Monday 6 April 2015

Modest or Unmannerly, Which Instrument Shall She Play? - DM Denton

Music was such an integral part of 17th century life and Hoydens and Firebrands are delighted to welcome DM Denton with a fascinating post on women and music in the seventeenth century. Diane is the author of two books set in the 17th century in which the central protagonists are musicians.  

A HOUSE NEAR LUCCOLI and its sequel TO A STRANGE SOMEWHERE FLED focuses on chance encounters, beautiful music and the paradox of genius through an imagined intimacy with one of the most legendary and undervalued figures of Italian Baroque music, Alessandro Stradella. 

In the 17th century a refined young woman might want and even be encouraged to cultivate her musical ability and prove some accomplishment through singing and accompanying herself instrumentally—as recreation not occupation, of course. Considering her need to impress a suitor, show her figure off in the best possible way, express the sweetest tones of her personality and gentle capability of her character, which instrument should she play?

Men seemed eager to offer their opinions, asserting their duty in pointing out the dangers of women acting more passionately than discreetly—of them doing anything, which, to quote Pietro Aretino, 15th-16th century Italian playwright, “opens the gates of their modesty.” Roger North (1651-1734), English biographer, lawyer, architect, and amateur musician, expressed his thoughts on the matter in his autobiography, Notes of Me: “This lets me in to speak a little of teaching on which much of this depends;  for men the viol, violin, and the thorough bass instruments organ harpsichord and double bass are proper; for women the spinnet or harpsichord, lute and guitar;  for voices both. I cannot but commend the double bass or standing viol for plain basses especially for accompanying voices because of its softness joined with such a force as helps the voice very much; and the harpsichord for ladies rather than the lute; one reason is it keeps their body in a better posture than the other, which tends to make them crooked.

If playing the lute wasn’t advantageous to a lady’s appearance, then what were the consequences, not only to her posture but also her reputation, if she spread her legs for the viol? Thomas Middleton, Jacobean playwright, disapproved of women performing on such an “unmannerly instrument”.  French guitarist, lutenist, composer and theorist, François Campion, (aka Abbé Carbasus), cynical overall about women having musical ambitions, noted that “decency, modesty, and the hoopskirt fashion effectively prohibit the fair sex from playing the viol.” Evidently not, for play it they did, as shown by the engravings of Nicolas Bonnart.

Anyone who has seen the film Tous les Matins du Monde knows that the daughters of the great viol player Sainte-Columbe (1640-1700), were also accomplished on it. The biographer Titon tu Tillet (1677-1762) reported: “Sainte Colombe … gave concerts in his house, in which two of his daughters played, one the treble viol, the other the bass, and they formed with their father a three viol consort, which was a pleasure to listen to, even if it was made of rather ordinary symphonies and few chords.”

For the sake of decency, some women may have attempted to play the viol obliquely: per traverse, rather like riding a horse sidesaddle, more ladylike but not as physically viable. Despite its intention, it wasn’t a technique that gained popularity.

In disagreement with Roger North’s fluctuating opinion, artists Nicolas Arnoult and Abraham Bosse portrayed ladies of quality not only playing the harpsichord but also the lute.  John Essex, 17th—18th century English dancer, choreographer and author,  wrote that “The Harpsicord, Spinnet, Lute and Base Violin, are Instruments most agreeable to the Ladies: There are some others that really are unbecoming the Fair Sex; as the Flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike, and would look indecent in a woman’s mouth; and the Flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the Juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d, to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion.” Probably more myth than fact was the criticism of a female playing the violin or flute because she would have to raise her arms and reveal her elbows.

Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer often used the theme of a woman practicing, performing on, sitting at or holding an instrument—guitar, virginal, harpsichord, lute, cittern, flute, trumpet—and gave us moments in time that implied collaboration, flirtatiousness even intimacy; and, conversely, duteousness, modesty, confinement even isolation. 

It seems Vermeer recognized that the allure of a female through her musical accomplishment could actually illuminate her virtue. The association between music-making and love-making was a respectable means to an end as long as it was correctly contained. On the other hand, naiveté, low resistance, high libido, adventurousness, or just chance and circumstance were more threatening to a woman’s reputation than the instrument she chose to play.

I’ll return to Roger North as he seems to admit music offers more that is positive than negative for all who partake of it, again from his Notes of Me: “And nothing of the unprofitable kind, can be so good as musick, who is a kind companion and admits all to her graces, either by men by themselves, or men, and women together, or the latter single, either with instruments and voices, or either alone, as the capacitys are, and fail not to entertain themselves, and their parents, and friends, with pleasures sensible to those that have found the sweets of them.” 

About DM (Diane) Denton: 

DM Denton, a native of Western New York, is an author and artist. She finds her voice in poetry and prose, in silence and retreat, in truth and imagination.  Through observation and study, inspired by music, art, nature and the contradictions of the creative spirit, she loves to wander into the past to discover stories of interest and meaning for the present, writing from her love of language and the belief that what is left unsaid is the most affecting of all. Her educational journey took her to the UK where she stayed for sixteen years. She returned to the US in 1990, to a rural area of Western New York State where she resides in a cozy log cabin with her mother and a multitude of cats. 
DM Denton has published two historical fictions: A House Near Luccoli and its sequel To A Strange Somewhere Fled, both released by All Things That Matter Press. For more information, please visit Diane’s blog, website, and Amazon author page for all her publications: