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'That has a gender? Of course it does.' Rachel Becker on Instruments and Gender

The nineteenth-century was a hot-bed of strongly gendered descriptions of woodwind instruments, their sounds, their performers, and their music. In 1851, the sound of the clarinet is “a full, round female voice.” In 1890, the “consummate ease and elegance” of the flute meant that, “owing to this gracefulness of attitude … the flute is so peculiarly well adapted for ladies”. Gendering instruments was unique neither to the time nor to the instrument family, but these nineteenth-century characteristics stayed extremely popular throughout the twentieth century, and both the associations between specific instruments and genders and the lasting ramifications of those associations often remain unexamined by those perpetuating them even now. Samuel Adler’s orchestration manual (originally published in 1982 and updated in 2002) stresses the importance of matching instruments and roles “psychologically as well as musically” before depicting the flute, oboe, and clarinet in feminine terms. But why? And I imagine Bach and Handel would have objected to Walter Piston’s 1955 statement that “agility does not seem suitable to the double-reed tone” – we can blame Berlioz in large part for this remnant of particularly nineteenth-century beliefs.

By looking closer at portrayals of musical and extramusical characteristics of instruments, we can see that current preconceptions are often based on very little evidence. The flute, oboe, and clarinet in the eighteenth century were masculine instruments. Eighteenth-century flautist Johann George Tromlitz advises his flautists to both “try to achieve a steady, metallic singing, even sound” and “try to achieve only such strength as is healthy and masculine”. The early oboe was “Majestical and Stately and not much Inferiour to the Trumpet”, as well as “brave and sprightly”, and this characterization held during the eighteenth century.

But during the nineteenth century, European society became increasingly polarized in its gender roles and subsequently “upper” woodwinds became not just feminine but female. In earlier periods, “difference in sex was more a quantitative than qualitative matter, and a well-populated middle ground between the usual sexes was broadly acknowledged”. In nineteenth-century, though, the European middle class worried that “men were no longer men” and that strong women caused “emasculation”. This change in approach to gender and sex profoundly impacted conceptions of woodwind instruments, as increasingly feminine woodwind instruments became a way to reinforce their players’ masculinity.

The feminization and polarization wasn’t limited to woodwind instruments. The soprano voice changed from indicating both femininity and heroism (in the form of the operatic countertenor and the castrato) to being a solely feminine trait. And the most well-known instrumental gendering of the time might be the violin’s transformation into a woman’s body, seduced and sometimes injured by her male player, à la Paganini.

These images are all from the early twentieth century, but similar textual descriptions were common in Paganini’s lifetime and throughout the following century. An 1829 review from the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung describes Paganini like so: “He seemed to be striking his instrument, like the unhappy youth, who after conjuring up the image of his murdered mistress, destroys it again in a fit of amorous rage; then once more seeks to revive it with tears and caresses.”

Discussions of gender and instruments pop up often in ethnomusicology, where writers like Veronica Doubleday categorize gendered relationships between performers and instruments – both instrument-player relationships where the masculinity of the instrument reinforces the masculinity of the player and those where the masculinity of the player relates in a romantic, sexual, and/or controlling way to his female instrument. But these relationships also surface in the texts of “traditional” musicology. Unlike the high woodwinds, the low-voiced bassoon isn’t a female instrument to be either loved or controlled by a male player, but instead shows how “if an instrument has its own gendered identity…this may support the claim of people of that gender to play it.” An 1806 description of the bassoon claims that bassoon playing “demands the fullest breath and such a sound and masculine embouchure that only few people are fit physically to play it in a masterly manner”: the masculinity of the bassoon means that only men can, or should, play it.

This allegiance-through-similarity might be unusual but it’s definitely not unheard of in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, where strings, winds, and harps have become strongly female – and are still more popular among female performers – but brass instruments generally remain male – and are still more commonly played by men. (Louis Coerne, who seems particularly singular in his opinions writes that “the larger symphonic orchestra of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven added two trumpets to the third group [brass], acquiring thereby a feminine metallic diapason capable of masculine energy.” ) Drums often function like this too, remaining male but reinforcing masculinity (as they do in Western art music and traditional South Indian music), due to the perceived strength requirement for playing them, and “in the Arab-Islamic world wind instruments are associated with virility”, perhaps because of their substantial breath requirements as well as their suggestive shapes.

Doubleday describes how “one effect [of “male dominance over musical instruments”] is that…the very image of a woman playing an instrument may be seen as ‘weird’, awkward or laughable.” Doubleday is writing about female performers, not female instruments, but this should quickly bring to mind descriptions like those of Berlioz, for whom the oboe is an instrument of “naive grace, sentimental delight, or the suffering of weaker creatures”: when attempting strength or showmanship, “its little bittersweet voice becomes quite ineffective and absurd” , and “a march melody, however direct, however beautiful, however noble, loses its nobility, its directness and its beauty when given to the oboes.”

