The gendered physical narrative of wind virtuosity: Pasculli, the opera fantasia, and the female oboe

Rachel Becker

Boise State University, USA


Whether it is the discomfort of circular breathing or the flourish of a bow, physicality holds power over an audience. Visual aspects allow the audience to empathize with the performer: to recognize the difficulty of their task and to become more fully invested in the emotions and affects of the piece being played. But simultaneously, visual aspects of playing become an arena for restrictions in who may play what, and virtuosity produces a tension between the enjoyment of the player and of the audience, between what is comfortable and what looks good, and also emotionally “between appearances and an interiority not ultimately accessible to display”, as Elisabeth Le Guin argues. Further, critically, virtuosity reads differently for different instruments, for different times, and different places.

Le Guin focuses on eighteenth-century performance, but applying her analytical methods to the virtuosic oboe works of Antonio Pasculli (a fixture of Palermo musical life in the late 1800s) proves similarly enlightening of nineteenth-century virtuosity, the nineteenth-century body, and the nineteenth-century performer-composer.

Here I focus on the physicality of oboe performance (and its appearance in Pasculli’s music) and the connection of this physicality to the firm rooting of the oboe in the physicality and emotions of the female body and mind. The ubiquity of the “carnal” when performing does not diminish its legitimacy as a means of analysis; instead it supports this approach. Every instrument is rooted in physicality, but the differences between instruments are clear and illuminating.

A review from 1988 describes oboist Léon Goossens as having “showed the way to making the instrument (previously considered “too strenuous”) into one suitable for young ladies”, showing the continued resonance of the oboe’s tricky historical physicality. More subtly, a review from 2000 of oboist Yeon-Hee Kwak’s recording of five Pasculli pieces remarks, “that this extraordinary young woman doesn’t pass out is truly a miracle”; this is certainly gentler in its problematic association than an assertion that the bassoon can only be played by a strong man, but it does recall 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”.

The oboe remains even now an instrument whose need to be controlled, and whose resistance to such control, reflects a nineteenth century conception of a woman’s body and of the activities appropriate for women. Beyond this, the intricate connections between the physicality of performance and the musical content of fantasias magnify narrative possibilities in these works, allowing the operatic women portrayed within them to escape their operatic tragedies and actively perform their own happy endings.

 Keywords: Gender, physicality, instrument


Dr. Rachel Becker is Assistant Professor of Musicology and Oboe at Boise State University. She previously taught at the University of Cambridge in the UK, where she also received her PhD. Rachel’s research focuses on issues of genre, virtuosity, gender, popularity, and the development of woodwind instruments. She explores social and cultural influences on woodwind opera fantasias, including their reception history and the (positive and negative) emotional responses they have evoked contemporaneously and today, as well as the ways in which the composerperformers manipulated the operas they used. Future research plans include investigating the original performance spaces of these pieces, as well as the specific mechanics of instruction and performance of these works at the time in which they were composed. Rachel remains active as a performing oboist. She has played with the Portland Opera, with the King’s College and St John’s College, Cambridge choirs and with the Philharmonia Orchestra.