Women are the problem!

Violinist Nora Clench (1867-1938), who studied with Joachim

In previous posts, I’ve quoted critics who saw a problem in the music world of “too much”–too many students, teachers, virtuosos; too many concerts, with too much music on the program, with pieces that were too long, too loud, too pretentious. Oscar Bie wanted to regulate the number of women who were conservatory piano students, because he predicted that they would flood the market for piano teachers.
In the following excerpt, one of the Musical Courier’s writers wanted to solve the problem of too many piano virtuosos by directing women to the violin, cello, “and even some wind instruments” so that they could play chamber music in the home (as if the piano could not be used for this purpose).

Too many people are playing the piano, so women should stop (1889)

We wish to make our annual protest against so many young ladies studying the piano. We have spoken of it frequently, and the increasing army of female piano players incites us to make mention of it again. ..The violin, the ‘cello and even some wind instruments should be studied; and then, again, how foolish a waste of time, money and vital energies is the study of the piano! How few virtuosi of the male sex can earn a competence by concert giving, much less members of the fair sex. How foolish, then, for a young girl to study, year after year, difficult concertos which she never has an opportunity of playing in public, instead of developing the home side of musical life, which is so lovely a place for chamber music, and its true field, after all. Young ladies, stop trying to be Rubinsteins in petticoats, and give the poor piano a rest!

Musical Courier (1889): 203.

That same year, another article in the Musical Courier claimed:

Violin playing is all the rage now, and is a welcome relief after the feminine piano banging one is forced to endure. Girls do not realize that they are not intended, with a few exceptions, to play the piano. They have neither the strength nor nerve (I mean extended nerve power), and they should never attempt Brahms, Beethoven, or Schumann, nor even much of Chopin’s heavier works, for, in their efforts to play heavy chordal work, they force the tone of the instrument and ruin naturally good musical touches in their efforts to be orchestral. Now, girls, take an old man’s advice: play all that is tender, graceful, poetic in the pianistic realm, but leave concertos etc. for the rude grasp of the masculine!

Women can play the violin, but they should not play in orchestras (1881)

The initial policy of the Hochschule für Musik was to admit women to the voice and piano areas only. But after a few years women could also apply to the violin and cello areas. In 1881 Ernst Rudorff, who was on the piano faculty, was also conducting the school orchestra in Joachim’s absence. He wrote to Joachim about various difficulties he was having, and followed up with a request that the women players be removed from the orchestra. He blamed them for the bad sound of the orchestra, but his argument devolved quickly into a general rant:

It is enough as the order of the day to have women meddling in all possible areas in which they do not belong; in music they are already hogging almost every field; one should at least take care lest in the future our orchestras consist of men and women. It may well be that the general trend leads to it in decades, and the last remnant of a stance and artistic seriousness is driven out of public performances of pure instrumental music. In any case, I would not like it to be said that an institution such as the Königliche Hochschule had led the way in this bad practice.1“Das Hineinpfuschen der Frauen in alle möglichen Gebiete, in die sie nicht hineingehören, ist schon genug an der Tagesordnung; die Musik haben sie schon fast in allen Theilen in Beschlag genommen; man sollte wenigsten Sorge tragen, daß nicht auch in Zukunft unsere Orchester gar aus Männern und Weibern zusammengesetzt werden.Daß die allgemeine Strömung denno ch in Jahrzehnten dahin führt und den letzten Rest von Haltung und künstlerischem Ernst auch aus den öffentlichen Vorführungen der reinen Instrumentalmusik vertreibt; jedenfalls möchte ich nicht, daß es heißen könnte, eine Anstalt wie die Königliche Hochschule hätte auf diesem Wege zur Unsitte die Führung übernommen”.Briefe von und an Joseph Joachim, ed. Johannes Joachim and Andreas Moser, vol. 3 (Berlin: Julius Bard, 1911), 230-31.Ernst Rudorff to Joseph Joachim, 18 December 1881

Rudorff even wanted women students banned from observing rehearsals, since, in his view, they should not be learning conducting, composing, or instrumentation.
I was wondering if his request had any consequences, and had the luck of stumbling across a new book about one of Joachim’s best students, Gabriele Wietrowetz.2Yuki Melchert, Gabriele Wietrowetz. Ein ‘weiblicher Joachim’? (Hildesheim et al.: Georg Olms, 2018). Apparently nothing happened, and things continued as they were.3See Melchert, p. 77. That might be because, although he was initially against it, Joachim had a lot of women students (about a hundred!) over the course of his career and many were very successful as soloists and chamber music performers. See this list.
The illogical but deeply held belief that women were not suited to playing in orchestras, even though they performed with orchestras as soloists, persisted through World War I, when orchestras were depleted by 40-50%. I’ve found one exception so far: it was reported that women were playing in the London Proms concerts starting in 1916.4“Many Women in Orchestra for London ‘Proms,'” Musical America (September 2, 1916): 14. A hundred years later, most orchestras still have a long way to go before they will be awarding positions to the best candidate.

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One comment

  1. I always had an inkling that women were not suited for the performance of serious pieces, but now thankfully you have furnished the evidence. Thank you, Sanna. On a more serious note, however, it would be a fascinating sub-study just to track how this particular conversation played itself out in the German, U.K. and U.S. press between 1880 and, say, 1980.

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