Wilma Norman-Neruda And A Short History of Female Violinists

This is the first essay I wrote about female violinists, and the beginning of my addiction. It appeared here on violinist.com in June of 2010. I’ve edited it a bit and added some more stuff that’s popped up online in the last year or so.


Here’s a little quiz for those of you who consider yourself somewhat knowledgeable about the history of violin-playing.

Have you ever heard of Ysaÿe? Joachim? Tartini? Sarasate? Kreisler? Of course.

But how about Sacchi? Norman-Neruda? Urso? Hall? Parlow? Jackson? Soldat? Tua? Saenger-Sethe?

The first list contains the names of men; the second, of women. Due to a sad twist of fate, the manifold accomplishments of female violin virtuosas from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have largely slipped from our collective consciousness. In an era when an ever-increasing percentage of our great violinists are women, it is worth taking a step back and recognizing that just a few generations ago, violin-playing was considered to be not just unladylike, but indecent. This review of a concert by violinist Elise Mayer Filipowicz, dating from 1834, is a typical one: although her playing “[gave] our ears great pleasure,…our eyes told us that the instrument is not one for ladies to attempt.” Louis Spohr, according to Paula Gillett in her book Musical Women in England, 1870-1914, believed that women were guilty “of mishandling the violin and lowering performance standards.” A woman named Blanche Lindsay wrote in 1880 that she had “known girls of whom it was darkly hinted that they played the violin, as it might be said that they smoked big cigars, or enjoyed the sport of rat-catching.”

Why did women violinists excite such an acute antipathy? As with so many other deeply entrenched societal attitudes, it seems that there was not one simple explanation, but rather a series of interrelating ones. First and foremost, the violin did not have a particularly wholesome reputation in the early part of the nineteenth century. Although the violin has been associated with Satan for hundreds of years (a belief that first gained traction when portable stringed instruments were played during dances, gatherings which the Catholic Church looked down upon), the connection was solidified in the popular imagination by the performances of Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), a violinist who looked so macabre and played so brilliantly he was widely assumed to be in league with the devil. Paradoxically, women in the Victorian era were considered to be both spiritually weaker and purer than men, and while it was believed that they needed to be protected from spiritually corrosive forces, they were also expected to set a spiritual and moral example to society as a whole. Playing an instrument so long and so closely associated with the devil was deemed to be incompatible with such a lofty goal.

Other more insidious reasons came into play. In the gender-obsessed Victorian era, men and women alike were all too aware of the aesthetic similarities between a violin and a woman’s body. As if to underscore these similarities, violins and human beings even share many of the names of their parts (the belly, the ribs, the neck, etc.). Not to mention that the range of the violin is almost identical to that of a soprano – a uniquely womanly range. Most people believed that such an obviously feminine instrument required a masculine player – a “master” – to play and dominate it, as they felt that women needed to be “played” and dominated by men. A woman playing the violin was faintly suggestive of lesbianism or self-love. Even Yehudi Menuhin, born in 1916, long after the Victorian era had come to a close, subscribed to a form of this view, writing:

I have often wondered whether psychologically there is a basic difference between the woman’s relationship to the violin and the man’s… Does the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves? Is there an element of narcissism in the woman’s relation to the violin, and is she, in fact, in a curious way, better matched for the cello? The handling and playing of a violin is a process of caress and evocation, of drawing out a sound which awaits the hands of the master.

As if these reasons were not vague or bizarre enough, Victorian reviewers often even objected to the way that women looked when playing the violin. The standing, the clamping down of the chin, and quick energetic bowing in presto passages were all deemed to be aesthetically unpleasing and inherently unfeminine motions, verging on un-chaste. Ladies were encouraged to stick to instruments that were thought to be more passive and domestic, such as the piano or the harp, where the fingers moved more than the arms.

