The Memoirs of Charles-Lewis, Baron de Pollnitz, Karl Ludwig, 1739
Did women play the cello or viola de gamba ?
The sound of the cello is enchanting, powerful and elegant; while the viola is rich, complicated and sophisticated. It is almost as if each one has its own attitude. Its not surprising that the women of Europe played cellos and de 'gambas'. For that matter, we can also see that they mastered the violin and viol / viola.
There is this general talk; that "women" did not do this or that, because it was not "becoming" or was "suggestive". If this were true, we would not have such a good sampling of European women playing these instruments. Anna-Maria of Venice who was considered the first violin of Italy will be one who was remembered. However, by the time Anna-Maria comes on the scene in the 1730s, Italy had had women playing instruments from both the violin and viola family since at least the 16th Century during their Renaissance. Italy's record for including women in orchestras, quartets, and the similar will be contagious to other nations as they enter their own renaissances. Anna-Maria of Venice will not be alone; others in the first half of the 18th Century who were trained violist including Madame Henriette (Louis XV's daughter) of France who played the large viola de gamba, and Madame la marquise de "Grancey" played the tenor viola, small, but still played upright on the knee. Later during the second half of the 18c, Ann Ford of England who played the 'viol de gamba' along with the 'Saltero', Spanish guitar, archlute, and the piano-forte, began private concerts in October 1758 and public concerts in March 1760. So, here we can see that it was acceptable for women in both Europe and England to play the viola de 'gamba'. Imagery and the quote below, help us see that some women also played the cello.
Image of Madame Henriette:
How is it that on one hand we have many primary sources pointing out women by name who played large instruments that sat between the knees plus the likes of violins and viola and on the other hand this idea that some think that a 16th, 17th & 18th Century person would find this "suggestive" ?
The answer to if women during colonial times played cellos and de gamba between the knees, or if at all, is based on one particular document that circulated among musicians. However, make note of the date. This quote both confirms that the author witness women playing cellos, and between the knees, though disapproved of it. Essentially, for female musicians who also do reenacting, both before and during the American Revolution the cello and viola de gamba are fair game.
From the book: The First Fleet Piano: Volume One: A Musician’s View:
"An anonymous writer in the Musikalischer Almanach fur 1784..., observing that when a woman plays a cello she must spread her legs, prudishly remarked: 'In thousands of people it calls up pictures that it ought not to call up.' [ However, ] If a woman played the cello, it was recommended that she play it 'in the side-saddle position, an attitude that persisted in certain educational institutions well into the twentieth century"
Its interesting that gender lines became more restrictive after the Rev. war. However, this is not unusual nor the only example of this happening. What is more important is that we see a shift in attitude where previously, all women sat with their legs apart to later in the 19c sitting with the knee together. So, playing a cello or de 'gamba' between the knees for a woman was not a big deal.
Image of 19th Century Queen Victoria of England:
If you would like a coffee / tea / chocolate break before delving into the nitty-gritty ... scroll down to the end for a tour of paintings of women with their cellos and violas. They are rather beautiful.
What are Violas ?
While cellos are well know, and part of the violin family; its counter part the viola de gamba is part of the viol / viols / viola family. The de gamba and all the viols have a flat back, the shoulders of the viol are sloped, and are easy to spot due to having a /C/ whole in the front. Whereas, violins have /S/ shaped wholes. The viol also has 5-7 stings and frets whereas the violin only has four strings.
All viols are played upright, like the cello, but unlike the violin. The Italian term for viol is viola de gamba which means... viol for the knee. As we saw with the adoption of the tabbaard gown from Venice to the Netherlands and onto America... we see another trend with the viola de gamba; bass and tenor. Where, early images show Italian musicians (female) playing the de gamba, and then the Dutch; we do not have images of women in America playing the viola.. but there isn't much with the men either.
What are a Violins ?
They are musical instruments developed in 16th century Italy; also called violas da 'braccio'. The violins have four strings and s-shapes wholes. Most people have seen violins, cellos and bass violins; so we'll let readers follow up on their history outside of this post.
