Here is a fascinating chapter on female violinists from the book (take a deep breath!) The Violin: Some Account of That Leading Instrument, And Its Most Eminent Professors, From Its Earliest Date to the Present Time; With Hints to Amateurs, Anecdotes, Etc., by music writer George Dubourg (1799-1882). It was published in London in 1852 and, considering the era in which it was written, is a surprisingly liberal text. Dubourg had a prophetic viewpoint that women were just as capable of becoming great violinists as men were, and his spunky, spirited defense of his opinion makes for a highly enjoyable read. Wilma Norman-Neruda and Camilla Urso were both about twelve years old when this edition of The Violin was published, and they were just on the verge of proving Dubourg’s thesis right. No doubt in his later years he regarded their careers with satisfaction.
“Place aux dames!”
[This section of the Work, which should have formed Chapter VIII, having been accidentally omitted in the printing [(Emily: *eyebrow raise*)], there remained no other course than, either to insert it here (as is actually done), or, by a dismissal utterly at variance with the laws of gallantry and of justice, to exclude it altogether, and so to debar the fairer portion of the community from all participation in the honours connected with the “King of Instruments” – an idea not to be for a moment entertained. If, in this volume, as in a campaigning army, the ladies find themselves placed altogether in the rear – let them attribute the position, in this case as in that, to any-thing but disrespect.]
Instead of a bow-arm, must ladies be allowed only the arm of a beau? Why should not a lady play on the Violin? The common objection is, that it is ungraceful. The ladies in Boccaccio’s Decameron, however – and who shall charge them with want of grace? – played on the viol, a bowed instrument requiring from the performer a similar position and handling to those exacted by the violin. If this latter instrument, considered in relation to a lady, should be admitted to be somewhat deficient in grace, – has not the lady, out of the overflowing abundance of this quality, which is her sex’s characteristic, some of it to spare for communication to the instrument? Can she not impart some of it to whatsoever object she chooses to associate with herself? Surely, she who can transform the rudest of beings from a bear to a man, and from a man to a gentleman, can lend a few spare charms to so grateful a receiver as the fiddle, which is found to repay in so eloquent a manner the attentions bestowed on it. But if the doubters continue to shake their heads at this, I would ask them whether, after all, we are to expect grace in every act and habit of a lady’s life, and call on her to reject every thing that may be thought inconsistent with it? Our modern respected fair one may, like Eve, have “heaven in her eye;” but really, looking at some of the offices which we are content to thrust upon her, it seems rather too much to insist that she shall also, like our original mother, have “grace in all her movements.” Is there grace in making a pie, or cutting bread and butter, or darning a stocking? If we have grace in the effect, shall we be rigid to require it in the means also? Now, the grace which belongs to violin-playing is audible rather than visible, residing in the effect more than in the means: nor ought we to be such cormorants of pleasure, as to demand that the person who is filling our ears with rapture, shall, at the same time, be enchanting to the utmost our eyes. If, then, a lady, full of soul and intelligence, is capable of expressing these through the fine medium which this instrument offers, should she be debarred from it, and restricted perhaps to the harp, because, forsooth, the grace that is merely external is found most in association with the latter? Let us only be reasonable enough to be satisfied, on principle, with the delicious effect that visits us through the ears, and we shall then give no hyper-critical heed to the rapid action of a lady’s arm in a presto movement, or to the depression of her head in holding the instrument; nor shall we continue to demand, with a pertinacity more nice than wise, that a feminine fiddler be
“Graceful as Dian when she draws her bow.”
That exquisite sensibility which is one distinguishing charm of the female character, has its fittest musical exponent in the powers of the violin, which, therefore, in this particular sense, might even be styled the women’s own instrument: but, without going so far as this, there seems no sufficient reason why it should not, occasionally, be honored by figuring in the hands of the fair. Should these defensive remarks, however, be found unsatisfactory by your anti-women’s-playing-the-violin-at-all sort of people, I have nothing farther to say to them, but leave them to quote, undisturbed, their “quae sunt virorum, mascula dicas,” &c. For my own part, I think so highly both of the ladies and the violin, that I rejoice at every opportunity of their being introduced to each other, and am delighted to know that, from time to time, certain clever and spirited women have been found ready to overcome the prejudices that have so long kept them asunder. Let us by all means enquire who these are.
A very high name meets us at the outset of our investigation – no less a one than that of QUEEN ELIZABETH. This exalted personage, who is recorded to have been musical “so far forth as might become a princess,” appears to have amused herself not only with the lute, the virginals, and her own voice, but with the violin. An instrument of this denomination, of the old and imperfect fashion, but splendidly “got up,” has been traced to her possession. If any particulars of Her Majesty’s style of performance could now be obtained, it would doubtless be found that she displayed, in no common degree, what is called “a powerful bow-arm”, but that she neglected the “sweet little touches” that give delicacy to execution.
