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Transgressive gestures : women and violin performance in eighteenth-century Europe : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Music in Musicology at Massey University and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand School of Music
Studies concerning eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women musicians abound
within recent musicological scholarship, but the focus on singers and keyboard players –
whose musical activities are understood to have “affirmed” their femininity – has had
the effect of obscuring players of less typical instruments. Violin-playing, frequently cast
as a man’s activity and imbued with indecent associations, was a case in point. Yet
despite the connotations of the instrument, a small but significant group of women did
play the violin: it is these violinists that this thesis takes as its central focus. Looking first
at the complex reasons behind objections to women’s violin performance, a number of
factors that restricted women’s access to the violin – including the influence of the male
gaze and limits placed on women’s physical movement – are revealed. Particular
conditions nevertheless enabled certain women to play the violin, namely the personal,
educational, and economic support available from diverse sources such as family
members, patrons, and institutions like convents and the Venetian ospedali.
In addition to placing women violinists in their historical context, this thesis centres on
an analysis of a violin concerto by one of the most well-known female violinists of the
era, the Italian virtuoso Regina Strinasacchi. The analysis of Strinasacchi’s Violin
Concerto in B flat major is strongly performance based and focuses on the issue of
gender and physical movement (performance gesture), topics which were of much interest
to eighteenth-century commentators who witnessed women violinists performing. As
such the analysis engages with concepts from “embodied” musicology. In exploring
Strinasacchi’s concerto we see that female violinists could experiment with a variety of
gendered roles through violin performance, embodying both masculinity and femininity
through their transgressive gestures. By taking a closer look at women’s violin
performance and experiences, this thesis aims to show that these violinists were not as
peripheral to the workings of the wider musical community as is sometimes implied.
Furthermore, it aims to put women violinists more firmly at the centre of their own
stories, challenging the tendency to treat female violinists as novel anomalies.