Article: Woman’s Position in the Violin World, 1901

Every once and a while I come across historic articles that speak about the trend of women playing the violin in general. At least in my online research, they’re not as common as you might think. I just came across a fantastic website of digitized Etude magazines. Particularly awesome is a women’s issue from September 1901. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but I just had to share this article, entitled “Woman’s Position in the Violin World”…which includes a much-coveted discussion about women playing the violin. Hurrah! Speaking from a modern perspective, it’s interesting to see how male violinists were perceived. This is a bit scandalous to say, but more than once the thought has crossed my mind that Victorians were often sexist…against men. In this article alone they are assumed to lack tenaciousness, steadfastness, and morality, among other things. Is it fair to say the sexism sometimes went both ways? … I think it is.

As an aside, it’s interesting to go through the covers, keeping an eye out for what roles women are playing. In the early years, they start out solely as passive listeners listening to men performing, or as accompanists for men, or as pianists in a domestic setting. Then in August 1910 Maud Powell and Cecile Chaminade and some other women are on the cover…with men. Jenny Lind makes an appearance in December 1913. In February 1920 a woman finally appears with a violin in a full-cover image (and it’s about time). In March 1921, a professional piano student appears in “the Master’s Studio.” In December 1922, there’s a really striking image of a woman in a fancy gown playing a violin concerto; it’s captioned “Her Hour of Triumph.” (You go, girl!) A liberated flapper who is terrorizing her old teacher with jazz makes an appearance in August 1926 in a cover entitled “The Jazzo-Maniac And Her Victim.” Because that jazz is seriously frightening stuff. Have you heard what Gershwin’s writing nowadays? … And then there’s October 1931‘s cover, which consists of a man and a woman, he playing piano and she playing violin. Apparently it is set in a fantasy decade in which women wore dresses from the Civil War and wore flapper bobs, and men wore outfits from the Regency period (and lipstick, apparently). But the sentiment of the image is nice, leastways; it’s captioned “Perfect Harmony.” It’s a pretty shocking transition to see in the space of twenty years, to say the least. (For additional images of women on the cover of Etude, check out November 1932, October 1933, September 1936, August 1939, January 1940, January 1946, September 1948, and August 1954.)

Anyway, here’s the article I was talking about. Expect to see more Etude articles as I get the chance to scout around the website more.

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About sixty years ago two young Italian girls, Teresa and Maria Milanolla, astounded European audiences with their beautiful violin-playing. They had been trained by the best virtuosi of their day, and their instrumental abilities, coupled with their youth and their charming personality, easily won the hearts of all music-lovers who had the privilege of hearing them play. Teresa, the elder of the gifted sisters, was born August 18, 1827; Maria was born June 18, 1832, and received her earliest instruction from her sister. Marvelous as it may seem to those who, in mature years, are still struggling with comparatively simple problems of violin-playing, these two Italian children were, in 1840, so far advanced in their art that they were enabled to appear with uncommon success on the concert-platforms of Germany, England, Belgium, Holland, and France. Maria’s untimely death (at Paris, October 21, 1848) greatly affected her sister’s artistic career; and though, after a long period of retirement, Teresa resumed her work as a concert-violinist, she was not heard in public later than 1857.

It may come as a surprise to those who associate woman and the violin with the “innovations” of quite recent years, that two young girls should have achieved success as violinists so long ago as did the Milanolla sisters, for it is hardly more than thirty years ago that the girl, more especially the American girl, who appeared in the street with a violin under her arm was generally regarded as a new, if not ridiculous, species of feminity. Little more than a quarter of a century ago violin-playing was hardly considered an “elegant” accomplishment for any young lady. Indeed, most parents had very decided views on this question, and they did everything in their power to discourage, rather than encourage, their daughters in a field of art which seemed to them to promise only social degradation. The ignominy attached to the ancient usuage of “fiddler” had not yet entirely lost its force. It was surely bad enough for a man to be a fiddler; but the mere thought of a refined young gentlewoman playing the violin, either in private or in public, was, indeed, intolerable.