To arrive at instances nearer to our own time, let us go at once from the Queen of England to Madame MARA, the Queen of Song. Her first musical studies were directed to the violin. When yet an infant, the little Gertrude Elizabeth Smaling (such was her name) discovered so strong an inclination for the violin, that her father was induced to give her a few lessons on that instrument. Her progress was so rapid, that, as early as her tenth year, she excited the public surprise. It is certain that the development of her vocal powers was not a little aided by this cultivation of an instrument that may be called the friendly rival of the human voice. She herself was known to declare, that, if she had a daughter, she should learn the fiddle before she sang a note; for (as she remarked) how can you convey a just notion of minute variations in the pitch of a note? By a fixed instrument? No! By the voice? No! but, by sliding the fingers upon a string, you instantly make the slightest variations visibly, as well as audibly, perceptible. It was by her early practice of the violin, that this celebrated woman had acquired her wonderful facility of dashing at all musical intervals, however unusual and difficult. She married a violoncellist, of no great capacity, except for drinking.
MADDALENA LOMBARDINI SIRMEN, who united to high accomplishment as a singer such an eminence in violin-playing, as enabled her, in some degree, to rival Nardini, had an almost European reputation towards the end of the last century. She received her first musical instructions at the Conservatory of the Mendicanti at Venice, and then took lessons on the violin from Tartini. About the year 1780, she visited France and England. This feminine artist composed a considerable quantity of violin music, a great part of which was published at Amsterdam. A curious document is extant as a relic of the correspondence between this lady and Tartini. It consists of a preceptive letter from the great master, the original of which, along with a translation by Dr. Burney, was published in London in 1771. From this pamphlet, which is now among the rarities of musical literature, I shall here give the Doctor’s English version of the letter:
“My very much esteemed
“Finding myself at length disengaged from the weighty business which has so long prevented me from performing my promise to you, I shall begin the instructions you wish from me, by letter; and if I should not explain myself with sufficient clearness, I entreat you to tell me your doubts and difficulties, in writing, which I shall not fail to remove in a future letter.
“Your principal practice and study should, at present, be confined to the use and power of the bow, in order to make yourself entirely mistress in the execution and expression of whatever can be played or sung, within the compass and ability of your instrument. Your first study, therefore, should be the true manner of holding, balancing, and pressing the bow lightly, but steadily, upon the strings, in such manner as that it shall seem to breathe the first tone it gives, which must proceed from the friction of the string, and not from percussion, as by a blow given with a hammer upon it. This depends on laying the bow lightly upon the strings, at the first contact, and on gently pressing it afterwards; which, if done gradually, can scarce have too much force given to it – because, if the tone is begun with delicacy, there is little danger of rendering it afterwards either coarse or harsh.
“Of this first contact, and delicate manner of beginning a tone, you should make yourself a perfect mistress, in every situation and part of the bow, as well in the middle as at the extremities; and in moving it up, as well as in drawing it down. To unite all these laborious particulars into one lesson, my advice is, that you first exercise yourself in a swell upon an open string – for example, upon the second, or la: that you begin pianissimo, and increase the tone by slow degrees to its fortissimo; and this study should be equally made, with the motion of the bow up, and down; in which exercise you should spend at least an hour every day, though at different times, a little in the morning, and a little in the evening; having constantly in mind that this practice is, of all others, the most difficult, and the most essential to playing well on the Violin. When you are a perfect mistress of this part of a good performer, a swell will be very easy to you – beginning with the most minute softness, increasing the tone to its loudest degree, and diminishing it to the same point of softness with which you began; and all this in the same stroke of the bow. Every degree of pressure upon the string, which the expression of a note or passage shall require, will, by this means, be easy and certain; and you will be able to execute with your bow whatever you please. After this, in order to acquire that light pulsation and play of the wrist from whence velocity in bowing arises, it will be best for you to practise, every day, one of the allegros, of which there are three, Corelli’s solos, which entirely move in semiquavers. The first is in D, in playing which you should accelerate the motion a little each time, till you arrive at the greatest degree of swiftness possible. But two precautions are necessary in this exercise. The first is, that you play the notes staccato, that is, separate and detached, with a little space between every two, as if there was a rest after each note. The second precaution is, that you first play with the point of the bow and, when that becomes easy to you, that you use that part of it which is between the point and the middle and, when you are likewise mistress of this part of the bow, that you practise in the same manner with the middle of the bow. And, above all, you must remember in these studies, to begin the allegros or flights sometimes with an up-bow, and sometimes with a down-bow, carefully avoiding the habit of constantly practising one way.
