- Musical Women in England, 1870—1914: “Encroaching on All Man’s Privileges.”, and: Women Performing Music: The Emergence of American Women as Instrumentalists and Conductors.
Several recent studies note that gender roles and the idea of “separate spheres” were as powerful in the Victorian music world as in wider society. For example, Dave Russell writes in Popular Music in England, 1840-1914: A Social History (1987), “In some senses, the sexual divide was greater than the class divide in Victorian and Edwardian popular music.” (8) Similarly, in The Music Profession in Britain Since the Eighteenth Century: A Social History (1985), Cyril Ehrich notes “Prejudice by male performers against women players was pervasive” because women were beginning to compete for jobs in “the exclusive, biologically determined, province of the male.” (156–7) Yet few subsequent articles, books, or dissertations have examined this issue, leaving significant questions unanswered. How and why did women become professional musicians? Was this related to broader debates about gender, the “new woman,” and sexuality, and if so, what does it tell us about those debates?
These questions are addressed by Women Performing Music by Beth Abelson Macleod and Musical Women in England 1870–1914 by Paula Gillett, thus making them significant additions to the literature on women’s history, musicology, Victorian studies and gender studies. They discuss this gender divide in American and British music respectively, how it was depicted and enforced, and what factors promoted change. Both extensively use primary source periodicals and contemporary fiction to assess public attitudes towards women musicians, placing [End Page 223] the issue within the context of larger discussions of attitudes towards music, gender roles, sexuality, class, and the burgeoning women’s movement.
Gillett’s work is more theoretical, proposing that late Victorian women often used existing gender ideology to become prominent in the music world. As an extension of “women’s place,” philanthropy allowed women such as Emma Cons to become patrons; she explained that her work to bring concerts to the Royal Victoria Hall was to “give good music to the people and raise their taste for the same.” (55) Women also profited from such philanthropic endeavors, allowing poor girls whose talents otherwise would have gone unrecognized to become professional musicians. For example, despite Marie Hall’s acknowledged talent, at fourteen she declined a Royal Academy of Music scholarship because of poverty and her father’s insistence that she was needed at home to perform in the streets to support the family. He reluctantly allowed her to study in London with a professional teacher only after benefactors agreed to pay her expenses and give the family a weekly stipend to compensate for the loss of her earnings. Subsequently, Hall went on to become England’s first woman violinist-celebrity.
When Hall began her professional career, attitudes about women violinists were changing. As Gillett notes, the early nineteenth century public found female violin playing “inappropriate, improper, and aesthetically jarring.” (78) Violins were compared to the feminine body, “most fittingly performed on by a worshipful ‘master’.” (87) Moreover, male virtuoso violinists played with great expression and body movement, which was considered inappropriate for women. Further, violins had a long literary association with sin, death, and the devil, making them dangerous for the weaker sex. But despite these perceptions, women violinists were accepted at the end of the nineteenth century for several interconnected reasons. Increased demands for popular concerts required more musicians, in part supplied by the increasing number of girls who were receiving a better education. Gillett sees this as part of the broader women’s movement that “called into question much received wisdom concerning the totality of restrictions on girls’ and women’s roles in society.” (98) Class also played a role; pianos became so commonplace by the 1890s that periodicals such as The Young Woman recommended...