Someday I’d like to do a project on women and piano-playing around the turn of the 19th century. Women were perhaps the primary consumers of pianos for the home in this period, especially as the 19th century progressed. And I’ve noticed in my reading of late 18th-century musical journals that it was not at all uncommon for a woman to be described as a virtuoso on the piano, but at the same time, it was also routine for critics to denigrate female piano players as a group. So I’m creating a category on this blog to collect observations on this topic as I go along with my other research, and this is the first post in that category.
Last week I was reading some early-19th-century piano playing methods and came across a few comments suggesting that the piano was the most (or indeed the only) fitting instrument for women to play, because it is the least likely to cause physical injury. For example, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, in the Foreword to his Anweisung zum Fortepiano-Spiele (Instructions for Playing the Fortepiano) of 1828, closes his list of the piano’s various advantages with the following comment:
…playing [the pianoforte] is also the least likely to have a detrimental effect upon the health of even the weakest body; not to mention other inconveniences, which occur in varying degrees with other instruments, but not at all with the piano.
Hummel doesn’t mention women specifically here, only “weak bodies.” Carl Czerny, however, in his Foreword to his Vollständige theoretisch-praktische Pianoforte-Schule (Complete Theoretical-Practical Piano School) of 1839, is a little more specific:
…[the fortepiano] is also almost the only [instrument] fit to be used by the fair sex in particular, since…the study of the fortepiano is the least likely to cause any kind of injury to the health.
In light of Czerny’s comment, I think that by the phrase “weaker bodies,” Hummel, too, probably meant female bodies in particular. I don’t know how typical these comments are for the period, and if I come across similar ones as I continue reading, I will try to make a note of it. They’re immediately interesting to me because I don’t yet know of any such statements from the 18th century.
It is perhaps true that keyboard instruments pose fewer ergonomic problems than, for example, the violin or the flute, where different sides of the body are stressed differently. On the other hand, of course, one is tempted to suspect that what Czerny and Hummel really thought was that playing the violin or the flute was not physically harmful to women so much as simply inappropriate: not domestic enough (because a portable instrument like a violin or flute doesn’t tie you to the drawing room), too exhibitionist (too much puffing and blowing), or unwomanly in some other way. This fits in with a well-established picture of women in this period confined to the domestic sphere, primly making music primarily for the family.
I sometimes try to remind myself, however, that it can be a good idea to refrain from thinking I know what anyone “really thought.” What if Hummel and Czerny “really thought” exactly what they wrote—that playing musical instruments could be harmful to your health? What kinds of questions could I ask then? A few that come to mind, none of which I’ve ever thought about before: Did women themselves tend to agree that playing musical instruments could be physically dangerous, or was this really a means of patriarchal control? Did builders consider health issues when they engineered pianos? Were music lessons structured with health issued in mind? Was playing musical instruments in fact perceived as potentially dangerous not only for women but also for men with frail constitutions, as Hummel’s comment would seem to suggest? Are there documented instances of women or men becoming sick from playing an instrument? Were they treated for such ailments, and how? Is there any evidence to be found in medical literature from the period?
Perhaps none of these questions lead anywhere. On the other hand, I know it is true that taking historical accounts seriously, instead of “interpreting” them to fit into a picture whose outlines you think you know, can very often open up whole new areas of investigation, and for this reason it’s a valuable exercise at the very least. In other words: I always want to pay attention to what people actually said, not what I think they must have meant. It’s usually more interesting.