Whatever its precise causes, prejudice against female violinists was rampant throughout Europe until the mid-Victorian era. Despite this, a few exceptional female players still made their way into the music history books. Mozart wrote his b-flat minor violin sonata, K. 454, at the request of a female violinist named Regina Strinasacchi Schlick, about whom he declared, “No human being can play with more feeling.” Viotti taught at least two women, one of whom tutored Empress Josephine’s son. Paganini is reputed to have given lessons to a talented youngster from his hometown of Genoa, Italy, named Caterina Calgano. The “sisters Milanollo” – two sisters named Teresa (1827-1904) and Maria (1832-1848) – were prodigies who played the violin together all over Europe in the 1840s. When Maria died at the age of sixteen, the grief-stricken Teresa continued her career as a solo violinist. Still, despite these and other contributions by female string players, it was generally considered strange for a woman to play the violin, and there were no women virtuosos to speak of who could stand in comparison with the best of men.

Into this prejudiced musical climate, a little girl named Wilhelmine Maria Franziska Neruda was born in Brno, now in the Czech Republic, sometime between 1838 and 1840 (as with many prodigies, there are conflicting reports over the year of her birth). Music surrounded little Wilma from the beginning; her father Josef was the organist at the Brno cathedral, and her ancestors had a local reputation of being exceptionally musical. At least five of her siblings showed extraordinary musical promise from a very early age: all were prodigies, and all went on to become professional musicians – Olga and Amalie on the piano, Viktor and Franz on the cello, and Marie on the violin.

Shortly before her fourth birthday, Wilma began to show an interest in the violin. Her father, alarmed at her preference for such an unfeminine instrument, directed her to the piano instead. But, as one 1899 article in a Toronto newspaper delicately put it, “She had a most cordial dislike for the piano, regarding it as an instrument of limitations.” Josef had been teaching one of his sons to play the violin, and one day Wilma got a hold of it. She began playing in secret, resolving that if nobody was going to teach her how to play, she would just do it herself. When she was discovered, instead of disciplining her, Josef relented and began to give his persistent daughter lessons. Much to his astonishment, she caught on more quickly than her brother. By the time she was six, Josef sent Wilma to Vienna, where she studied under Leopold Jansa, a famous Bohemian violinist. Wilma Neruda proved to be one of his two most famous pupils; the other was the violinist and composer Karl Goldmark.

In 1846 Wilma Neruda made her public debut in Vienna, accompanied by her pianist sister Amalie. Shortly afterward their father took them on a concert tour across Europe, along with their cellist brother Viktor. Wilma quickly emerged as the star. In April of 1849 the family gave their London debut. Wilma playing Vieuxtemps’s Arpeggio and Ernst’s Carnival of Venice variations, with Amalie and Viktor accompanying. (Little did she know that when she grew up she would play Ernst’s Stradivari.) Their two concerts were so successful that the family was re-engaged for sixteen more. At these later concerts she played a de Bériot concerto and Vieuxtemps’s Yankee Doodle Variations, as well as a composition entitled “God Save the Queen” – as composed by herself! The critics raved over her intonation and bowing; her up and down bow staccato were said to be some of the cleanest the London critics had heard.

In June of that year she gave yet another concert in England, playing another de Bériot concerto. A Mr. Chorley, from the Athenaeum magazine, wrote in a lukewarm review:

Mdlle. Wilhlemine Neruda – whom we may name since there is small chance of our remarks reaching her painfully – has been capitally trained – and may, in time, emulate those more distinguished girl-violinists, the sisters Milanollo; but childish curiosity and indulgent applause – were they not destructive to their victim – are not the emotions to excite which the Philharmonic Concerts were founded.

Chorley ostensibly claimed to object to Wilma’s appearance because she was a flashy prodigy as opposed to than a full-fledged performing artist, but he was concealing the fact that he was one of the many people who were hostile to the idea of women performers. A few decades later, after Wilma had established a commanding international career, and other women were following suit, he famously complained in the press that “The fair sex are encroaching on all men’s privileges.” Thankfully, as Wilma grew up, such views slowly but surely became more and more unfashionable. Wilma Neruda – along with the Milanollo sisters and another female violinist named Camilla Urso (1842-1902) – were gradually helping to reshape ideas about the appropriateness of the violin for ladies. Although audiences were skeptical at the idea at first, the more they saw women violinists perform, the less threatening they became. It seemed to them that women who had devoted their lives to the violin were not any less feminine than those who hadn’t. It was an uphill struggle, but the battle against prejudice had begun.

