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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Dean

Violoncello Voices, Part 2: From Eliot to Woolf

As we saw in Violoncello Voices, Part 1, the eloquent speech of male possessors of the violoncello voice is described in terms of abundant completeness. Their richly musical “orchestrations” of sound and meaning were judged to embody a wide range of positive characteristics. Thus Wendell Phillips played on the hearts of his auditors with the resources of an entire keyboard, and Gielgud’s Shakespearean arias called on “enough instruments for a small orchestra.” Framed in terms of the balance of gender-specific characteristics, this completeness has also been recognized in the voice of the violoncello itself, “the perfect man of stringed instruments”: “the rich bass of the man’s voice and the softer complainings of woman so wonderfully blend with and succeed each other… How eloquently it seems to talk and discourse to us…"/1/

In contrast, the original use of "violoncello voice," by George Eliot (shown above) in her 1876 novel Deronda, seems to strike a more negative note—in unflattering reference to a female character (Lady Pentreath). While the title character tries not to show emotion in the presence of his love interest Mirah, Lady Pentreath speaks dismissively of Mirah “in her violoncello voice.”/2/ Pentreath's malicious anti-Semitic insinuations cannot be classed as eloquent because they are made from a position of assumed social superiority and show a lack of empathy or even basic courtesy. This lack is balanced by the presence of imperiousness, an unpleasant, "unladylike" quality.

While Eliot may have intended only to suggest cello-like qualities of register (lower than a "violin voice") or timbre (more resonant than a "violin"), the subsequent appropriation of "violoncello voice" for the positive characterization of men appears to be yet another example of how the same terms have nonaligned meanings, depending on which of the binary genders is being described. Where the men were eloquent, "violoncello-voiced" women were pompous and overbearing, lacking in delicacy and decorum. In a 1900 newspaper profile of a Mrs. Lease, the term seems to signal a female usurper in the male-dominated political arena: she is characterized as “a picturesque figure. … [H]er great violoncello voice and her magnetism may be counted upon to sway the popular audience as the cyclone stirs the Kansas corn... her audiences are either carried away in storms of sympathy or opposition.”/3/ In the case of controversial mezzosoprano Madame Sofia Scalchi, the cello metaphor becomes a backhanded compliment: “That remarkable violoncello, her voice, is one the tone of which is unpleasing to many, and it is undoubtedly peculiar; but nobody can dispute that she knows how to play it.”/4/

Writing in 1941, Virginia Woolf (shown above) makes powerful use of cello imagery to capture the impression made on her by the stage work of the leading actress of Victorian England, Ellen Terry (1847-1928; shown below). “When she spoke it was as if someone drew a bow over a ripe, richly seasoned ’cello; it grated, it glowed and it growled.”/5/ Here the cello metaphor acts as a window onto qualities that Woolf appreciated, but that Terry herself otherwise downplayed in her public persona. Victorian norms dictated that adult actresses stand stationery and declaim their parts, so Terry was forced to abandon the natural exuberance and movement that she had brought to boy-roles as a child actor. Keeping the appearance of the “proper” femininity that made her the most beloved actress of her time and the sought-over subject of photographs and paintings depicting her as the eternal feminine, Terry “used her genius to... immolat[e] the great scope of her talent and passions on the altar of the ideology of her day,” burying “a powerful self beneath the complacent woman [she] presented to audiences and egomaniacal actor-managers.”/6/ Woolf and later Nina Auerbach explicate this hidden conflict between Terry’s performed image and her full, authentic self to reveal Terry as a “first-generation feminist artist.”


1. Christopher Pearse Cranch, from letter to Miss Julia Myers of April 11, 1842, in Leonora Cranch Scott, The Life and Letters of Christopher Pearse Cranch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1917), pp. 78-9

Deronda even felt himself on the brink of betraying emotion, Mirah's presence now being linked with crowding images of what had gone before and was to come after — all centering in the brother he was soon to reveal to her; and he had escaped as soon as he could from the side of Lady Pentreath, who had said in her violoncello voice —

"Well, your Jewess is pretty — there's no denying that. But where is her Jewish impudence? She looks as demure as a nun. I suppose she learned that on the stage."

He was beginning to feel on Mirah's behalf something of what he had felt for himself in his seraphic boyish time, when Sir Hugo asked him if he would like to be a great singer — an indignant dislike to her being remarked on in a free and easy way, as if she were an imported commodity disdainfully paid for by the fashionable public, and he winced the more because Mordecai, he knew, would feel that the name "Jewess" was taken as a sort of stamp like the lettering of Chinese silk.”

3. “Women Who Are Prominent in Political Work” in The Marion Star (Ohio), Aug. 24, 1900, p. 6

4. New York Times, Nov. 1, 1896, p. 8

5. Virginia Woolf quoted in Jane Marcus, "Role Reverser" in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 5, No. 9 (June 1988), p. 10 (a review of Nina Auerbach, Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time)

6. Jane Marcus, "Role Reverser" in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 5, No. 9 (June 1988), p. 10


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