Rich, complicated, and sophisticated:
Inventories of New York:
Violas may have arrived prior to the 18th century. In 1692, there are 30 bunches of "fiddle" strings for sale in a NY store; whether or not the recorder knew the difference between a violin string and ones for a viol is unknown. However, 30 bunches of strings is a good number, possibly a 2 or more year supply for the store keeper. With this in mind, we may safely guess that there were a dozen or more people who played instruments from the violin and viola families.
The New York governor (1720-1728) William Burnet has a "large Violin or Tenor Fidle" in his inventory. Tenor violins or tenor fiddles, are what English called the viola. If we use this as the reference for the 1692 inventory we see that the "30 bunches of fiddle strings" mentioned above, were likely viola strings.
As to whether women played the viola, we get a clue from the wind instruments being sold by another retailer. Recorders, it appears, were purchased for boys and girls at school age during the 17th Century in New York. So in this instance, we see that another instrument that is considered by some in hind sight as too suggestive for women (wind instruments) were being played by little girls.
Violins vs. Violas:
There may be some gender bias between the violin and viola. Though, we first have to note that there are women that play instruments from both families and men did the same. With this in mind, if there is a gender bias, it is likely coming not from a top down, but individual to individual. In other words, a teacher may choose to not teach girls.
Here we can clearly see that the de gamba and other viols are in fact in New York. We can see violins, and... bass viols !! A viol, is a viola, and they are for sale in New York. In the images near the bottom of the page we see both the bass viol and tenor viol being played by women in Europe.
1759 - Imported Musical Instruments.—To be sold by a Gentleman who lodges at Widow Darcey's nigh the Ship-Yards, opposite to William Walton's, Esq; and who is to go soon out of Town; exceeding good German Flutes, for three Dollars each; likewise others with 2, 3, 4 or 5 middle pieces to change the Tones and Voice, do. likewise Base Viol Strings of all Sizes, and silvered Ones for Basses, Violins and Tenors. A great Collection of wrote and printed Musick from Italy and England. The newest Sets of Scotch and Irish Tunes, and Airs in Score, Base Viol and Fiddle Bridges, rulled Musick Paper in Sheets and in Books, German Flute Concertos, Sonatas, Duets and Solos, and a great many other Things in the musical Way, imported by himself from Naples and London. Likewise, two fine Violins, a Girls six-stringd Bass Viole, and a foreign Pocket Gun.—The New-York Mercury, August 13, 1759.
1767 - Robert Horne, Musical Instrument-Maker, from London, at Mr. Francis Cooley's, on Golden-Hill; Makes and repairs Violins, bass viols, tenor viols, Æolius harps, gauiters, German flutes, Kitts, violin bows, &c. in the neatest and compleatest manner. All orders punctually obey'd, with the quickest dispatch;: The favour of Gentlemen and Ladies shall be duly honour'd with their Commands. N.B. Merchants may be supplied with any of the above, cheaper than in London on proper notice given.—The New-York Mercury, September 14, 1767.
1772 - Robert Horne, Musical Instrument-Maker, from London, on Golden-Hill, near Burling's Slip, Makes and repairs musical instruments, viz. Violins, tennors, violon-cellos, guittars, kitts, aeolus harps, spinnets, and spinnets jacks, violin bows, tail-pieces, pins, bridges; bows hair'd, and the best Roman Strings, &c. N.B. Country stores supply'd on the shortest notice.—The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, January 6, 1772.
Gendered vs. Gendered Neutral Advertisements:
It seem that some instructors will only teach violin to men; however, there is no mention of viola / viol in the below adds. The lack of mention for the viola in these adds, may be related to violas being popular among woman, while violins were also likely played by females, some male instructors may not of deemed four string instruments as a feminine pursuit. Though, other teachers target both men and women. We will note that while bass violins are in the violin family, bass fiddles are in the viola. When one sees a "double bass" it is a instrument that hovers between the two families. Though, it is possible, that just as some women may offer lessons to only females, some men would also only offer lessons to males. This last point is possibly the likely answer as instruction classes for only men or only women still exists today. Below we see violin and bass violin instruction offered to only men.
