Flutey Careers of 18th Century Women

I feel like there are a couple contradictory assumptions when it comes to historical flutists – some observe that a majority of modern flutists are women, and assume that’s always been the case, while others notice that most historical flute repertoire was composed by men, and conclude that women flutists were exceptions to the rule.

The latter can lead to the impression that women flutists were extremely rare. However, the Common Practice Period spanned several centuries with a range of social norms and ideologies – which also affected the way that musical women pursued their careers.

A girl in a long, flowy pink and yellow dress and a bonnet sits by a stone planter and hilds a flute ready to play. A boy in a long orange coat and a straw hat sits next to her and reaches over to correct her hand position. Two sheep watch them from the background. Turquoise text at the top of the picture reads: "How did 18th century women become flutists?"
“A Shepherd Teaching a Shepherdess to Play the Flute,” attributed to Luigi Dominique Soldini, ca. 1750s

The 1700s was a time before many European revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, and early capitalism – so if you lived during the Enlightenment and wanted to become a flutist or a composer of flute music, what’s a girl to do? Your options would depend greatly on your family’s economic class and social circle – but even the most practical options might sound foreign to modern ears. Let’s start by taking a look at why that may be.

Music as a Trade

The Industrial Revolution didn’t begin until around 1760 – about a decade after the Baroque era ended. Trades and apprenticeships were still the norm, and many businesses were arranged around generations of families. That’s not to say that there weren’t entrepreneurial ventures – but new enterprises tended to be taken on by couples with resources (like land or inheritance) as a joint venture between marriage partners.

Still-life painting of musical instruments on a table with a blue tablecloth.  A lute and an open book of sheet music are propped up on a tabletop music stand in the center, surrounded by a horn, bagpipe, transverse flute, clarinet, and violin.
Anne Vallayer-Coster, “Instruments de musique,” 1770

In modern times, we commonly think of musical employment in terms of gigs – but in the early 1700s, day labor and gig work (and by extension, the possibility of a career as an individual) was just starting to become more common. The musicians in surviving records tended to be virtuosos who toured major cities, composers and family ensembles employed by court patrons, or members of religious institutions. (This is partly a bias in written records – anything from this era that was made to last and/or actively preserved was expensive to create, and therefore came from noble courts or the church).


When talking about historical women, it’s also important to take a more objective look at marriage. Back in the 1700s, marriage functioned as a cheat sheet for social organization that determined the economic role each family member contributed – it was more of a practical business arrangement than the love-match it’s commonly seen as today.

Meme of the Archdean of Florin from the movie "The Princess Bride" saying "mawwiage" during the  wedding ceremony between Buttercup and Prince Humperdinck.

Ready-made products weren’t a thing yet, so there was a lot of important behind-the-scenes work involved in maintaining a household, business, or plot of land. The head of family, his wife, unmarried relatives, widows with inheritance, and youth old enough to learn trades or work the field, all fulfilled different familial duties.

In this era, it simply wasn’t possible to do everything yourself, so your network of relatives was super important. And as a result, marriage was the biggest determining factor of the kind of socio-economic resources a woman could access.

A Note on Historical Biases

The tendency of modern scholars to emphasize written records has only exacerbated this further, as many historical publications were printed under the name of the official business owner – the male head of family. However, just because 18th century women didn’t have individual careers and were limited by patriarchal systems does not mean that their contributions were not known and valued during their lifetimes.

Women’s Musical Careers in the 18th Century

Now that we’ve got a general sense of the 18th century economic environment, let’s take a look at a few career paths open to Baroque era flutists and composers from across the class spectrum in Europe.

Family Ensembles

If you weren’t in the upper class, becoming a musician in a family ensemble was your best bet – and seems to have been a relatively common path among women musicians employed by court patrons. (Though since records these patrons kept are our main source of information about these musicians, we don’t know much about their lives outside of the court gigs).

An Italian musical family from the 1760s showing 5 women and 4 men standing around a small keyboard instrument on a table.  They are all holding their instruments, which include a guitar, lute, theorbo, and violins.
Carlo Amalfi, “Famiglia di musici,” ca. 1760

This manner of employment could come about in a couple different ways. If you were born into a musical family, you learned to play and compose music as you grew up, as an apprentice to an older relative. This was a great opportunity for girls to learn from their mothers and/or other female relatives – role models that young women in later centuries did not always have. If you weren’t born into a musical family, you could marry into one after learning vocational skills relevant to a music-related business (like publishing, instrument-making, or managing an ensemble), to gain access to musical resources and social connections.

But marriage could go both ways – surviving records of musical activities can taper off for women who married out of a musical family (as they joined their husband’s economic ventures in a different trade), or took time off to raise children (whether they married into a musical family or outside of one).

Mlle Taillart & Johanne Sophie Mudrich

Sketch of a concert in the theatre of the Tuileries palace in Paris in the mid-19th century.  There are two levels of crowded seats, a main floor and a wrap-around balcony, with a high ceiling supported by columns.  The ceiling is domed and covered with elaborate artwork, and a massive chandelier hangs over the center of the room.
Henri Valentin, “Le Théâtre des Tuileries,” 1852

The Concert Spirituel was a concert series for the upper class hosted at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Performances were held on religious holidays, to provide entertainment while other venues in the city were closed. Although women flutists were not super common in the 1700s, it seems unlikely that these two would have been allowed to perform in concerts like this if it was truly considered improper.