In 1852 Wilma and her family arrived in Moscow to give a series of concerts. For one of them, she played in the same concert with the seventeen-year-old prodigy Henryk Wieniawski. After Wilma’s performance, Henri Vieuxtemps came onstage to present her with a bouquet of flowers while the enthusiastic audience gave her a standing ovation. Wieniawski became jealous of Wilma’s great triumph and elbowed his way back onstage, loudly insisting that he was the better violinist and offering to prove it. Outraged audience members clambered up onto the stage to quiet him, but this only angered him more. When a Russian general came to reason with him, Wieniawski prodded him with his bow and ordered him to be quiet. Harassing a member of the military in such a fashion was no small offense in Imperial Russia, and Wieniawski was ordered to leave Moscow within twenty-four hours. His punishment could easily have been much worse. It is strange to think that Wieniawski may have been injured or killed, and his subsequent contributions to violin music lost, over such a trivial scuffle. Despite the insult Wieniawski had paid her, Wilma played his compositions throughout her life. One wonders if every time she pulled out the sheet music she remembered the commotion she had set off in Moscow.

In 1859, at the age of twenty, Wilma became the first violinist in a group known as the Neruda Quartet, comprised of various Neruda children. While touring together, Wilma and her sister Maria met a wide variety of famous Europeans, including Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark in 1862. Sometime during her travels, Wilma met a Swede named Frederick Wilhlem Ludwig Norman. He was a conductor and composer, remembered today as one of the great Swedish symphonists of the late nineteenth century. He had known Robert Schumann during his student days in Leipzig and was now a teacher at the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm. Wilma and Ludwig fell in love and married in 1864. Their first child, Ludwig, was born in November 1864, and their second, Felix, was born in May of 1866.

Marriage and pregnancy almost always spelled an end to female musicians’ careers in the Victorian era. Wilma’s contemporary, the violinist Camilla Urso, counseled all serious female musicians to never get married because she felt they wouldn’t be able to balance their personal and professional lives. In an age before birth control, when it was common for women to bear over ten children, this was a legitimate concern. However, Clara Schumann, the remarkable concert pianist who had raised eight children while successfully concertizing throughout Europe, had proved to the world that marriage and a career were not necessarily incompatible. Wilma was intimately familiar with her example, as her pianist sister had studied with Clara. Not many women were willing to follow Clara’s lead, but Wilma was one of the few who did. Even after she had her two boys, she kept on playing and touring. The only difference was that now, instead of appearing as the diminutive “Wilma Neruda” she was the commanding “Madame Norman-Neruda.” Interestingly her sons also took her hyphenated name, so that they were known as Felix and Ludwig Norman-Neruda. Whether that was because of a quarrel with their father, to bask in their mother’s professional success, or for another reason altogether, is unknown.

Unfortunately Ludwig and Wilma’s marriage was not a happy one. Although they never divorced (Wilma was Catholic), they did eventually part ways. Wilma did not hide the fact that she was separated from her husband from the press; the fact was often mentioned in contemporary music biographies of her.

Wilma kept up her extraordinary work throughout the 1870s, playing concerti by Mendelssohn, Spohr, Wieniawski, Beethoven, and others, as well as various demanding sonatas and showpieces. She continued to gain the respect of her male colleagues; in the late 1870s, the great Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate dedicated his Romanza Andaluza and Jota Navarra to Wilma.

