Eighteenth-century tourists flocked to Venice’s four renowned institutions for orphans and foundlings, the Ospedali Grandi, to experience music-making by the infamous figlie del coro. Many penned accounts praising the women’s virtuosic mastery of demanding instrumental and vocal repertoire, declaring them among the best musicians in Western Europe. The women performed behind a lattice screen, which left them shrouded in mystery and resulted in fantastical accounts that imagined them to be beautiful, young virgins. In a rare first-hand meeting with the figlie del coro in 1743, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was horrified to discover that the musicians serenading him were mature women aged 21-60, and many were physically deformed, scarred from illness, and otherwise unattractive to him. Struggling to rectify the women’s enchanting musical performance with their overwhelming physical “flaws,” Rousseau eventually resolved that the women’s intellectual wit and musical prowess rendered them sufficiently attractive to him. My presentation theorizes eighteenth-century female “ugliness” as a social disability and evaluates the complex intersection of physical disability with female musical virtuosity and enfreakment.
Dr. Paula Maust is a performer-scholar who has taught in the UMBC Department of Music since 2016. She is the creator of www.expandingthemusictheorycanon.com and has a companion anthology under contract with SUNY Press. As a harpsichordist and organist, she directs Burning River Baroque and Musica Spira and curates thought-provoking concerts connecting early modern music to contemporary social issues. Dr. Maust also teaches music theory and aural skills at the Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory. She has forthcoming articles in the Journal of the International Alliance for Women in Music and Women and Music, and she is currently working on The Ugly Virtuosa, a book project focused on the pejorative rhetoric used to describe the first generation of female professional musicians on the public stage in Western Europe.
Sponsored by Medieval and Early Modern Studies and the History Department