Beautiful Objects / Beautiful Subjects: Stories of female music making in the portrait collection at the Royal College of Music.

A digital exhibition by Erin McHugh

Portrait of an Unidentified Woman, Playing the Harpsichord (1718/1728) by Herman van der Myn (attributed to)Royal College of Music

Beautiful Objects: Women making music

Women have always made music. However, until the late-nineteenth century, the roles of virtuoso, composer and 'master' of music remained predominantly male occupations. This exhibition of paintings and photographs from the RCM's collection highlights the two spaces occupied by women making music: while we think of the act of playing music as a highly subjective, individualized form of expression, women were, in fact, frequently pictured “in the act” not for the sake of this individual expression but as objects in the eyes of the beholder – the men.  Women making music were objects of beauty rather than expressive subjects.   

Domestic Interior by Caspar NetscherRoyal College of Music

This painting of an upper-class, seventeenth century domestic scene shows a young woman receiving music instruction from her male tutor.

The work highlights the pupil/master dynamic: the tutor is clearly communicating a musical concept using hand gestures, while the young woman -a passive recipient- looks directly at the beholder.

Musical ability was a symbol of wealth and good social standing. A young woman from a well-to-do background was expected to play an instrument and to sing so as to display her family’s values and showcase her own suitability for marriage.

This musical training, however, was usually a purely decorative aspect of a woman’s personality: professional female musicians were rare. With the notable exception of opera singers, it remained taboo for a woman to perform in public spaces well into the nineteenth century.

Woman with Dital Harp (1819) by Minasi & StadlerRoyal College of Music

Traditions of domestic music-making and of female education inevitably led to a gendering of instruments themselves.

It was considered indecent for women to blow into flutes or to play instruments that required any obvious bodily exertion. As a result, the harp and other plucked stringed instruments became understood as 'feminine', whilst woodwinds and brass were labelled 'masculine'.

This Dital-Harp, or Harp-Lute, is a prime example of how musical instruments were adapted for this tradition. The guitar-like instrument was modified to have the compass of a harp, allowing for increased portability and range of expression. In addition to the modifications made to the instrument’s size, it was often highly decorated, becoming a work of art in its own right.

Harps in the RCM Museum Display (2014)Royal College of Music

The RCM Museum owns an assortment of these drawing room instruments, which will be on display when it reopens in 2019.

The four modified harps and guitars here were made in the early nineteenth century, and each is highly decorated with gilding and elaborate carvings which evoke a neoclassical aesthetic popular at the time.

The two instruments on the left are from the maker Edward Light. The first of these, a Dital Harp, is identical to the one depicted in the previous engraving. The instrument next to it is a modified guitar, also by Light. The maker used the patronage of the Princess Charlotte of Wales to make connections with English nobility and market his instruments to young, upper class women.

Modified harps and guitars fell out of fashion when innovations to piano manufacturing and design during the mid-nineteenth century meant that families from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds could acquire a piano.

Beatrice HarrisonRoyal College of Music

Modern day orchestras use blind auditions to prevent unintentional gender stereotyping. This practice is evidence, perhaps, that musical directors acknowledge the existence of gender bias.

Female music-making moved out of the home and into the concert hall towards the end of the nineteenth century, but female performers still remained utterly subject in relation to men and many struggled to maintain careers as orchestral or solo musicians.

Some women played - and still play- upon this dynamic, using aspects of their femininity to incorporate a degree of spectacle into their performance.
Cellist Beatrice Harrison incorporated the female as domestic muse into her artistic identity. Harrison performed in a number of radio broadcasts live from her own garden, where local birds often joined in with her playing. She became known as the 'Nightingale Lady', a poetic epithet which played upon the audience's understanding of the nightingale as a metaphor for the artist.

Amaryllis Flemming by Eric AuerbachRoyal College of Music

"Why in the hell did she have to choose cello? There was something almost indecent in the idea of that bulbous, ungainly instrument between her splayed thighs. Of course Suggia had managed to look elegant, and so did that girl Amaryllis somebody. But they should invent a way for women to play the damned thing side-saddle."

This seemingly antiquated outlook towards female cellists is from Ian Fleming's 1966 James Bond novel, 'Octopussy and the Living Daylights'. Fleming anecdotally refers to his half sister, Amaryllis, who was indeed a cellist.

Her brother's fame and her strikingly good looks meant that Fleming achieved celebrity-level fame as a solo performer early in her career. However, later in her life, she began to focus more on chamber music, and became reluctant to discuss her private life, which contributed to a decline in her solo performing career.

Fleming never married, but in this photograph, Fleming seemingly inhabits the feminine role of the homemaker as she practices her cello in the garden whilst the laundry dries.

Photograph of the Chaplin sistersRoyal College of Music

Beautiful Subjects: Women as composers and virtuosos

The persistence of the women's suffrage movement is perhaps responsible for the increase in the number of female virtuosi and composers during the twentieth century. As the tenets of decorum and femininity were changing, women began to sustain professional careers as musicians and composers. Pictured on the right are the entrepreneurial Chaplin sisters, who formed their own trio in 1889 so that they could program their own choice of music into their concerts.

May Harrison (1900/1915) by Darenth HarrisonRoyal College of Music

May Harrison, a violinist active in the early twentieth century, is shown here as a child prodigy.