In contrast, the clarinet is praised for being extremely adaptable, for its wide range of affects and expressions. One 20th-century writer describes the clarinet as having “a subtler variety of tone-quality, from velvet-soft to steely-hard”, recalling an 1808 description in which it has “the characteristics which composers desire, and can play equally well the hymn of the warrior or the song of the shepherd.” And the clarinet is described as both masculine and feminine. Is it adaptability that causes androgyny of description regarding the clarinet? Possibly yes.

But how different, really, is the clarinet from, say, the oboe in being suitable for a variety of affects? The clarinet’s dynamic range from “an inaudible ppp to a trumpet-like fff” is a commonly praised trait, and certainly the clarinet can play much more quietly than the oboe. But why then is the oboe associated with gentle and soft feminine music, given the clarinet’s ability to play the same notes? Is it because of the lack of gentle or soft feminine music in opera which is not tinged with poignant sadness? And then why is the clarinet not seen as poignant or sentimental (except perhaps by Berlioz)? Because the oboe is overwhelmingly used as an instrumental indicator of these emotions for operatic women? Instrumental characteristics are derived from the music in which they are used, which is in turn in some senses derived from the descriptions of instrumental characters in orchestration treatises. If this seems like impossibly circular logic that’s because it is. These gendered characteristics don’t have clear antecedents, and later descriptions in particular refer to previous musical examples, which are then described as arising from previous associations.

At the same time, these descriptions turn up in the same kinds of treatises that contain this 1945 portrayal of an oboe’s inner monologue (from a German orchestration book): “I [the oboe] stand on my rickety balcony, and cut the darkness with my absurd longings, the envy for young flutes seething within me (if only it were a lie!) after the comfortable self-righteousness of the chubby-cheeked clarinets (if it were stupidity!), I long to go beyond myself – oh, I am sickly!” Hardly a clear and straightforward depiction of instrumental qualities!

Comparing instruments lets us see how artificial some of their gendered associations and limitations are, and how basic others are. Characterizations are generally range-based, and really are often just an elaborate fleshing out of the literal connection between instruments and voice parts. The bassoon’s low range means that it was not feminized – despite its “sweet, more subdued, but expressive” higher registers. Meanwhile, the oboe’s ability to accompany sopranos becomes a description of the oboe as a young girl “whose voice has such grace, such feminine softness, such secret charms...her heart still palpitating”. And the clarinet’s ability to mimic a female voice in range and volume becomes Berlioz’s “lonely virgin”. In the end, attempts to vividly evoke musical characteristics in writing pair with strengthening gender roles and concerns over women’s abilities, bodies, and freedoms. The oboe not only “resembled the highly stigmatized nineteenth century image of womankind as being always on the verge of hysteria,” but was “brought under subjugation” by the performer “who until the twentieth century was, without exception, male”. Similarly, the clarinet had to be able to “take everything a strong man can give it”, requiring a male performer.

So does this matter outside of historical musicology? Doubleday claims that “the relatively relaxed situation of Europe, where ‘older gender codes’ about musical activity have partially broken down (Koskoff 200b, 200-01), masks a strong history of institutionalized male professionalism”, before going ahead to cite the delayed entry of women into the Vienna Philharmonic. The history of “institutionalized” masculinity is beyond contest. However, the treatment of woodwind instruments well into the twentieth century seem to belie this “masking”.

Of course instrumental performance is broadly acceptable for female players now. But historical gendered associations have continued, in more or less obvious ways, to the present day. Twentieth-century musicians unabashedly treated certain instruments as feminine: in 1977, oboist Leon Goossens wrote, “The oboe is a lady. If we lose her feminine qualities we neutralize the sound which thousands of years of history have sought to sustain and beautify.” And the very instance that Doubleday cites, the Vienna Philharmonic accepting its first female instrumentalist in 1997, emphasizes the way in which the situation is still shifting. The Czech Philharmonic also only accepted its first female instrumentalist in 1996, and in 2007 Vienna still only had one female orchestra member. Despite obvious diversification, in many ways the default musician is still a man.

Lingering biases appear more subtly as well. A review from 2000 of oboist Yeon-Hee Kwak’s recording of five incredibly virtuosic pieces remarks, “that this extraordinary young woman doesn't pass out is truly a miracle”; obviously this is gentler in its problematic association than an assertion that the bassoon can only be played by a strong man, but it recalls entrenched concerns over the oboe’s suitability for women. I challenge you to consider whether you can realistically imagine a review which concludes “that this extraordinary man doesn’t pass out is truly a miracle”.


Rachel Becker received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2018. Her academic work centres on nineteenth-century Italian opera and woodwind music, and she is also an active oboist. She has recently performed with the King’s College and St John’s College Choirs and the Philharmonia and worked with conductors including Sir Roger Norrington.

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