Musical Gals: Changing perceptions on women and music

After exploring the life of Clara Schumann, it seems appropriate to take a break, and consider for a moment how perceptions of women in music have changed throughout the ages.

One nineteenth century contemporary stated that women “rarely attempt the more mature forms because such works assume a certain abstract strength that is overwhelmingly given to men.” Putting my disgust at the comment aside for a moment, it made me dig deeper, and think about how far society has come. Women were rarely seen within the music composition industry until more recently. In the 1100s, the only music composed by women was that written by nuns, and their music rarely escaped the thick walls of the convent. Throughout history, we see women struggle to establish themselves as professional composers despite their reputations as talented singers or pianists. We see women using music as a means to gain status, powerful friends, and earn a living. Then we come to those women who found performing music easier to establish a reputation in, rather than the male dominated world of composition. Women composers of the Romantic era, for example, took on more hidden roles. They chose instead to support their famous brothers or husbands, and use their energies to focus on other battles elsewhere. The 1800s could be argued as the turning point for women in music as perceptions started to change. The same contemporary quoted above, for example, wrote that Clara Schuman “is truly one of the few women who has mastered this [abstract] strength”. This is high praise indeed and reveals the change waltzing in.

The main obstacle for women in music has been social values. What society considered acceptable was important. For a long time, society frowned upon the female professional composer, deeming it an unacceptable venture. This falls in line with views held about acceptable jobs women could do, and the instruments they could play. For instance, the piano has been an acceptable instrument for women to play for centuries. This was “because the player remained seated, and therefore [remained] modest” (Sounds and Sweet Airs, 2016). Many believed that a woman could control her passion by sitting down. The position provided comfort for herself and her family. The violin, on the other hand, was wholly unsuitable for a woman due to the movements needed to play the instrument being inappropriate. These views have changed over time with the violin now becoming more a feminine instrument. We see more and more women seated within the string sections of orchestras. The brass and percussions sections, meanwhile, are filled with men belting out whatever musical melody is required of them. After all, the Star Wars theme would be lost without them!

Why, though, do instruments carry such gendered connotations with them? Let us rewind a little, and return to the violin. It is interesting to note that the violin was seen as female in early periods of our history due to its soft curving shape, its belly, back, waist and neck. To play the instrument required a caressing movement of the arm and often saw the player display emotional facial expressions that suggested an inward happiness. It is no wonder, then, that the male violinist was often thought of as a “masterful lover of his delicate, exquisitely responsive and beloved instrument” (Sounds and Sweet Airs, 2016). The question then is what happens when a women plays upon her own body. As one individual asks, “[d]oes the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves?” or whether she is, in fact, “better matched for the cello.” What was important in the 1800s was that any women making music should do so with propriety and according to what society accepted as feminine. It also seems the female musician needed to include the male and the masculine within her music, then submit to both to find acceptance. In music today as we hear more and more female singer-songwriters standing up to such traditional ideals.

Ideals that have plagued women in music for centuries have started to melt away over time. The music industry today includes more female ‘artists’ than ever before. Women are no longer only suited to imitating music and particular instruments as in the past. We are now starting to recognise and embrace their creativity, as well as celebrate the achievements of women in music. There is still a long way to go mind, and women in areas other than popular music often remain unrecognised.

Sounds and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music by Anna Beer (2016) is particularly interesting and a recommended read to find out more about the social backgrounds behind female composers.

-Claire Amundson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This