The essay is in three parts. Here's the first.
Anyone remotely acquainted with me knows that I have an obsessive nature. I have a great love for the Victorian era, the history of women (especially women artists and writers and musicians), and of course the violin. I combined those three passions together when writing this essay about Wilma Norman-Neruda, one of the first great women violin virtuosos. I'd known about her for a long time - ever since reading A Study in Scarlet ten years ago - but I had never dug around for biographical information on her before. After reading Laurie Niles's recent inspiring interview with Rachel Barton Pine about Maud Powell, another early woman violinist, I decided the time was right to do a little research on Madame Norman-Neruda, Maud's trailblazing forerunner. Shockingly, as best as I can ascertain, this is the longest biography of her on the Internet, although she was the first great woman violinist. As this is just an essay I wrote mainly for my own enjoyment and edification, and because I've never had any training in writing scholarly works, it is not sourced, but I thought it was worth sharing nonetheless. If you have any information on Wilma I would love to hear it. Here's to hoping more people will become familiar with Wilma's name and work in the future.
Here’s a little quiz for those of you who consider yourself somewhat knowledgeable about the history of violin-playing.
Have you ever heard of Ysaye? Joachim? Tartini? Sarasate? Kreisler? Of course.
But how about Sacchi? Norman-Neruda? Urso? Hall? Parlow? Jackson? Soldat? Tua? Saenger-Sethe? (Fortunately, thanks to Laurie Niles’s recent interview with Rachel Barton Pine, readers of this site are familiar with Powell.)
The first list contains the names of men; the second, of women. Due to a sad twist of fate, the manifold accomplishments of female violin virtuosos from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have largely slipped from our collective consciousness. In an era when an ever-increasing percentage of our great violinists are women, it is worth taking a step back and recognizing that just a few generations ago, violin-playing was considered to be not just unladylike, but indecent. This review of a concert by violinist Elise Mayer Filipowicz, dating from 1834, is a typical one: although her playing “[gave] our ears great pleasure,…our eyes told us that the instrument is not one for ladies to attempt.” Louis Spohr, according to Paula Gillett in her book Musical Women in England, 1870-1914, believed that women were guilty “of mishandling the violin and lowering performance standards.” A woman named Blanche Lindsay wrote in 1880 that she had “known girls of whom it was darkly hinted that they played the violin, as it might be said that they smoked big cigars, or enjoyed the sport of rat-catching.”
Why did women violinists excite such an acute antipathy? Historians are still scratching their heads over the question. As with so many other deeply entrenched societal attitudes, it seems that there was not one simple explanation, but rather a series of interrelating ones. First and foremost, the violin did not have a particularly wholesome reputation in the early part of the nineteenth century. Although the violin has been associated with Satan for hundreds of years (a belief that first gained traction when portable stringed instruments were played during dances, gatherings which the Catholic Church looked down upon), the connection was solidified in the popular imagination by the performances of Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840), a violinist who looked so macabre and played so brilliantly he was widely assumed to be in league with the devil. Paradoxically, women in the Victorian era were considered to be both spiritually weaker and purer than men, and while it was believed that they needed to be protected from spiritually corrosive forces, they were also expected to set a spiritual and moral example to society as a whole. Playing an instrument so long and so closely associated with the devil was deemed to be incompatible with such a lofty goal.
Other more insidious reasons came into play. In the gender-obsessed Victorian era, men and women alike were all too aware of the aesthetic similarities between a violin and a woman’s body. As if to underscore these similarities, violins and human beings even share many of the names of their parts (the belly, the ribs, the neck, etc.). Not to mention that the range of the violin is almost identical to that of a soprano - a uniquely womanly range. Most people believed that such an obviously feminine instrument required a masculine player - a “master” - to play and dominate it, as they felt that women needed to be “played” and dominated by men. A woman playing the violin was faintly suggestive of lesbianism or self-love. Even Yehudi Menuhin, born in 1916, long after the Victorian era had come to a close, subscribed to a form of this view, writing:
I have often wondered whether psychologically there is a basic difference between the woman’s relationship to the violin and the man’s… Does the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves? Is there an element of narcissism in the woman’s relation to the violin, and is she, in fact, in a curious way, better matched for the cello? The handling and playing of a violin is a process of caress and evocation, of drawing out a sound which awaits the hands of the master.
As if these reasons were not vague or bizarre enough, Victorian reviewers often even objected to the way that women looked when playing the violin. For some reason the standing, the clamping down of the chin, and quick energetic bowing in presto passages were all deemed to be aesthetically unpleasing and inherently unfeminine acts. Ladies were encouraged to stick to instruments society felt were more passive and domestic, such as the piano or the harp.
Whatever its precise causes, prejudice against female violinists was rampant throughout Europe until the mid-Victorian era. Despite this, a few exceptional female players still made their way into the music history books. Mozart wrote his b-flat minor violin sonata, K. 454, at the request of a female violinist named Regina Sacchi, about whom he declared, “No human being can play with more feeling.” Viotti taught at least two women, one of whom tutored Empress Josephine’s son. Paganini is reputed to have given lessons to a talented youngster from his hometown of Genoa, Italy, named Caterina Calgano. The “sisters Milanollo” - two sisters named Teresa (1827-1904) and Maria (1832-1848) - were prodigies who played the violin together all over Europe in the 1840s. When Maria died at the age of sixteen, the grief-stricken Teresa continued her career as a solo violinist. Still, despite these and other contributions by female string players, it was generally considered strange for a woman to play the violin, and there were no women virtuosos to speak of who could stand in comparison with the best of men.