“In order to acquire a greater facility of executing swift passages in a light and neat manner, it will be of great use if you accustom yourself to skip over a string between two quick notes in divisions. Of such divisions you may play extempore as many as you please, and in every key, which will be both useful and necessary.
“With regard to the finger-board, or carriage of the left hand, I have one thing strongly to recommend to you, which will suffice for all, and that is the taking a violin part – either the first or second of a concerto, sonata, or song (any thing will serve the purpose) – and playing it upon the half-shift; that is, with the first finger upon G on the first string, and constantly keeping upon this shift, playing the whole piece without moving the hand from this situation, unless A on the fourth string be wanted, or D upon the first; but, in that case, you should afterwards return again to the half-shift, without ever moving the hand down to the natural position. This practise should be continued till you can execute with facility upon the half-shift any violin part, not intended as a solo, at sight. After this, advance the hand on the finger-board to the whole-shift, with the first finger upon A on the first string, and accustom yourself to this position, till you can execute every thing upon the whole shift with as much ease as when the hand is in its natural situation; and when certain of this, advance to the double-shift, with the first finger upon B on the first string. When sure of that likewise, pass to the fourth position of the hand, making C with the first finger, upon the first string: and, indeed, this is a scale in which, when you are firm, you may be said to be mistress of the finger-board. This study is so necessary, that I most earnestly recommend it to your attention.
“I now pass to the third essential part of a good performer on the Violin, which is the making a good shake; and I would have you practise it slowly, moderately fast, and quickly; that is, with the two notes succeeding each other in these three degrees of adagio, andante, and presto; and, in practice, you have great occasion for these different kinds of shakes; for the same shake will not serve with equal propriety for a slow movement as for a quick one. To acquire both at once with the same trouble, begin with an open string – either the first or second, it will be equally useful: sustain the note in a swell, and begin the shake very slowly, increasing in quickness by insensible degrees, till it becomes rapid. You must not rigorously move immediately from semiquavers to demisemiquavers, or from these to the next in degree; that would be doubling the velocity of the shake all at once, which would be a skip, not a gradation; but you can imagine, between a semiquaver and demisemiquaver, intermediate degrees of rapidity, quicker than the one, and slower than the other of these characters. You are, therefore, to increase in velocity, by the same degrees, in practising the shake, as in loudness, when you make a swell.
“You must attentively and assiduously persevere in the practice of this embellishment, and begin at first with an open string, upon which, if you are once able to make a good shake with the first finger, you will, with the greater facility, acquire one with the second, the third, and the fourth or little finger, with which you must practise in a particular manner, as more feeble than the rest of its brethren.
“I shall at present propose no other studies to your application: what I have already said is more than sufficient, if your zeal is equal to my wishes for your improvement. I hope you will sincerely inform me whether I have explained clearly thus far; that you will accept of my respects, which I likewise beg of you to present to the Princess, to Signora Teresa, and to Signora Clara, for all whom I have a sincere regard and believe me to be, with great affection,
“Your obedient and most humble servant,
REGINA SCHLICK, wife of a noted German Violoncellist and Composer, was celebrated under her maiden name of Sacchi, as well as afterwards, for her performance on the violin. She was born at Mantua in 1764, and received her musical education at the Conservatorio Pietà, at Venice. She afterwards passed some years at Paris. This lady was a particular friend of Mozart’s, and, being in Vienna, about the year 1786 solicited the great composer to write something for their joint performance at her concert. With his usual kindness, Mozart promised to comply with her request, and accordingly, composed and arranged in his mind the beautiful Sonata for the piano and violin, in B flat minor with its solemn adagio introduction. But it was necessary to go from mind to matter – that is, to put the combined ideas into visible form, in the usual way. The destined day appeared, and not a note was committed to paper! The anxiety of Madame Schlick became excessive, and at length the earnestness of her entreaties was such, that Mozart could no longer procrastinate. But his favorite and seductive game of billiards came in the way; and it was only the very evening before the concert, that he sent her the manuscript, in order that she might study it by the following afternoon. Happy to obtain the treasure, though so late, she scarcely quitted it for a moment’s repose. The concert commenced: the Court was present, and the rooms were crowded with the rank and fashion of Vienna. The sonata began; the composition was beautiful, and the execution of the two artists perfect in every respect. The audience was all rapture – the applause enthusiastic: but there was one distinguished personage in the room, whose enjoyment exceeded that of a ll the other auditors – the Emperor Joseph II, who, in his box, just over the heads of the performers, using his opera-glass to look at Mozart, perceived that there was nothing upon his music-desk but a sheet of white paper! At the conclusion of the concert, the Emperor beckoned Mozart to his box, and said to him, in a half-whisper, “So, Mozart, you have once again trusted to chance!” – “Yes, your Majesty,” replied the composer, with a smile that was half triumph and half confusion. Had Mozart – not studied – but merely played over, this music once with the lady, it would not have been so wonderful: but he had never even heard the Sonata with the violin*.