Upper-class citizens of Venice mill around a ballroom in a gala event for visiting Russian nobility, with men wearing dark colors and women wearing red and white dresses with poofy skirts. In a 3-tiered balcony on the upper left, the women's orchestra from the Ospedale della Pieta performs. The musicians all wear black gowns and caps.
Francesco Guardi, “Venezianisches Galakonzert,” 1782.
The women’s orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà performs from the balcony (upper left) at a gala concert commemorating a visit from Russian nobility.

Convents and Orphanages

If you weren’t connected to a musical family and/or didn’t want to marry, your best bet was to join a religious institution with a music program for girls and women. The most famous example is the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, one of four ospedale grandi that were renowned across Europe for their all-female ensembles. The Ospedale was a convent, music school, and orphanage. Their female residents had the option to learn music, which offered them the opportunity to practice instruments that they would not have otherwise been allowed. They could also learn conducting and composition, though they were only allowed to perform within the Ospedale walls.

Anna Bon di Venezia

Although most girls were admitted to the Ospedale as infants, they also took on a few “figlia di spese” and “figlia d’educazi” – talented youth sponsored by a wealthy patron to study music. Anna Bon became one of the latter after a successful audition at age four, sponsored by her grandfather while her parents (travelling court musicians) were employed in Moscow.

Portrait of Anna Bon di Venezia, an Italian composer, as a young woman. She looks directly at the viewer, with her hair powdered and curled into a high braided bun with teardrop pearls woven in. A lock of curled hair rests on her left shoulder. She wears a white dress with poofy sleeves, and holds a bouquet of pink and blue flowers and a rolled up piece of sheet music.
Anna Bon di Venezia

Anna Amalia, Princess of Prussia

Anna Amalia had initially learned music in secret with her brother, who gifted her a flute in the 1740s. Although she was proficient on that instrument, she became more well-known for playing keyboard and organ. She took a great interest in the music of J.S. Bach, and curated a library of over 600 scores that have become invaluable to modern scholars. Her Flute Sonata in F Major is one of her few surviving works.

Portrait of Anna Amalia of Prussia as a young woman. She looks directly at the viewer, and wears a powdered wig and black tricorn hat. Her gray, longsleeve, high-necked dress is heavily embroidered and her skirt spreads out wide at the hips.
Anna Amalia, Prinzessin von Preußen, as painted by Antoine Pesne
Frederick the Great plays flute in an opulent room with paintings on every inch of wall and a large crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. CPE Bach accompanies him on harpsichord, with Franz Benda on violin. Their audience includes Johann Joachim Quantz, Princesses Anna Amalia and Wilhelmine, and Carl Heinrich Graun.
Adolph Menzel, “Frederick the Great Playing the Flute at Sanssouci,” 1752
Frederick the Great’s sisters, Anna Amalia von Preußen and Wilhemline von Bayreuth, were also accomplished instrumentalists and composers.

Music Salons

While 18th century salons tended to center chamber music featuring harp, lute, voice, and keyboard instruments, it was not yet the piano-heavy genre it became in the 1830s. And their hostesses were responsible for many commissions and historical scores that have been preserved through the present day.

Wilhelmine von Bayreuth

Wilhelmine von Bayreuth was the eldest sister of Frederick the Great and Anna Amalia. She learned music in secret, like her siblings, and became an accomplished lutenist, harpsichordist, and composer. Although Wilhelmine was known for opera and chamber music, she also painted, acted, directed, and wrote staged works.

Some sources say that she learned flute, too – but not all of the references I’ve seen corroborate that, so as far as I’m concerned, the jury’s still out. However, she did write several flute sonatas (though only the Sonata in a minor survives) and would sometimes accompany her brother.

Portrait of Wilhelmine of Bayreuth. Her hair is curled and powdered white, with red ribbons on top that match her dress. The dress has longsleeves and an embroidered trim with tassels. She sits on a chair with a white blanket, and has her left arm propped on the armrest.
Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine, Prinzessin von Preußen, as painted by Antoine Pesne

As a patron of the arts, Wilhelmine built a theater and founded the University of Erlangen with her husband, the Margrave of Bayreuth (she was also a mentor to Anna Bon, whom I mentioned earlier). In this case, Wilhelmine not only had the advantage of being born into nobility, but also came from a family with tons of musical connections and married a spouse who was an (amateur) musician.

Trailblazing Successes

Like Wilhelmine von Bayreuth, many of these women actually fell into a few different categories. That probably has something to do with why they became successful enough that they’re still remembered today – they had access to a LOT more resources than your average 18th century woman. However, their paths to success leave clues as to how other women from that era may have gone about navigating musical pursuits.

Although 18th century women couldn’t just opt into musical training the way we choose college majors today, it certainly wasn’t impossible for them to become flutists and composers within the socio-economic conventions of their time. And despite the patriarchal bias, they were able to achieve many important milestones that helped blaze a trail for women in later times.

To continue exploring the world of Baroque women flutists and composers, check out the additional resources below!

Additional Resources

To view the entire playlist, click the three lines in the upper right or the link in the playlist title.
Black and white photo of a silver flute lying horizontally across a sheet of handwritten Baroque era music. Turquoise words in a semi-transparent white text box read "Baroque era chamber music by women composers."

A repertoire guide to trio sonatas and music for small ensembles by 18th century women composers featuring the flute!

An unknown 18th century woman in a blue and white longsleeve dress and cap, with a matching blue lace choker. She holds a wooden flute as if getting ready to play, and an open book of music rests on the desk behind her. Words in the top left read "Leading Ladies of Flute History."

Read about other trailblazing women flutists from the Baroque and Classical eras!


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