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The Unladylike Instrument: Thoughts About Cello Playing and Gender

Exploring the Intersections of Gender, Meaning, and Cello Playing — A New Series by Dr. Shulamit Sarid

Dr. Shulamit Sarid

Dr. Shulamit Sarid, cellist and musicologist. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Shulamit Sarid

There is something quite egalitarian about cello playing that I have always liked. Gender identity, race, looks, and social class seem irrelevant to the pure process of sound production and emotional expression. One could argue that, in the end, it is only one’s talent and hard work that matter.

Yet, as I learned throughout the years, cello playing and its history, like any other history, is intimately connected with socio-political questions of race and gender. In this series of essays, I explore the intersections of gender, meaning, and cello playing.

What does it mean to view the history of the cello through a feminist lens? How has gender shaped the cello’s history as it is perceived today? And, on a deeper level, how does gender affect the way we listen to women cellists?

Musical Patriarchy

Before delving into these questions, it is vital to understand musicological terms that examine the social factors that still marginalize women cellists today. The history of women instrumentalists in Western art music and many musical cultures around the world can be traced by a concept that musicologist Lucy Green terms “musical patriarchy.” Namely, the division of musical production into two separate spheres: a male, public, professional sphere; and a female, private, amateur one.

In the past, women were expected to occupy the domestic sphere, playing for the amusement of their families and friends, accompanying singing, or tutoring children at home. Meanwhile, men were allowed to perform in public as professional instrumentalists.

Moreover, when women did perform in public, they generally confined themselves to musical activities that were characteristically “feminine,” playing “elegant” instruments like the harp or the piano, which were deemed socially desirable because they could be played demurely and at home.

In contrast, the cello, a large, “manly” instrument, was seen until the twentieth century as “unladylike” and “offensive” for women because of the suggestive way it was held between the legs.

While, in “musical patriarchy,” male performance (and whiteness) are considered ordinary, having women on stage disrupts the filter of masculinity through which we normally listen to music. Indeed, audiences are sometimes distracted by the female performer’s appearance, her deep cleavage, or how short her dress is. The media treatment of pianist Yuja Wang is a well-reported example.

Some listeners even hear music performed by female cellists differently, as they expect women to produce a particular sound – usually smaller or gentler – and take note when their playing does not conform to these norms. This was often brought up in regards to “Natalia Gutman’s style of masculine playing.”

Lisa Cristiani

To give a few examples, consider how the writers of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians portray the trailblazing cellist Lise Cristiani (24 December 1827 – 24 October 1853) as “the only notable female cellist before the late 19th century,” known for “her repertory of salon pieces” that she played “sympathetically and elegantly, with small tone but precise intonation.”

The first cello historian Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski (17 June 1822 – 13 December 1896), goes so far as to say that the general approbation of Cristiani’s playing “was substantially increased by her beautiful and imposing appearance,” while Margert Campbell mentions Natalia Gutman’s strict scale routine despite “having three children.”

The great Jacqueline du Pré, described as having a “wonderful Alice in Wonderland-like naiveté about her,” was at the same time depicted in the infamous movie Hilary and Jackie as sexually debased and lewd. Even in 2007, critic Harriet Smith found it necessary to remark in her review of Sol Gabetta’s album that “this cellist is anything but a dizzy blonde.”

The “Objectivity” Myth

“But our decisions are perfectly objective and are solely based on talent and musical ability,” any competition chairman would argue against my claims, defending the lack of gender and racial diversity among his or her jury members.

I do not maintain that male adjudicators are inherently biased against women or are incapable of awarding top prizes to female cellists in major international competitions. On a related note, I extend heartfelt congratulations to Hayoung Choi, winner of the 2022 Queen Elisabeth Competition. However, I do argue that musicological theories can help us better understand the continuing inequalities between women and men in the cello world.

The 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo by Peter Adamik.

Take, for instance, the number of women cellists in leading orchestras such as the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Pay attention to gender inequality in higher education and the attrition of female jurors in almost any cello competition.

Ask yourself why, since 1966, not a single female cellist has won the first prize of the Tchaikovsky International Competition. Why is the invaluable work of conservatory teachers – most of them women – underrated and underpaid, despite their work being fundamental to the future of cello playing? As long as cello playing is embedded with gendered meaning, musical objectivity is, unfortunately, unattainable.

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