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Home >> Musical Instruments as Female Bodies


by Gert Hans Wengel

German version / Deutsche Version

Of all the arts, music is nearest to the heart and farthest from the mind. Schopenhauer writes that music is “the language of feeling and passion like words are the language of reason” (The World as Will and Representation I, §52). Because love belongs to the strongest of passions, music is often an expression of erotic desire, its performance a more or less sublimated erotic act. In this sense, the musician takes the active role of the man, while the musical instrument occupies the passive role of the woman. Representations of musical instruments frequently allude to the female body.  See these links for example:

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Instrument makers often craft their pieces to recall the female body. A Google search for “harp,” “woman's,” and “body” yields many hits.

In her autobiography, Das Wilde Leben (1994, p. 93-94), Uschi Obermaier writes how she fantasized about being a musical instrument played by Jimi Hendrix:

It was a very special kind of attraction. I already knew during the concert that I would meet Jimi Hendrix. Louder, I wished to myself, when he became too gentle; more, when he dangled the guitar so close to the loud speakers that the feedback whistled and screeched through the hall. Jimi Hendrix gave his audience nothing, but he gave me everything. He banged out his pieces and gave it to his guitar on stage, fast and brutal, and the instrument screamed and whimpered along, and I screamed and whimpered along, and when it was over the guitar was on fire, and in me everything reverberated and didn't stop. And my guy friends realized that it was no use speaking to me. 

...He threw his shirt in the corner and showed me his soft, dark-brown skin. He opened my top, improvising with his finger tips to the rhythm of my heart beat, then he carefully increased the speed, and it was very easy to follow him. He was gentler with me than with his guitar; he was just as virtuous, and he needed no gasoline to put me on fire.”

In “The Origin of the Harp,” a song from his Irish Melodies, Thomas Moore imagines the harp originating out of a female spirit. A siren is consumed in unfulfilled desire for a mortal man, and God (or the Gods) of Heaven takes pity on her and transforms her into a harp so that she can finally be in male hands, thus assuaging her desire. And the instrument she becomes does not deny her origins but retains her feminine attributes:

’Tis believed that this Harp, which I wake now for thee,
Was a Siren of old, who sung under the sea;
And who often, at eve, through the bright waters roved,
To meet on the green shore a youth whom she loved.

But she loved him in vain, for he left her to weep,
And in tears, all the night, her gold tresses to steep,
Till Heaven looked with pity on true love so warm
And changed to this soft Harp the sea-maiden’s form.

Still her bosom rose fair - still her cheeks smiled the same -
While her sea-beauties gracefully formed the light frame;
And her hair, as, let loose, o’er her white arm it fell,
Was changed to bright chords, uttering melody’s spell.

Hence it came, that this soft Harp so long hath been known
To mingle love’s language with sorrow’s sad tone;
Till thou didst divide them and teach the fond lay,
To speak love when I’m near thee, and grief when away!

According to legend, Syrinx, the shepherd's pipe of antiquity, was once a nymph who wanted to remain chaste. She was chased by Pan until she reached a river blocking her escape. There she was transformed into a reed. Ovid tells this story in his Metamorphoses (I, 689-712). Here, too, music making, in its origins, is an act of love. The first tone on the musical instrument, which Pan begins to discover, makes him sigh with deep longing. He believes he is embracing the nymph:   

If he had told it all,
the tale of Syrinx would have followed thus:--
but she despised the prayers of Pan, and fled
through pathless wilds until she had arrived
the placid Ladon's sandy stream, whose waves
prevented her escape. There she implored
her sister Nymphs to change her form: and Pan,
believing he had caught her, held instead
some marsh reeds for the body of the Nymph;
and while he sighed the moving winds began
to utter plaintive music in the reeds,
so sweet and voice like that poor Pan exclaimed;
“Forever this discovery shall remain
a sweet communion binding thee to me.”--
and this explains why reeds of different length,
when joined together by cementing wax,
derive the name of Syrinx from the maid. 

(Brooks More, trans. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.)

James Joyce, in his “Two Gallants,” a short story in his Dubliners, tells the story of an Irish street musician in Dublin playing in front of a club where a group of supporters and members of the British occupational powers, the Protestant ascendancy, are guests. His instrument, a harp, is the national symbol of Ireland. He plays the melody of the Song of Fionnuala (“Silent, O Moyle...”), a song from the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore very dear to the Irish (1) because it metaphorically expressed their longing for a national rebirth, for deliverance from English oppression. 
The street musician plays this melody—of all places—in front of a Protestant Club to get money from the pockets of the Anglo-Irish oppressors. He prostitutes his home with Ireland's national emblem, the harp. Either this Irishman has no national pride and thus deserves contempt, or he is forced to earn money in this way because his family would otherwise starve, in which case he deserves pity. The story leaves it open to interpretation. In the English original, the grammatical gender of the harp is feminine, though it should actually be neuter:

His harp too, heedless that her coverings had fallen about her knees, seemed weary alike of the eyes of strangers and of her master’s hands.

The feminine gender and the mention of the knee suggests that the harp has been decorated with a female carving (2). She is exposed to the glances of the Protestant gentlemen and weary of her situation. She symbolizes the prostituted “Ireland, which is not infrequently portrayed as a dishonored woman” (3). One must consider here that the women and girls of colonized countries are always sexually exploited by their colonial masters. Like the Irish harp used by its owner to get money from the patrons of the Protestant Club, an Irish maid is used by two Irish men, Corley and Lenehan—the “two gallants” referred to ironically in the title of the story—to obtain the luxury food and money of the Protestant man in whose house the maid works. Corley is in a relationship with her, and because she clings to him he has her steal cigarettes, cigars, and even a gold piece from her mister for him. 

1) See Mitz Brunsdale, James Joyce: A Study of Short Fiction (1993), 18.

2) See Zack Bowen, Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce (1974), 15.

3) Harald Beck, notes to the German language Reclam edition of Dubliners (1994). Also see Bowen, Musical Allusions, 15: “The musician's harp, adorned presumably with a carved and nearly naked lady, is used for money-making purposes and seems in the description to resemble an exploited woman giving forth the beauty of the Thomas Moore song to please passers-by.”  

Translated by Dominic Bonfiglio