Examples of gender-neutral or inclusive:
1758 - Alexander Dienval.—This is to give Notice, That the Violin and German Flute, are taught in the Space of two or three Months each, by Alexander V. Dienval, at Mr. Elphinstone's House in the Slott.—The New-York Mercury, September 18, 1758.
1768 - Wall, Comedian, Engages to teach Ladies and Gentlemen to Play on the Guitar to prevent Trouble, his terms are to such as chuse to be waited on at the Houses; One Guinea Entrance, and the same per Month for which he pays Attendance, Three Times a Week. Ladies and Gentlemen, who may think proper to honour him with their Commands, by sending to his lodgings, at Mr. Sproul's, in Depyster's-Street, will be immediately waited on.—The New-York Mercury, January 11, 1768.
1753 - Charles Love, Musician, from London, at his lodgings at the house of Mrs. George, in the first lane from the Bowling-Green, that leads to the North-River, proposes teaching gentlemen musick on the following instruments, Viz. Violin, Hautboy, German and Common Flutes, Bassoon, French Horn, Tenor, and Base Violin, if desired....The New York Mercury, July 2, 1753.
1759 - William Charles Hulet.—This is to Give Notice, That the Violin is taught in so plain and easy a Method (that young Gentlemen of eight or nine years old may be capable of learning in a short Time) by W. C. Hulet, at the House of Robert Wallace, joiner, in the Broad-street,...—The New-York Gazette, September 24, 1759.
The Fashionable Cello and Viola de Gamba:
Anyone notice a trend? What is fashionable in Venice doesn't stay in Venice. Whether it is Venitian pearls, the tabbaard gown and now the viola; all things fashionable seem to make it to New Newnetherland and New York.
First we see violas become popular in Italy (but were widely played in Spain too). Then the Dutch and likely Flemish people playing the same instruments during their Golden Age. Here is where gets a bit tricky; did the viola, which was popular in the Netherlands, come over in the 1650s with the tabbaard and all those venetian pearls???
I hope you enjoy the below image-tour through history ! Happy Holidays !
2) Netherlands, anoniem, Vrouw bespeelt een strijkinstrument about 1600-1610.
3) German, VIOLA da GAMBA, A consort of viols by Freyse, German, 1630s
4) Netherland, Jan Olis - Musical Evening, 1630s
5) English, Anthonis van Dyck - Portrait of Mary Ruthann 1638
7) Gabriël Metsu, Netherlands: Interieur van een schildersatelier met een kunstenaar die een vrouw met een viola da gamba schildert. ca. 1655.
8) Metsu, Netherlands, 1658
10) Metsu, Netherlands, dated to 1663
11) Gerard Pietersz. van Zijl, 1658 - 1677
12) Portrait of a Lady Playing a Viola da Gamba, 1675, by Caspar Netscher
13) Vrouw bespeelt een viola da gamba, Pieter Schenk (I), 1670 - 1713
14) Nicolas Bonnart (France, 1637-1717) Recueil des modes de la cour de France, 'Dame qui Jouë de la Viole en Chantant' France, Paris, circa 1682-1686 14)
17) Madame Henriette (Louis XV's daughter) playing the Viola da Gamba in Court dress by Jean-Marc Nattier (1685- 1766)
For the above list of images, I left out four more of Dutch and Italian women from 1550-1650s which would bring the total to 21; but there is a trend. With all the images together, the women of Italy were actively playing string instruments in the 16th Century. Dutch ladies picked up the same instruments in the 17th Century, and it became all the rage in France at the start of the 18th Century.
Thomas Sword Good (1789–1872), England
Concert of Angels (detail) by Matthias Grünewald ca. 1470, Würzburg, Germany - ca. 1528, Halle, Germany