Harrison was one of the first female performers to have a successful career as both an orchestral player and soloist. Harrison's talent was recognised at an early age: she enrolled as a pupil at the Royal College of Music when she was only 14 years old.

Harrison also broke the gender boundaries that women faced in the early twentieth century when she became a professor at the Royal College of Music in 1935. She maintained an active career as a soloist until her death

Menges Quartet, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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Born into a musical family, the violinist Isolde Menges was active both as a soloist and as a chamber musician with the Menges quartet, which she founded in 1931.

Menges enjoyed success early in her career, but faced intense scrutiny because of her German heritage after the outbreak of World War One. During this time, she focused her energies on philanthropic endeavours, travelling to North America to give free concerts for charitable foundations.

Menges retired from performing in 1941 and took a post at the Royal College of Music.

Isolde Menges, James P. Barraclough, 1929, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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Aino Ackté as Salome (1910) by Dover Street StudiosRoyal College of Music

Artworks and literature at the turn of the twentieth century reflect the societal unease created by the emergence of the 'New Woman'. These women, who can easily be considered the first feminists, challenged the deeply entrenched idea that women needed to marry to have a fulfilling life.

This photograph shows the Finnish soprano Aino Ackte in Thomas Beecham's Covent Garden production of Richard Strauss' 'Salome', an opera which can be read as a direct response to the idea of the 'New Woman'.
At its premiere, the work, which features a striptease and a necrotic kiss, was considered scandalous. It was heavily edited for the first London production but the translation was so poor that Akte refused to sing until the integrity of the original was restored. It is perhaps due to her steadfastness that Strauss considered Ackte his 'true Salome'.

When one looks at this photograph -which shows the defiant Ackte/Salome meeting the gaze of the camera- it isn't difficult to see why Strauss felt that way.

Mary Garden as Melisande (1904/1908) by Photographer unknownRoyal College of Music

The Scottish soprano Mary Garden became famous for her interpretations of the fin de siècle 'new woman'. In addition to the notorious role of Salome, Garden sang other strong female characters such as the title roles in 'Carmen', 'Tosca', and 'Thais'. She became a household name for her bold performance choices, which included salaciously kissing the severed head of John the Baptist in the final scene of 'Salome'.

Garden was appointed an impresario at the Chicago Opera Association with effectively complete creative direction over productions.

Garden is depicted here, as the mysterious Romantic heroine in Debussy's 'Pellas et Mellisande'.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1900) by Antonio ManciniRoyal College of Music

The composer Ethel Smyth was a leader of the suffragette movement, a group of activists who campaigned for women's voting rights in the early twentieth century. In addition to her leadership role within this political group, she composed the official suffragette anthem, 'The March of Women'.

She was arrested and spent a period in prison for her involvement in a window-breaking campaign, but reportedly enjoyed her trial, making sure that her prosecutors were unable to get a word in edgewise.

This portrait of Smyth is by the Italian painter Antonio Mancini, who belonged to the Verismo school of art. The movement sought to evoke the bold colours and contrasts of the old Italian masters, a style evident in Mancini's work.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1928)Royal College of Music

According to those who worked with her, Smyth herself possessed 'formidable' presence.

It is perhaps because of her tenacity she was able to have her works produced by several of the most prominent opera houses in the world. In order to have 'Der Wald' (1903) programmed at the Metropolitan Opera, Smyth took a business-like approach and presented the management team with box office statements to show that the work would be a financial success. Her unexpectedly practical approach stunned her male counterparts.

However, the work was subjected to highly gendered criticisim. For example, a review from 'The World' complained that the work was 'utterly unfeminine... [lacking] sweetness and grace of phrase', whilst the Telegraph - referring to Smyth rather patronizingly as a 'little woman' - reports:

'[she] writes music with a masculine hand and has a sound and logical brain, such as is supposed to be the special gift of the rougher sex.'

It would appear that the negative response to the opera had a lasting impact: until 2016, 'Der Wald' remained the only opera by a female composer to be included in a season at the Metropolitan Opera.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1936) by Neville Stephen LyttonRoyal College of Music

Even modern day criticism of Smyth's works uses these carefully constructed definitions of masculinity and femininity. Her compositions are still described using stereotypes associated with both sides of the gender dichotomy: her bold and rhythmically strong compositions were not 'feminine' enough, but were also not considered 'masculine' enough to be lauded on the level of her male contemporaries.

Nonetheless, her contributions within the field of composition and her efforts to promote women's work in music are widely recognised. In addition to receiving honorary doctorates from Durham and Oxford University, she became the first female composer to be awarded a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

This 1938 painting shows Smyth in her doctoral gown from Durham University.

Dame Janet Ritterman (2005) by David PooleRoyal College of Music

The Royal College of Music appointed its first female director, Dame Janet Ritterman, in 1993. Ritterman served in this post for twelve years.

Today, the College trains over 500 women from undergraduate through doctoral level. These women make up over 50% of the student body.

Credits: Story

This digital exhibition was curated by Erin McHugh for the Royal College of Music.

Further reading:

Veronica Doubleday, “Sounds of Power: An Overview of Musical Instruments and Gender.” Ethnomusicology Forum, vol. 17, no. 1, 2008, pp. 3–39.

Karen Henson, Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the late 19th Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Hillary Porris and Rachel Cowgill (eds.), The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Ruth Solie, Music in Other Words. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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