Into this prejudiced musical climate, a little girl named Wilhelmine Maria Franziska Neruda was born in Brno, now in the Czech Republic, sometime between 1838 and 1840 (as with many prodigies, there are conflicting reports over the year of her birth). Music surrounded little Wilma from the beginning; her father Josef was the organist at the Brno cathedral, and her ancestors had a local reputation of being exceptionally musical. At least five of her siblings showed extraordinary musical promise from a very early age: all were prodigies, and all went on to become professional musicians - Olga and Amalie on the piano, Viktor and Franz on the cello, and Marie on the violin.
Shortly before her fourth birthday, Wilma began to show an interest in the violin. Her father, alarmed at her preference for such an unfeminine instrument, directed her to the piano instead. But, as one 1899 article in a Toronto newspaper delicately put it, “She had a most cordial dislike for the piano, regarding it as an instrument of limitations.” Josef had been teaching one of his sons to play the violin, and one day Wilma got a hold of it. She began playing in secret, resolving that if nobody was going to teach her how to play, she would just do it herself. When she was discovered, instead of disciplining her, Josef relented and began to give his persistent daughter lessons. Much to his astonishment, she caught on more quickly than her brother. By the time she was six, Josef sent Wilma to Vienna, where she studied under Leopold Jansa, a famous Bohemian violinist. Wilma Neruda proved to be one of his two most famous pupils; the other was the violinist and composer Karl Goldmark.
In 1846 Wilma Neruda made her public debut in Vienna, accompanied by her pianist sister Amalie. Shortly afterward their father took them on a concert tour across Europe, along with their cellist brother Viktor. Wilma quickly emerged as the star. In April of 1849 the family gave their London debut. Wilma playing Vieuxtemps’s Arpeggio and Ernst’s Carnival of Venice variations, with Amalie and Viktor accompanying. (Little did she know that when she grew up she would play Ernst’s Stradivari.) Their two concerts were so successful that the family was re-engaged for sixteen more. At these later concerts she played a de Beriot concerto and Vieuxtemps’s Yankee Doodle Variations, as well as a composition entitled “God Save the Queen” - as composed by herself! The critics raved over her intonation and bowing; her up and down bow staccato were said to be some of the cleanest the London critics had heard.
In June of that year she gave yet another concert in England, playing another de Beriot concerto. A Mr. Chorley, from the Athenaeum magazine, wrote in a lukewarm review:
Mdlle. Wilhlemine Neruda - whom we may name since there is small chance of our remarks reaching her painfully - has been capitally trained - and may, in time, emulate those more distinguished girl-violinists, the sisters Milanollo; but childish curiosity and indulgent applause - were they not destructive to their victim - are not the emotions to excite which the Philharmonic Concerts were founded.
Although Chorley ostensibly claimed to object to Wilma’s appearance because she was a flashy prodigy as opposed to than a full-fledged performing artist, he was actually concealing the fact that he was one of the many people who were hostile to the idea of women performers. A few decades later, after Wilma had established a commanding international career, and other women were following suit, he famously complained in the press that “The fair sex are encroaching on all men’s privileges.” Thankfully, as Wilma grew up, such views slowly but surely became more and more unfashionable. Wilma Neruda - along with the Milanollo sisters and another female violinist named Camilla Urso (1842-1902) - were gradually helping to reshape ideas about the appropriateness of the violin for ladies. Although audiences were skeptical at the idea at first, the more they saw women violinists perform, the less threatening they became. It seemed to them that women who had devoted their lives to the violin were not any less feminine than those who hadn’t. It was an uphill struggle, but the battle against prejudice had begun.
In 1852 Wilma and her family arrived in Moscow to give a series of concerts. For one of them, she played in the same concert with the seventeen-year-old prodigy Henryk Wieniawski. After Wilma’s performance, Henri Vieuxtemps came onstage to present her with a bouquet of flowers while the enthusiastic audience gave her a standing ovation. Wieniawski became jealous of Wilma’s great triumph and elbowed his way back onstage, loudly insisting that he was the better violinist and offering to prove it. Outraged audience members clambered up onto the stage to quiet him, but this only angered him more. When a Russian general came to reason with him, Wieniawski prodded him with his bow and ordered him to be quiet. Harassing a member of the military in such a fashion was no small offense in Imperial Russia, and Wieniawski was ordered to leave Moscow within twenty-four hours. His punishment could easily have been much worse. It is strange to think that Wieniawski may have been injured or killed, and his subsequent contributions to violin music lost, over such a trivial scuffle. Despite the insult Wieniawski had paid her, Wilma played his compositions throughout her life. One wonders if every time she pulled out the sheet music she remembered the commotion she had set off in Moscow.
Check out parts two of three, discussing Wilma's marriage and groundbreaking professional achievements from the 1870s and 1880s.
You might also like:
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.