top of page
  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Gender Discrimination in Music Instrumentation of the 18th Century

Publication Date: Feb 1, 2019

Would the hero be seen as effeminate if he played music? Would the heroine be seen as masculine if she played a wind instrument?

Painting of Regency era musicians

To whet your appetite a bit for a core conflict in The Duke and The Enchantress, let's chat about gender and music. Be forewarned that the last paragraph of this research section contains a few spoilers. If you'd like to save that paragraph to return to after reading The Duke, please do so. If you don't mind a few spoilers, read on!

Music composition was male dominated in the 18th century. That's not to say there weren't female composers, as there were, but by far men dominated the scene. This was much to do with the gender stereotyping of musical instruments--that is, which instruments were considered acceptable for a woman to play versus a man. A fantastic article on this topic (much of which I've paraphrased and re-captured below to highlight what is relevant to the book) can be found here. The article is by Rita Steblin, a Canadian musicologist and was instrumental (haha) in my research for the book.

The Singing Lesson by Arturo Ricci
The Singing Lesson by Arturo Ricci

The gender discrimination and stereotyping of instruments has far more to do with what was acceptable for a woman to play than it was for what was acceptable for a man to play, but since there were so few instruments for women, those instruments became associated as "feminine instruments." Quite the gender divide occurred with instrumentation because of what was considered feminine and masculine.

The instruments approved for women were stringed instruments, namely the harp, lute, and guitar, as well as the harpsichord (and later the pianoforte). Towards the late 1700s, new instruments were introduced almost exclusively for women, such as the armonica, or musical glasses. Check out the music of the arminca here. Wind instruments, brasses, and percussion were unacceptable for women to play, and thus were considered masculine instruments.

What determined an instrument as being acceptable for a woman versus a man, as discussed in Steblin's article, was all to do with decorum, movement, sound, and placement. Instruments that required a woman to be positioned unattractively or drew attention to a woman's physique, such as the cello (can't have the legs spread or the hand too close to the bosom!), were considered masculine instruments and were improper for a woman to play. We wouldn't want the audience thinking impure thoughts of the player, now would we? The sound and movements during play also contributed to the gender of the instrument, for anything requiring vigorous movement would be inappropriate for the gentler sex, not to mention sounds that held masculine association, such as percussion that reminded the listener of war drums or brass that recalled the hunt.

The Interlude by Frederico Andreotti
The Interlude by Frederico Andreotti

Leopold Mozart's parading of his prodigy son initiated a new trend of parents showcasing their musically inclined children, sometimes touring Europe, other times performing at local concerts and soirees. (Given the popularity during the Regency period of young ladies displaying their musical skills to capture a husband, we can surmise the showcasing of musically inclined children turned into a showcasing of gentility, musical inclination or not.) With this new trend, there was a heightened social pressure to conform to the appropriate gendered instrument. Steblin claims it's as much a psychological pressure as social. Now that's something to consider. Voice and piano became the most popular of feminine instruments since they allowed for women to show their gentleness, while also showing the family's finances as well off enough to afford a music tutor.

A book that explores in some depth women's rise in music (both in composition and in performances) is Matthew Head's Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany. There's a thoughtful chapter on the public performances of young ladies and even includes a discussion of Jane Austen's Marianne (you know the moment--when Colonel Brandon falls head over feet at first sight) in Sense and Sensibility.

Screenshot from Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility 1995

Spoiler alert! In The Duke and The Enchantress, our hero faces a few issues. The first of which is explored in the research section titled Music & Aristocracy: composing. Composing was a trade not a talent. Commoners composed for the wealthy for money. It was just as much a trade as millinery or blacksmithing. No one of consequence would compose. This is one issue our hero faces for it would be most lowering to be known as a composer. He would, without doubt, face ridicule.

Were there composers among the aristocracy or nobility? Yes! Were they open about their compositions? Not usually. Derek McCulloch, a professor at the University of Surrey, wrote his dissertation on this very subject: Aristocratic Composers in the 18th Century: The Study of a Category of Composer and its Relationship to the Musical Life of its Time and its Reception by a Musical Establishment Both in the 18th Century and in More Recent Times. You might be surprised how many dukes were secret composers, claiming themselves to be patrons to a composer while actually composing the works themselves.

The second issue our hero faces is the performing of feminine instruments. As aforementioned, this was more to do with keeping women from playing masculine instruments than the other way around, but since there were so few feminine instruments, the playing of those instruments was certainly dominated by women. Men might shy away from them because of the gendered association. It would be more socially accepted for a man to play a cello than a pianoforte, for instance.

Historically speaking, it's not likely the duke would be considered effeminate solely for playing a stringed instrument or the pianoforte, but it would be known that these were feminine instruments. There is definitely a good deal of fictionalization here, so don't take it as historical accuracy, rather a bending of the perceptions.

What works against him isn't the instruments alone but the issue of the composition trade combined with, above all else, the rumors about his father. Had he merely been a musician, he likely wouldn't be concerned about scandal. But he isn't merely a musician. He's a composer who plays feminine instruments with a father that is rumored to be, well, effeminate, compounded by the questionable parties his father hosted. For those who wish to avoid any possibility of ridicule, rumors, or otherwise, music would altogether be out of the picture for this duke.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page