Nowadays all this is changed. Narrow prejudices of earlier days have given place to common-sense appreciation. Ignorance of art-matters in general (in this country), and of the high position in musical art occupied by violin-playing, is wholly a condition of the past. Musical knowledge and a wider general culture have superseded ignorance and the most puerile conceptions of feminine refinement and social dignity. Briefly, society’s attitude toward the woman violinist is so completely metamorphosed that a young girl, possessed of neither wealth nor great physical or mental charms, but capable of playing the violin tolerably well, is strongly fortified for social and even material success. And for the young violiniste who is possessed of marked artistic ability in conjunction with pleasing personal attributes, there are absolutely no limitations to social conquest. For her the fiddle opens many a door which remains obdurately closed even to the wealthy. Her fiddle does not plead for her; it commands.

But, it will be asked, what is the woman violinist’s true position in the world of musical art? Ah, that is an entirely different question. Many stern, unyielding critics of to-day refuse to believe that a woman is capable of achieving greatness as a player of the violin. These critics, both professional and amateur, concede woman’s fitness to accomplish agreeable things as players of the king of instruments, but they are unwilling to believe that she possesses either the mental qualifications or the physical strength and endurance to enable her successfully to compete with man in the mastery of violin-technics. Time alone will decide whether these critics are right. But something may be said, even now, both for and against their opinion.

Experience has taught us that woman is, at least in many respects, peculiarly fitted to play the violin, and to play it exceedingly well. The gifted girl has infinitely more tenacity than the average gifted boy. When she is in earnest, her art is an all-governing passion. She applies herself to study with the devotion that characterizes her sex. Her zeal and ambition are steadfast: no petty pleasures could make her unfaithful to her work and her art.

But what shall we say of the average gifted young man? His progress is impeded, his development endangered by a thousand and one unprofitable divertisements. He is not blessed with a fine moral sense of his obligations to himself and his art. Harsh or unjust as such an accusation may seem, a glimpse into the lives of the talented young men who either are studying or have studied at the various European music-schools more than verifies such an unflattering estimate. The whole manner of life and thought of the gifted young woman, her sense of responsibility, her firm purpose and her nobility of character,—all are in fine agreement with an art which demands from its devotees what is good and true and beautiful.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that, where the higher art of violin-playing is concerned, the average gifted woman labors under certain great disadvantages which too often prove fatal, insurmountable barriers to success. How many are blessed with the physical strength which is necessary to carry them through the long hard years of musical servitude? The limit of their physical endurance is not often commensurate with the demands of their art; and just when the greatest effort is required of them—when their highest musical and instrumental possibilities are dependent upon a continuance, if not an increase, of energy and vitality—they fail to put forth the requisite strength, and stop far short of their aspirations.

Then, again (and here we touch on delicate and dangerous ground), in the art of violin-playing, as in all the other arts, woman is, according to her critics, deficient in originality, and weak in her intellectual grasp of the greater compositions. Whatever there may be of truth or injustice in such an estimate of woman, this is assuredly not the place to attempt to verify or disprove our critics’ conclusion. It is true that many women violinists now before the public prove themselves to be clever imitators rather than original players. They shun all compositions which make serious demands on the intellect, and their repertoire may be said to consist of superficial nothings. But it is equally true that we have had, and still have, violinistes who play such concertos as the Beethoven and the Brahms with as little hesitancy as could be expected of any man. How well or ill they succeed in such bold attempts, however, is a question which elsewhere may be discussed with greater profit than here. Let us rather view the work and personality of a few of the best women violinists of the present day and the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Lady Halle.

Few violinists have had a more brilliant career than Lady Hallé, better known in the musical world as Wilhelmina Normann-Neruda. Few have better merited success than this distinguished artiste; few have retained their powers as concert-players throughout so great a number of years. Born at Brünn, March 21, 1839, Lady Hallé must look backward fully half a century to recall her earliest triumphs. Hardly more than two years have elapsed, however, since she visited the United States and demonstrated to thousands of intelligent admirers how well deserved was her European reputation. The freshness and purity of her style were as delightful as of yore, her technical equipment was most admirable and never betrayed her years. Indeed, her listeners found it no easy matter to believe that she was not in the first flush of womanhood and artistic strength.

