The Curious Case of the Clarinet: Gendering the Androgynous Woodwind

  • Abstract

    Opera fantasias, virtuosic solo pieces based on operatic themes, offer woodwind players, and their instruments, a means of appropriating (or attaining) vocality and thus participating more fully in the dominant Italian musical paradigm. However, instrumental performers enact and portray characters at a symbolic remove rather than literally as singers do. This virtual, rather than literal, embodiment rubs against issues of the gender alignment of characters, players, and instruments, which are frequently described in gendered vocal terms. The instrument’s vocality becomes a way of understanding not only its sound but also its character. In Europe in the nineteenth century, in contrast to earlier conceptions, flutes and oboes became not just feminine but female, and their players’ masculinity was reinforced. Woodwind instruments were not alone in this; the violin transformed into a woman’s body, seduced and sometimes injured by her male player. These gender assignments have proved long-lasting. Twentieth-century musicians unabashedly gendered certain instruments as feminine, and in many ways the default musician is still a man. While the discussion of associations between gender and instruments is common in ethnomusicology, these associations and their lasting ramifications often remain unexamined by those perpetuating them; Samuel Adler’s orchestration manual, for example, stresses the importance of matching instruments and roles “psychologically as well as musically” before portraying the flute, oboe, and clarinet in feminine terms. However, the clarinet caused problems for a society determined to assign characteristics and performance possibilities to instruments based on their range and tone. Masculine and low or feminine and high – or a combination of the two genders through its ability to decrescendo from a trumpeting forte to a dolce whisper – the clarinet maintained a descriptive androgyny at odds with the boxes set around the flute, oboe, and bassoon, revealing the artificial nature of this gendering at its conception and now.