Article: Concerning the Sexuality of Musical Instruments, 1921

I think human sexuality is one of the most interesting things in the world. Heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, demisexuality, pansexuality – I find all of them fascinating. I’m also very interested in the ways that people’s ideas about sexuality seep into things as seemingly non-sexual as instrumental music. I have a theory that one of the many reasons the violin was considered to be inappropriate for women for such a long time was because a female playing on a violin (an instrument with a high range, a small size, and a womanly shape) was suggestive of lesbianism. This is a point that this alternately hilarious / creepy article vaguely touches on. I still haven’t studied gender or sexuality in any academic setting (actually, the one high school course that I took that even that mentioned sexuality assumed all of its readers were straight, and obviously there was never a word about anything like asexuality or pansexuality). So I don’t have the intellectual tools that I’d love to have to analyze all the implications that this article is making. But I found it fascinating anyway. Hopefully someday after I’m better educated I can come back and really understand the points this byline-less, source-less article is trying to make.

This is from The Common Opinion, June 1921.

Addendum, 11/23: For an immensely entertaining take-down of this article, head over here to Sam Bergman’s blog entry “How To Tell If Your Bassoon Is Gay.”

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In quality of sound, as compared with the human voice, the violin is soprano, the cello is tenor, and the contrabass may be defined as baritone bass. For the same reason that the normal average man prefers the soprano to the tenor and the woman generally shows more appreciation for the tenor, the choice of musical instruments is governed, when there is liberty of choice and the individual is conscious of his or her leanings. The violin artist, as Konrad Berkovici goes on to say, in Bruno’s Review of Two Worlds, even physically is of a different type from that of the cellist, the first being generally full of masculine vigor and life, while the second is apt to be effeminate, showy, soft and silky. Among gypsies, we are told, one seldom finds a cellist and almost never an alto. Their women, who are proverbially jealous, seldom or never play the violin; and for the most part the players of the contrabass and the alto are elderly men in any human society. Not because these instruments are physically easier to play nor because they demand greater experience, but because the advanced age of the players decides their inclination.

Superstrenuous music of the Wagner and Beethoven kind has its explanation in Kraft-Ebling‘s analysis of their sex-psychology. Both men seldom used the violin or cello for the leading melody. Tschaikovsky’s music, to the writer in Bruno’s Review, suggests Oscar Wilde’s literature, there being a strong psycho-sexual resemblance between the writer and musician. Tschaikovsky gave the viola and the contrabass preeminence in his music, whereas the music of such as Berlioz or Verdi or Mascagni or Massenet is of the male of the species – tenor and violin.

Not only have string instruments sexual character, but, we are assured, the cornet, the oboe, the flute, also have such a character. Berkovici observes, in this connection, that the French and Italians are the best wind-instruments players and that Teuton women have a predilection for the oboe and the nondescript saxophone, tho these instruments are bulky and physically difficult to play. “As to the men, to every saxophone student in a conservatory you will see ten flutes and twenty clarinets. The violin classes are always full of fiery dark-eyed boys. Seldom, if at all, have blue-eyed violinists reached any artistic height, while the classes of cello are comparatively swamped with female students. The males studying cello are in a minority and of totally different type than their brothers of the violin; blue-eyed, soft, shy, retiring effeminates.”

Commercial reasons of supply and demand do not regulate these classes. There is said to be an oversupply of male violinists and an unsupplied demand of male cellists. A woman violinist is a comparative rarity. Normal sexual males do not like the contralto voice. Their choice between a Tetrazini and Schumann-Heink is made as quickly as Elma and Kushevitzky. And it is due to their sexual indirectness that the alto of the violin and the clarinet are in the background of orchestras.

We read further that in the harmonic blending of voices, where a mixture of string and wind instruments is necessary, the flute and clarinet cannot be used to complete the violins because “they are of the same sex.” Instruments representing opposite sexes are instinctively used by musicians for this effect, tho this analyst “has a feeling that Beethoven and Mozart knew more about it than other composers.” Primitive races, or races in process of ascendancy, are said to produce more male violinists than highly cultivated ones. Russia, Hungary and Bohemia have given us the latest great ones. Spain and Italy gave the best formerly. The Teutons and the French have not given a single great violinist in the last hundred years. Ysaye, Thibaud, Vieuxtemps, are Belgians. Almost all good violinists are composers, having creative minds, and their compositions, even when not for the violin, have a strong sexual element. The waltz, with its exact rhythm, is a favorite vehicle. There is love appeal in every bar, impetuous, lascivious and pretentious – in one word: male.

Konrad Berkovici, as the result of personal investigation in the quality of voices of violinists and cellists, male and female, reports that out of fifty male violinists, none older than thirty years, forty-one had deep baritone voices, of the other nine, six were tenors, and three non-descripts. Out of twenty male cellists, none older than thirty years, seven were altos and the other thirteen nondescript, and mostly effeminate voices. Out of ten female violinists, not over thirty years old, eight had alto voices, one a soprano, and one almost a baritone. This last one had also a masculine exterior. Out of fifteen female cellists, fourteen had soprano voices.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Article: Concerning the Sexuality of Musical Instruments, 1921

  1. Pingback: A Goal | Song of the Lark

  2. Pingback: Song of the Lark 2011 Roundup | Song of the Lark

  3. Fun article!
    The thing that strikes me most is the shape of the instruments. If I look at the body of an acoustic guitar, a violin, a cello or even a saxophone, the shape reminds me of a woman. Flutes seem to be more manly. The piano could fit both, or neither.
    If we look at all the songs that are about love, sex or the opposite sex of the singer, it seems that music and sex are closely related.

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