Playing the violin, however, was only a small part of her overall workload. It has to be remembered that in those days, there were no travel agents making arrangements for musicians. Virtuosos themselves often communicated directly with orchestras to arrange their programs. And not only did they have to determine their own programs, they also had to know who was playing what concerto in various cities across Europe, so that they would not play a piece that had just been performed. There is a fascinating letter in the UK National Archives written to a concert manager in Holland in which Wilma suggests a program for her upcoming tour there. She gave the manager two programs to choose from: first, the twenty-second concerto of Viotti or the eighth concerto of Spohr, paired with the second two movements of the first Vieuxtemps concerto; or second, the slow movement from Spohr’s ninth concerto or Beethoven’s Romance in F, paired with the Mendelssohn concerto – that is, unless Joachim has recently played the Mendelssohn in Amsterdam, as she knew he had recently visited there. It must have taken extraordinary energy to keep up that kind of correspondence with the concert managers of Europe, as well as keep in shape technically, all while raising her children.

During this busy time she often collaborated with her multiple musical siblings. In one concert program in London in 1875 she played first violin in a trio by Bargiel; two pieces by Schumann rearranged for two violins and cello (with Wilma and her sister Maria, now married and known as “Madame Arlberg-Neruda” on violin, and her brother Franz on cello); and finally, to wrap things up, the Schumann E-flat quintet, with Charles Hallé on the piano and Franz on cello.

Wilma Norman-Neruda with her male colleagues, leading the Monday Popular Concerts string quartet

Wilma was the first woman violinist to play chamber music professionally with men. Vieuxtemps – the same violinist who had given her the bouquet of flowers in Moscow, much to Wieniawski’s dismay – suggested in the early 1870s that she lead the fashionable Monday Popular Concerts quartet in London. She was hesitant to accept the offer, but, encouraged by Vieuxtemps, she finally consented. Her concerts there were great triumphs, at which she played everything from Beethoven to Mozart to Cherubini to the Dvorak Quintet. Elsewhere in London she performed Grieg’s violin sonatas with the composer himself at the piano, and in the 1890s she played the Bach double violin concerto with no less a partner than Joseph Joachim, possibly the greatest violinist of the era. It must have been a thrill for their listeners to see the two on the same stage, as Wilma was often compared to him in the press. He once said, “Mark this, when people have given her a fair hearing, they will think more of her and less of me.”

Hush! The Concert, by James Tissot, 1875. The woman in the picture is widely thought to be Wilma Norman-Neruda.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the stigma attached to female violinists gradually began to fade. In fact, Wilma and Camilla Urso both inspired thousands of young girls to take up the instrument, to the point where it became downright fashionable for a girl to play the violin. The press likened her to a female St. George, slaying the dragon of prejudice. By 1890 she was able to reminisce to Oscar Wilde’s magazine The Woman’s World, “When I first came to London [in 1869], I was surprised to find that it was thought almost improper, certainly unladylike, for a woman to play on the violin. In Germany the thing was quite common and excited no comment. I could not understand – it seemed so absurd – why people thought so differently here. Whenever in society I hear a young lady tuning a violin I think of…the reproachful curiosity with which the people at first regarded my playing.” Male reporters at magazines and newspapers recorded their astonishment at just how many young girls were taking up stringed instruments. In the Contemporary Review, one writer named H.R. Hawes went so far as to say, “A beautiful girl playing on a beautiful violin is the most beautiful thing in the world” and “Surely the violin is made for woman, and woman is made for the violin.” He went on to say:

The barrier which for long, in spite of St. Cecilia and the angels, warned off women from violins, in the name of all that was feminine, no longer exists. Indeed, within the last twenty-five years, we have been afflicted with a girl-violin mania. School misses before they are in their teens clamour to learn the violin. It is a common sight in London to see maidens of all ages laden with fiddles of all sizes, their music rolls strapped tightly to the cases, hurrying to the underground railway, or hailing the omnibus or cab in Oxford Street, Regent Street, and Bond Street. Then the Royal Academy, Royal College, Guildhall class-rooms are choked with violin-girls, and no ladies’ seminary is now complete without the violin tutor. Women have already invaded orchestras, and at least one celebrated amateur society can boast of nothing but lady players, whilst the profession as regards soloists divides its honours pretty equally between male and female virtuosi.

