The Public Humanist

Grace, Beauty, and … Masculine Fire?

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”


In October, 1880, the New York Times noted a performance at Masonic Hall by Miss Helen Potter, a touring actress of some renown. Potter specialized in concert platform recitations, readings, and impersonations of famous people both living and dead. That night she shared the stage with “her company, known as the Pleiades … which includes … a company of ‘much talent’ … the Eichberg quartet” [sic].

Formal portrait of unidentified female violin student ca. 1910-1920

Formal portrait of unidentified female violin student ca. 1910-1920, courtesy of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute

The Eichberg String Quartette, founded 1878, was the first professional female string quartet. The group was comprised of “four young ladies of girlish appearance,” as a reviewer would put it a year later, who garnered generous applause for mastery of their instruments despite sexist expectations. A later performance at the University of Michigan in 1881 was awarded “the honors of the Evening” by the student newspaper, although “their playing at times lacked masculine vividity and fire.” They rendered their selections with enough “grace and beauty,” however, to apparently satisfy the critic.

Their popularity only grew. In Cuba, NY, their performance was “repeatedly applauded,” although Miss Potter’s impersonation of Susan B. Anthony revived memories of “the late ‘unpleasantness’ in our town over woman’s right to limited franchise.”

The Eichberg Quartette continued to poke at the borders of women’s “franchise” to professional public success with their bows, despite lack of masculine “fire.” This group of talented young women were pioneers, the beneficiaries of a progressive education at an equally young Boston Conservatory under the leadership of its legendary founding director, Julius Eichberg (1824-1893).

Eichberg, who also served as superintendent of musical instruction in Boston’s public schools, enthusiastically espoused equal opportunity for both genders, and promoted educational efforts to open doors and bust borders wherever he could.

Prejudice proved a formidable barrier to talented women in music, as in other professions.

Eichberg can rightly be termed a visionary for nurturing the female musicians who made up his Quartette. The original group, c. 1879, included Lillian Chandler (violin); Lillian Shattuck (violin); Abbie Shepardson (viola); and Lettie Launder (cello). By the turn of the century, some of these players would extend Eichberg’s legacy by becoming highly influential educators themselves. Lillian Shattuck, for instance, established a successful music school in Boston. Another student, Edith Lynwood Winn, would not only teach but become an ardent advocate for women musicians through her articles in national music journals.

Female students at Radcliffe College, where Lillian Shattuck taught

Portrait of four unidentified students ca. 1910-1920 from Lillian Shattuck’s scrapbook, including two hundred and three photographs of her violin students ca. 1900-1915.

Prejudice proved a formidable barrier to talented women in music, as in other professions. As late as the 1840s very few women took up violin as a solo or an ensemble instrument. The piano, the voice—these were “womanly” instruments, and the way women looked while singing or sitting demurely at the piano was vital to acceptance of their professional endeavors. Women looked awkward or unattractive when bowing a violin, it was thought; playing instruments which were held between the legs was completely unacceptable.

Women’s prospects for orchestral work, outside an all-female ensemble, were deemed ludicrous due to their supposed lack of capacity and strength for “arduous rehearsal.”

Fighting these stereotypes would be slow going. “Even twenty years ago it was an odd sight, and one that rarely failed to elicit … comment, not always charitable, when a … young woman carried a violin case through the streets of a city,” observed T.L. Krebs in November, 1893, happily noting the progress for women instrumentalists made by then. Yet the same article stated firmly that women could never master musical theory or “the solution of profound musical problems” in composition as would her intellectually superior male counterpart.

Women’s prospects for orchestral work, outside an all-female ensemble, were deemed ludicrous due to their supposed lack of capacity and strength for “arduous rehearsal,” ability to concentrate attention on a conductor, and perform in public for “two to three hours at a stretch.” Such work, claimed the writer of an article, reprinted in a November 1895 issue of Scientific American, would “send her physical forces completely to the wall.”

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Group portrait of unidentified violin students and teachers in staircase ca. 1898, also from Lillian Shattuck’s scrapbook. Special thanks for these photos to the wonderful Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It all seems quaint now, yes? After all, women are fully integrated into the professional world. One’s gender should never dictate the kind of instrument one should play or with whom one collaborates. A female in a powerful position is natural and right. Women need not offer only “grace and beauty” (in addition to talent) to be successful.

And yet … “There is also … a physiological restraint … sometimes women are discouraged by the very physical aspect….” So said Bruno Mantovani, director of the Paris Conservatoire, during a France-Musique radio program … in 2013.

And yet … “The important thing is, a woman should be beautiful, likable, attractive. Musicians will look at her and be distracted from the music! … The essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness.” So said Yuri Temirkanov, music director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, in a 2012 interview.

Sadly, female conductors today are as rare as female violinists used to be. But education is leading the way again.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was the first woman to hold that position with a major American orchestra. She is also music director of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was the first woman to hold that position with a major American orchestra. She is also music director of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra.

In South London, young female music students are learning to step into the command podium at Morley College. Marin Alsop conducts not only orchestras but masterclasses for aspiring women conductors. And the Boston Conservatory today boasts alumni of both genders who have earned their Master of Music in Orchestral Conducting.

Then, as now, education serves the very best tea and the finest bread to those with hunger for open horizons. The legacy of educators like Julius Eichberg and Lillian Shattuck lives on.

Let’s spread a feast, shall we?

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