It is more than twenty years ago since I first had the pleasure of hearing Lady Hallé play. Though possessed of only a boy’s imperfect musical judgment, I remember well how deeply her beautiful qualities impressed me. More especially do I remember her staccato work in the last movement of Vieuxtemps’s E-major concerto. Its wonderful crispness and rapidity were a revelation to me.

Lady Hallé is a highly-polished, exceedingly brilliant player, thoroughly at ease in all compositions of the virtuoso school; but to designate her as a virtuoso, implying thereby that her gifts and attainments are of an instrumental rather than musical order, would be a serious belittlement of her knowledge and her art. She has always been an earnest player, fortunate in her ability to play bravura pieces and compositions which demand intellectuality equally well. Her teacher, Leopold Jansa, who was far greater skilled as a quartet player than a soloist, early inspired in her a love for chamber-music, with the result that Lady Halle’s musical development kept pace with her budding virtuosity. Though the reputation she has earned is that of soloist, she has frequently appeared in public in London in conjunction with the quartet concerts given in that city for many years by Joachim.

Lady Hallé’s career as a soloist is necessarily approaching its termination; but that her musical and instrumental vitality have not yet departed, and that her abilities justify a continuance of her public work, her comparatively recent visit to the United States proved beyond a doubt. When Lady Hallé returned to Europe from this trip, she took up her residence in Berlin, where she has since been engaged in teaching the art she so nobly represents.

Camilla Urso.

In what may be termed New York’s premusical days, when Alboni and Sontag thrilled American audiences with their vocal art, there appeared in New York a young girl, a mere child of ten, who astounded musicians and music-lovers with her remarkable violin-playing. That Camilla Urso, the prodigy, gradually developed into the serious-minded and highly-accomplished artiste is a fact of which no one familiar with our musical history of the past forty years requires reminder, for since those early days, when the little wonder-girl achieved her first American triumphs at the concerts of Alboni and Sontag, her name has been closely associated with many of our most noteworthy musical ventures.

Camilla Urso was born at Nantes, France, in 1842. She had the good fortune to receive her instrumental training under Massart, that wonderful pedagogue to whom so many brilliant violinists are indebted for their artistry. As early as 1852 she came to the United States, accompanied by her father, practically making in this country the beginning of her artistic career. Shortly after this first successful trip she returned with her father to Europe, and devoted the next ten years or more to conscientious study and the achievement of a European reputation. Then she revisited the United States, and finally concluded to make this country her future home.

It is a much-to-be-regretted fact that the work of so accomplished an artiste as Camilla Urso has not had commensurate material reward. In this respect, at least, the gods have certainly been less kind to her than she deserved, and when, but a few years since, an enterprizing proprietor of vaudeville theaters made to her what seemed a brilliant offer, she was severely criticised in many quarters for accepting this opportunity of redeeming her broken fortunes. Without attempting to set up a logical defense of the position which she took in this unfortunate affair, it should be said, in all fairness, that she deserved the widest sympathy rather than the condemnation of her thoughtless critics.

Camilla Urso’s playing has always been characterized by uncommon digital ability, an exceedingly dexterous wrist, and that fine finish which is almost invariably the product of the school in which she was trained. About ten years ago she met with a mishap in New York, and for a time it seemed as though she would not recover sufficiently to resume professional work. As it was, her wrist remained affected, and certain bowings, particularly staccato, remain constant reminders of her accident.

 Teresina Tua.

It would be difficult to imagine a more charming and captivating violiniste than was Teresina Tua in the early eighties. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that both her personality and her art entranced all Europe. Her exceeding loveliness of face and form bewitched her audiences before they heard her play, and it was not long before she was known throughout Europe as “Die Geigenfee” (the violin fairy).

