Virtuoso codes of violin performance: power, military heroism, and gender (1789-1830)

Kawabata, M. (2004) Virtuoso codes of violin performance: power, military heroism, and gender (1789-1830). 19th-Century Music, 28 (2) pp. 89-107. ISSN 0148-2076 (print) 1533-8606 (online)


Beyond its glossy surface of virtuosity and lyricism, a violin concerto is replete with a vocabulary of hidden and (on second glance) not so hidden gestures. From Beethoven's timpani strokes to Paganini's marches and fanfares, the genre employs a host of "heroic" elements and gestures borrowed from military band music. In the period 1789-1830 these borrowings were hardly restricted to a purely musical level. Rather, I argue, military themes and ideas permeated virtually every aspect of a violin concerto's composition, performance, and reception. In the famous concertos as with countless now-forgotten works (of Viotti, Kreutzer, Rode, Baillot, Spohr, Alday, De Beriot, Lipinski, and Prume), the combination of military topoi with the soloist's leading role characterized the violinist as a military hero. Simultaneously, the tendency to compare violinists to mythological or historical figures became increasingly focused on the image of military leaders (Scipio, Alexander, and Napoleon). All the while, the act of performance exuded masculine codes of power, partly through the symbolism of the bow as a weapon. Taken together, it is these codes of military heroism and gendered power that shaped the culture of violin virtuosity, itself an outgrowth of a larger cultural trend stemming from Napoleon's own military heroism.

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