-1827: Repertory and Performance Strategy”, available through etheses.whiteroase.ac.uk; and David Whitwell’s The Wind Band and Wind Ensemble of the Classical Period.