There was also a more practical reason that Hawes never touched upon why the violin was becoming more and more popular among women. Since they were large and relatively expensive, and a family had to have a certain amount of space and money to own them, pianos and harps had become the hallmark of domesticity and the middle-class. But as the middle-class grew, and more and more women began to play the piano, its novelty factor began to wear thin. (In the 1890s the magazine Punch ran a satirical cartoon that depicts a newly hired maid directing movers where to put her piano, while her mistress looks on in dismay.) Thanks to the example of female performers like Wilma and Camilla Urso, and women’s desire to play an instrument that would make them stand out from the crowd, more and more ladies began taking the violin seriously. A sort of snowball effect began taking place, and scores of women became violinists. Wilma was the undisputed queen of them all.

Wilma grew so beloved in Britain that, in 1887, when Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Wilma’s name was the first violinist’s name to come to mind when he wanted to send Holmes to a violin recital during his investigation. Holmes – a talented violinist himself – came back from the concert and raved over her bow arm. Today, despite all of her other achievements, she is probably most famous for that singular fictional appearance!

In 1885 Ludwig Norman died, leaving his estranged wife a widow. Three years later Wilma married Charles Hallé, who had been widowed himself in 1866. Hallé was a formidable pianist (he was the first pianist to play a complete Beethoven sonata cycle in England) and conductor (he was the founder and first conductor of the famous Hallé Orchestra in Manchester; it is now the fourth oldest orchestra in the world). Wilma and Charles’s paths had crossed for the first time in May of 1849 when the Neruda children had performed at one of Charles Hallé’s Gentleman’s Society concerts; Wilma had been a ten-year-old prodigy and Charles a thirty-year-old conductor. Ever since that first performance they had kept in touch and had often performed with one another. A few months after they were married, Charles was knighted for his musical services to the Empire. Wilma accordingly became Lady Hallé, the name she is most often remembered by today. Together they gave a wide variety of concerts, ranging from chamber music to concerto work. A few years after their marriage, Charles established the Royal Manchester College of Music after decades of dreaming about the project. Although it is unclear if Wilma was on the faculty, her pianist sister Olga was invited to join the staff. Olga worked in Manchester, teaching and performing, until her retirement in 1908.

 Charles Hallé, Wilma’s second husband and lifelong musical partner

In 1890, Wilma and Charles embarked on a tour of Australia, then widely considered by the English to be a wild frontier land. In 1895 they toured South Africa. In his memoirs Charles Hallé recalled one concert where he and Wilma performed the Kreutzer sonata by Beethoven at a municipal concert. There were to be a few numbers both before and after Charles and Wilma took the stage. After they had finished and acknowledged the thunderous applause, a member of the audience came forward and suggested that the rest of the performances be canceled, saying that the Hallés had played so perfectly there was no point in continuing. The rest of the audience quickly acquiesced and the concert was finished. Later, a thousand South African natives assembled to dance war dances and sing in Wilma’s honor.

Tragically, a few weeks after they returned from their monumental South African tour, Charles Hallé died suddenly after an illness of only a few hours. Three years later, Wilma’s son, Ludwig Norman-Neruda, now a famous mountain-climber, died after a fall on a hike in the Alps. Never one to avoid work, even in times of personal turmoil, Wilma embarked on an ambitious tour of the United States and Canada the next year. She ascended each concert podium dressed entirely in black in memory of her son (and perhaps her husband, too).

A Toronto reviewer raved:

The programme she gave last night was an old-fashioned one, with the rarely seen names of Tartini and Spohr upon it; men who were at once brilliant composers, and, the former in the 18th century, the latter in the 19th, exponents of the classic school of violin playing. Lady Hallé, in these days of the strenuous emotionalists, stands almost alone as a representative of the serene and exquisite methods of the old school. Her hand, despite its sixty years, seems as pliant as a girl’s, and sure as clockwork. Her facility is amazing, and her technique beyond what is ordinarily assumed to be perfection. Withal she possesses extraordinary magnetism… Her final numbers were a berceuse of Slavic Colour, composed by her brother Franz, and played with the mute: and a florid number by Bazzini, “La Ronde des lutins.” Technically, this was her crowning number. Her harmonics were as sweet and liquid as a bird’s song: her rapid pizzicati work was amazing, and her staccato passages were marvelously clean. In short, Lady Hallé is an artiste who compels superlatives.