* Anecdotes of Mozart, by Frederic Rochlitz.
LOUISE GAUTHEROT, a Frenchwoman, was also distinguished on this instrument. In 1789 and 1790, she performed concertos at the London Oratorios, making great impression by the fine ability she manifested. In referring to this lady’s professional achievements, one of those who refuse to consider violin-playing as “an excellent thing in woman,” has indulged in the following remarks: “It is said, by fabulous writers, that Minerva, happening to look into a stream whilst playing her favorite instrument, the flute, and perceiving the distortion of countenance it occasioned, was so much disgusted, that she cast it away, and dashed it to pieces! Although I would not recommend, to any lady playing on a valuable Cremona fiddle, to follow the example of the goddess, yet it strikes me that, if she is desirous of enrapturing her audience, she should display her talent in a situation where there is only just light enough to make darkness visible.” – Shall we reply, ladies, to a detractor who is forced to seek support for his opinions in “fabulous writers,” and, even then, drags forward that which is no parallel case? Nay, nay, let him pass! Let him retire into the darkness which he so unwarrantably recommends to others!
LUIGIA GERBINI, who ranks among the pupils of Viotti, attained considerable credit as a performer. In 1799, her execution of some violin concertos, between the acts, at the Italian Theatre in Lisbon, was attended with marked success; as were afterwards her vocal exertions at the same Theatre. This lady visited Madrid in 1801; and, some years later, gave evidence of her instrumental talent at some public concerts in London.
SIGNORA PARAVICINI, another pupil of Viotti’s, earned a widely spread fame as a violinist. At Milan, where various fêtes were given in celebration of the battle of Lodi, the wife of Bonaparte was very favorably impressed, during one of these, by the taletns of Madame Paravicini. Josephine, a woman of generosity as well as taste, became the patroness of this lady, engaged her to instruct her son, Eugéne Beauharnois, and afterwards took her to Paris. However, for some reason not publicly known, Madame Paravicini was, after a time, neglected by Josephine; in consequence of which, and of other misfortunes, as to be compelled to live on the money produced by the sale of her wearing-apparel. Driven at last to the utmost exigence, she had no remaining resource, except that of applying to the benevolence of the Italisn then in Paris, who enabled her to redeem her clothes, and return to Milan. There, her abilities again procured her competence and credit. Her performance was much admired also at Vienna, where, in 1827, she
“Flourished her bow, and showed how fame was won.”
According to the report which travelled in her favour from thence, she evinced a full and pure tone – a touch posessing the solidity and decision of the excellent school in which were formed a Kreutzer and a Lafont – and a mode of bowing so graceful, as to triumph over all preconceived ideas of the awkwardness of the instrument in a female hand. Madame Paracivini, in the course of her professional migrations, was performing at Bologna in the year 1832.
CATARINA CALCAGNO, born at Genoa in 1797, received, as a child, some instructions from the potential Paganini; and, at the age of fifteen, astonished Italy by the fearless freedom of her play – but seems to have left no traces of her career, beyond the year 1816.
Madame KRAHMEN, in 1824, executed a violin concerto of Viotti’s, with great spirit and effect, at a concert in Vienna. At Prague, in the same year, a young lady named SCHULZ gave public delight as a violin performer. Mademoiselle ELEANORA NEUMANN, of Moscow, pupil of Professor Morandi, also astonished the public in like manner at Prague, and at Vienna, when she had scarcely reached her tenth year! She is said to have treated the instrument with great effect, and with a precision and purity of tone not always to be found in those “children of larger growth” who are content to substitute feats of skill, in place of these essential requisites.
Madame FILIPOWICZ, of Polish derivation, has given us evidence, in London, not many years since, of the success with which feminine sway may be exercised over the most difficult of instruments.
The instances I have thus brought forward will probably be deemed sufficient – else were it easy to go backward again in date, and to mention Horace Walpole’s visit to St. Cyr, in one of the apartments of which serious establishment, he behold the young ladies dancing minuets and country-dances, while a nun, albeit “not quite so able as St. Cecilia,” played on the violin! – Or, I might allude to the threefold musical genius of Mrs. Sarah Ottey, who, in 1721-22, frequently performed solos at concerts, on the harpsichord, violin, and base-viol! Enough, however, has been produced, to shew “quid femina possit” – what the fair sex can achieve, upon the first and most fascinating of instruments.