Tag Archives: society can be really weird sometimes

Leaving Stonehenge

Bon Iver on the Colbert Report

Come on skinny love just last the year
Pour a little salt, we were never here
My my my, my my my, my my
Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer

Musically speaking, I live under a rock. I’m so busy with violin stuff – classical violin stuff, to be exact – that I tend to be ignorant about other styles of music. I’m not proud of the fact, and I know I’m missing out on a lot, but to be honest, I don’t even know how to start listening to non-classical stuff. My situation is a bit unique, I think. Unlike most people, I didn’t listen to a single pop, rock, or folk album for my entire childhood; it was all classical or classically influenced instrumental. (I actually laughed while reading Alex Ross’s Listen to This, where he recounts a musical childhood eerily similar to mine.) I have no frame of reference for anything else. I just don’t speak the non-classical language, at all. And it’s intimidating to wander into a new country when you don’t speak the language. It’s easier just to stay on your side of the border, right?

I tell my love to wreck it all
Cut out all the ropes and let me fall
My my my, my my my, my my
Right in this moment this order’s tall

I’ve heard about Bon Iver for a few years now. If I didn’t, I’d have to live under not just a rock, but a frigging Stonehenge. They’re probably the most famous thing to have come out of my hometown. In fact, Eau Claire has actually become an integral part of the allure of the band. Justin Vernon, the lead singer, wrote the first Bon Iver album, For Emma, Forever Ago, holed up in a tiny cabin in northern Wisconsin. He still lives here when he’s not touring the world, and if his place is where I think it is (and I think it is), I’ve been past it countless times. He actually once brought a New York Times critic down Putnam Drive, where I ride my bike.

And I told you to be patient
And I told you to be fine
And I told you to be balanced
And I told you to be kind

I’m a huge fan of The Colbert Report, and about a week ago Stephen interviewed Justin Vernon on the show. I identified straightaway with Vernon. He has the same shy quiet mannerisms a lot of people from this part of the country have…not to mention the same fashion sense. (Some people think that he’s a poseur and trying to up his indie rocker cred by dressing the way he does, but I can assure you, he’s not; to paraphrase Lady Gaga, people in rural Wisconsin are just born that way.) Seeing one of Eau Claire’s own on national – international – television was…weird. And weirdly gratifying. No, we aren’t from the center of the universe. Yes, we exist. And yes, we have something to say. I hadn’t actually heard any of Bon Iver’s stuff before, so I listened to their performance of Calgary. I thought it was interesting, although nothing special. But the web extra Skinny Love really struck me. After steeping myself a bit in the sound of the band, I came back to Calgary and loved it. I’m gradually, and happily, working my way through their discography.

And in the morning I’ll be with you
But it will be a different kind
And I’ll be holding all the tickets
And you’ll be owning all the fines

I’m always fighting being from Eau Claire, being a country bumpkin. To be blunt, I’m embarrassed of where I’m from; I’m embarrassed of my relatively limited scope of reference; I’m self-conscious of my less-than-stellar education, and I’m only too aware what a different person I’d be if I’d been able to get a good one in New York or Philadelphia or heck, even Minneapolis. Classical music culture in particular fetishizes urbanity and big cities; that’s where all the talent drains, and I suppose it’s only natural. But this phenomenon can have the unintended consequence of making culture-lovers who aren’t in those urban centers feel insecure in their own experiences. Heck, how can you not feel a little naive when The Scotsman writes this about your “Wisconsin lumber town” home: “The Wikipedia list of Eau Claire’s local notables previously ranged from a girlfriend of Charles Manson to the inventor of the fraud-proof ballot paper, so Bon Iver quickly qualified.” Ouch. Seeing someone like Justin Vernon, who embraces and celebrates where he came from, who isn’t afraid of being called a hick, who isn’t frantically trying to scrub all scent of Eau Claire off himself and his body and his art…well, that’s food for thought. That’s good. He’s found that geography doesn’t necessarily impact your ability to connect to other people. He and his success make me wonder if being from a small town might actually give me a valuable perspective as a musician and as a writer. And yes, I’m well aware that indie-rock and classical music aren’t exactly the same genre. But still.

Come on skinny love what happened here
We suckled on the hope in lite brassieres
My my my, my my my, my my
Sullen load is full, so slow on the split

Reading Bon Iver reviews is interesting. People either think it’s the most gorgeous beautiful lyrical stuff ever written, or ridiculous whiney indie wangst. There’s not many people on the middle ground. I think I’m one of the few. Bon Iver doesn’t replace my Brahms or Beethoven. But Brahms or Beethoven doesn’t replace Bon Iver, either. Brahms and Beethoven didn’t have anything approaching my life experience, at all, and it’s disorienting and wonderful to know of an artist who has. And he’s alive, to boot! Happily there’s room for everybody on my mp3 player. Why has it taken me so long to figure this out? Has my insecurity really seeped into my listening? Really? … Pathetic as it sounds, I think it did.

And now all your love is wasted
Then who the hell was I?
And I’m breaking at the britches
And at the end of all your lines

I’m heartened that most of the younger classical players I know are just as familiar with the popular world as the “classical” world. I’m relieved that the type of classical-only childhood I had is an increasingly rare one. I’m proud I’m finally opening up a bit more, and willing to listen to and appreciate new sounds. I’m glad that I’ve realized there may be certain advantages to having grown up in a small town. (Maybe.) And I’m thrilled that it turns out I don’t need to speak the language to understand.

Who will love you?
Who will fight?
Who will fall far behind?

*presses repeat*

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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.


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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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