Surely it will always be deplored by all who heard her play in those days—myself among the number—that Teresina Tua’s career was so metorically brief. Comparatively few people are familiar with the unfortunate circumstances which, in reality, had the effect of abruptly terminating her public work. Her sudden retirement from public life, at a time when she gave such splendid promise of future greatness, will always remain an enigma to the majority of her admirers.

Teresina Tua was born in Turin, Italy, May 22, 1867. When only thirteen years of age she received the first prize at the Paris Conservatory. Like so many other players, she owed the development of her remarkable gifts to the genius and faithful guidance of Massart. Under this master her talents ripened so rapidly that, in 1880, she played an ample repertoire of concertos and solo pieces with an artistic perfection which almost defied criticism. Everywhere she played she was the idol of the day. In 1882 she made her first concert-trip through Germany; and in orthodox old Leipzig, as well as in the home of Joseph Joachim, the beautiful Italian girl’s playing created nothing less than a sensation.

Teresina Tua’s visit to the United States, in 1887, proved the first in a series of misfortunes which resulted in her retirement to private life. Feeble health, combined with wretched mismanagement, destroyed all possibilities of success in the United States. What should have been a most brilliant and profitable season proved only a dismal fiasco. She appeared at few concerts, and the critics, as well as the public, withheld from her the homage to which she had grown accustomed. She returned to Europe quite disheartened, if not embittered, with her experience in America, and not long after she decided to abandon the concert-stage altogether. Leaving the scenes of her many triumphs, she returned to Italy, where, several years later, she married an Italian nobleman. Several times it has been rumored that she would re-enter public life, but she has doubtless preferred domestic peace and happiness to the trials and tribulations incident to a public career.

 Maud Powell.

It seems as though it were but yesterday that a little American girl came soberly walking toward the old conservatory, a fiddle tucked under her arm, and resolution plainly written on her comely face. Yet twenty years and more have passed away since then, and the little girl has grown to womanhood and accomplished laudable things. She has more than fulfilled the promise of her childhood, for she has outstripped all her American sisters in the art of violin-playing, and stands to-day the representative woman violinist of the United States.

Miss Powell’s success was not so easily won as that of many of our gifted players. Her career is a striking illustration of the possibilities of earnest endeavor and unfaltering resolution. When she returned to the United States, in 1885, she did not meet with that immediate success which sets all doubts aside; but step by step, year after year, she has risen in the public’s esteem, till her position is at last firmly established and her future success assured.

After a year or more of study at the Leipzig Conservatory Miss Powell decided to go to Paris, feeling that the training of the purely French school was best suited to her needs. But the experiment proved less satisfactory than she had hoped it would; and, after lingering in the French capital for a period of about two years, she betook herself to Berlin, hoping to find in Joachim her ideal of a great pedagogue. But there, too, she was doomed to disappointment. The methods of training pursued at the Berlin Hochschule failed to enlist her sympathies. She did not find at the Hochschule what she had long sought in vain. Nevertheless she decided to remain in Berlin, and during her comparatively brief stay she remained true to her purpose to succeed, and continued her work under Joachim as a painstaking and industrious student.

It must be confessed that when Miss Powell left the Hochschule her playing was crude and immature, revealing none of the admirable qualities which now strongly characterize her work. She had, it is true, a certain degree of technical ability which enabled her to play important compositions with reasonable accuracy; but beyond this there was little in her performances that was truly interesting to the intelligent and exacting musician. In those days, however, girl violinists were not as numerous in the United States as they are to-day, and Miss Powell experienced little or no difficulty in obtaining lucrative engagements.

It was just at this period of her career, during the first few years of success in her native land, that Miss Powell began to reveal those qualities which have since elevated her art. Not content with financial reward and meaningless successes, she applied herself each year more seriously and vigorously to study. The results which she has achieved prove not only a justification of her early self-confidence, but they prove also how important a factor in success is dogged perseverance.

Miss Powell’s abilities are sure to command respect wherever she may play. Her reappearance in the United States last season, after an absence in Europe of several years, materially assisted in strengthening her position both at home and abroad. She has again returned to Europe, where, it is hoped, she will repeat her successes of recent years.

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