Two hundred years ago, the female musicians of the Venetian ospedali could be heard but not seen, sheltered from view as they performed. Today it seems that the music industry has decided that women musicians must be seen– and often a great deal of the woman’s body must be seen– before she will be heard; that is, before her recording will be marketed or purchased. Why is it that a woman’s appearance, whether judged as suitable or unsuitable, continually captures the attention of the musical establishment? Have we really progressed so far beyond the attitudes towards those ospedali students, or is this merely the other side of the same coin?
This paper had its genesis about five years ago, from what at first seemed to me an innocuous observation. While browsing through violin recordings (my particular interest), I began noticing an increasing number of “cheesecake” photos on cd covers. Delighted as I am to note the upsurge of talented young women violinists, it did strike my middle-aged and chubby self that perhaps the already tough criteria for success as a Classical musician was getting tougher– if you were female, you’d better be a “babe.”
What a mystery! A recording is an aural, not a visual experience– if the musician is accomplished, why should we care about his or her form? As I began to look at the perception of women musicians it became clear that, in one way or another, their appearance has always been as significant as their skill in the public’s eye and mind.
Perception-- what we appear to be and what others wish we would appear to be. The perception of proper feminine roles has always been a major issue for women in music. Those roles have perhaps been debated with the greatest heat in regard to women as composers. While these women were not actively in the limelight like performers, their “womanliness” (which, of course, would be reflected in their appearance) was nonetheless of great interest to the public. To quote Christine Ammer in her book Unsung: “If... a woman should produce a respectable composition, it was argued that she could do so only at the expense of her ‘womanhood.’ For example, one writer pointed out that, even if matrimony and lack of strength and endurance did not deter a woman composer, it still took a considerable amount of ‘fight’ to make one’s way. Even many men found themselves temperamentally ill equipped for such battle. And if a woman should be suited for it, it would diminish her ‘womanly qualities,’ and then what would become of her power of writing ‘womanly music?’”
So many Catch-22's! Writers often worked hard to assure their readers that these risqué women composers had not lost this mysterious “womanliness” by virtue of their musical pursuits. Here, for example, the introduction to an article from the February 1904 issue of Etude Magazine interviewing Amy Beach:
“When Mr. George Whitfield Chadwick first heard Mrs. Beach’s symphony, he is said to have exclaimed, ‘Why was I not born a woman?’ It was the delicacy of thought and finish in her musical expression that had struck him, an expression of true womanliness, absolute in its sincerity... She is a woman of charmingly simple manners, and, as foregone conclusion, of high, innate refinement. She is of medium height. Her eyes are of a grayish blue, large, and smiling. Her complexion is fresh and brilliant... Her straightforwardness is like her personality– gentle, direct, convincing... If you should put direct questions to her as I did you would learn that she composes when she feels the inclination move her to it; that she studies the piano when she is not writing; that one time of day is as good to work in as another, and that her housekeeping is of a very earnest interest to her. This last, however, was an admission, not an answer; but there was such ample proof of it that it must be put down. So many great ladies in art have told me what good housekeepers they were, and, after leaving them, I have had to stop, on turning the first shielding corner, to brush from my overcoat the veneer of dust it had acquired on their hall bench. Mrs. Beach’s domestic regime is not of this type. It fills you with chagrin, indeed, not at the prospect of dust carried out, but at the fearful possibilities of dust carried in.”
The double standard becomes so clear when we turn the tables and apply the same treatment to men! The brilliant mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers does just that in a collection of essays from the 1930's, entitled Are Women Human?
“Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness; if everything he wore, said or did had to be justified by reference to female approval; if he were compelled to regard himself, day in and day out, not as a member of society, but merely as a virile member of society... If he were vexed by continual advice how to add a rough male tough to his typing, how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how to combine chemical research with seduction, how to play bridge without incurring the suspicion of impotence... He would be edified by solemn discussions about ‘Should Men Serve in Drapery Establishments?’ and acrimonious ones about ‘Tea-Drinking Men’; by cross-shots of public affairs ‘from the masculine angle,’ and by irritable correspondence about men who expose their anatomy on beaches (so masculine of them), conceal it in dressing-gowns (so feminine of them), think about nothing but women, pretend an unnatural indifference to women, exploit their sex to get jobs, lower the tone of the office by their sexless appearance, and generally fail to please a public opinion which demands the incompatible... If he gave an interview to a reporter, or performed any unusual exploit, he would find it recorded in such terms as these: ‘Professor Bract, although a distinguished botanist, is not in any way an unmanly man. He has, in fact, a wife and seven children. Tall and burly, the hands with which he handles his delicate specimens are as gnarled and powerful as those of a Canadian lumberjack, and when I swilled beer with him in his laboratory, he bawled his conclusions at me in a voice that implemented the promise of his swaggering moustache.’”
A recurring theme in Ms. Sayers 1936 novel, Gaudy Night, is the importance of finding one’s “job” in life, and remaining faithful to it, no matter the outside opinion. Interesting to hear this sentiment echoed two years later by Nadia Boulanger, when asked by a reporter how it felt to be the first woman to ever conduct the Boston Symphony: “I’ve been a woman for a little over fifty years, and have gotten over my initial astonishment. As for conducting an orchestra, that’s a job. I don’t think sex plays much part.”
Alas, this clarity of vision seems all too rare.
stay tuned for more...