Women and violins

My oldest daughter has grown so much over the summer that she needs a full-size violin and now my youngest says she wants to play too, itching to get her hands on the 3/4 size hand-me-down. Over Labor Day, my oldest tried several instruments in Cleveland and fell in love with one. So yesterday I drove 50 miles to get it from Fedex (long story), took it to my daughter’s teacher. She replaced the A-string that had broken in transit and then gave the instrument a proper workout, including excerpts from the Bruch violin concerto, before giving it the thumbs up. Whew!

It’s all worth it, even listening to all the fumbling and squawking and buzzing of beginner efforts (and I’m going to go through that all again this year). Because after a time, the hideous sounds give way to music and there are few experiences to beat watching your kid play in an all-county orchestra in a real concert hall (2nd chair, 2nd violin but who’s bragging?)

There are many instances, real and fictional, of Regency ladies playing the pianoforte or harp, but I’ve never read about one who played the violin. I vaguely recall once hearing that it was considered ungraceful. In contrast, playing the pianoforte could show off good posture and provide opportunities for flirtation (the helpful beaux turning the pages, singing along, etc…) and playing the harp would be a good way to show off pretty arms.

As I checked into this further, I found a review of several studies on the emergence of professional women musicians. I’d love to read the actual studies sometime, but the review itself listed some more interesting reasons for the unwritten ban on lady violinists:

As Gillett notes, the early nineteenth century public found female violin playing “inappropriate, improper, and aesthetically jarring.” Violins were compared to the feminine body, “most fittingly performed on by a worshipful ‘master’.” Moreover, male virtuoso violinists played with great expression and body movement, which was considered inappropriate for women. Further, violins had a long literary association with sin, death, and the devil, making them dangerous for the weaker sex.

Heavy stuff! But not surprising. I’d already learned that there was a similar prohibition against ladies playing Beethoven on the pianoforte. I deliberately had the rebellious heroine of The Incorrigible Lady Catherine play a Beethoven sonata…and got one of the highest compliments ever from a CP, who thought Catherine should have smoked a cigarette afterwards! 😉 Maybe sometime I’ll write a Regency heroine who plays the violin, but only if it it’s in character and important for her to do so.

While the tension between personal creativity and cultural restrictions can make for interesting stories, but I’m glad we’ve moved beyond that. Although I haven’t had much opportunity to hear women soloists recently, some of my favorite violin recordings were performed by women.

I love this collection of music by Vaughn Williams, featuring Iona Brown (1941-2004) who not only performed on the violin but also directed the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. If you click on the link, you can listen to excerpts including “The Lark Ascending” which I think is truly sublime.

Another favorite female violinist is Tasmin Little, whom I saw play the Sibelius violin concerto while I lived in England. I had to get my hands on the recording. The Brahms is good but the Sibelius is wonderful, intense and passionate. Unfortunately this recording is now hard to find but she has made many others. If you’re not familiar with her playing, listen to the free downloads in the “Naked Violin” section of her website.

Finally I will leave you with a video that would have proper Regency folk reeling:

Why did I not even know about this series? Did it ever appear on BBC America?

Do you enjoy reading about musical heroes or heroines in Regencies? Do you have favorite violin pieces, composers, performers? Links to share?

Elena Greene

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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