At the age of sixty, Wilma announced her retirement and intention to teach music in Berlin. Although the majority of her performing career was over, she was still greatly beloved by the public. In 1901, in recognition of her many achievements in music, Queen Alexandra bestowed upon her the honorary title of “Violinist to the Queen.” A coalition of royal families came together – among them the royal families of England, Sweden, and Denmark – and presented her with the keys to a palazzo outside of Venice. In 1907 she played at the memorial concert after the death of Joseph Joachim, the violinist to whom she had been so often compared throughout her lifetime.

Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, later Lady Hallé

Wilma died of pneumonia in Berlin in 1911. She was seventy-two. Although musicians mourned her loss, they also celebrated her extraordinary life and achievements. Thanks in large part to her example, women across the world began to take up the violin in ever-increasing numbers. The next generation of violin virtuosos had a much higher percentage of women, all of whom accomplished amazing things in their own right: Marie Soldat (1863/4 – 1955), a protégé of Brahms and a fierce exponent of his violin concerto; Gabriele Wietrowitz (1866 – ?), one of Joachim’s most distinguished students and founder of a widely acclaimed ladies string quartet (few know that Brahms’s violin concerto came to prominence largely because of the championing Soldat and Wietrowitz did of it); Maud Powell (1867 – 1920), who was not just the first great female violinist from America, but the first great violinist from America, period; Teresina Tua (1867 – 1955/56), who drew audiences to concerts by wearing diamonds and jewels on her extravagant gowns; Irma Saenger-Sethe (1876 – 1958), a student of Ysaye’s who served as his substitute at the Brussels Conservatory when he was away traveling; Leonora Jackson (1879 – 1969), an American violinist whose patroness was First Lady Frances Cleveland; Marie Hall (1884 – 1956), the dedicatee of Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending and the first person to ever record the Elgar concerto; Kathleen Parlow (1890 – 1963), one of the first great instrumentalists from Canada and one of Auer’s first North American students; Jelly d’Aranyi (1895 – 1966), the dedicatee of Tzigane and the two sonatas of Bartók…

And the list goes on and on.

It’s tragic that historians have largely forgotten the tremendous contributions of Wilma Norman-Neruda and the women who followed in her footsteps. Without their hard work, we modern-day listeners would regard the playing of such phenomenally talented women like Hilary Hahn, Sarah Chang, and Julia Fischer in a very different way. Not to mention the many women – soloists, orchestral players, chamber players, and amateurs – who might not have taken up the violin if there had been an “unfeminine” stigma associated with it. Perhaps a day is coming when these extraordinary women who trail-blazed for the rest of us can be properly remembered, honored, and celebrated by a wider audience of music-lovers.


Filed under My Writing, Women Violinists

8 responses to “Wilma Norman-Neruda And A Short History of Female Violinists

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  3. John Keefe

    Enjoyed you brief history which I stumbled upon, while searching for a violinist name.

    PS. I was trying to run down a recording of Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s Romance for violin and orchestra that I had recorded years ago on WFMT.
    Karl Haas’s introduces the violinist and I can’t make out the name as it is at the beginning or the tape but it sounds like “Mela Peru”. Do you know who she is or anything of this performer. I have destroyed the tape through repetitive playing and find her rendition superior to others I have listened to.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

      I’m very sorry I don’t know any violinist named Mela Peru. The closest thing is Maud Powell but she didn’t make any recordings of that piece to the best of my knowledge (and radio stations don’t often broadcast recordings from her generation anyway). I’ll keep an eye out though and if I find anything I’ll let you know!

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Kathleen

        Lady Blanche Lindsay, whom you quote, was an amateur violinist herself. There is a portrait of her holding a violin in the National Gallery.

  4. vintagejenta

    Ran across your article while searching for info on 18th century female violinists. I had an inkling there may have been a stigma against female violinists historically, but had no idea the extent to which it went nor any idea about famous female soloists! Thanks for the info.

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