Yesterday we had a meeting of my piano club, a group of adult amateur pianists interested in developing their playing. The subject of ‘virtuosos’ and ‘virtuoso technique’ came up in relation to a piano piece with some fast, technically difficult ‘show-off’ passages. We wondered where the word ‘virtuoso’ comes from and what it really means?
A little research showed that ‘virtuoso’ comes from the Latin word ‘vir’ = a man, and from the word ‘virtuous’ in an old sense of ‘distinguished by manly qualities; full of manly strength.’ Some of us felt that the phrase ‘a female virtuoso’ is therefore unsatisfactory. It seems perverse to describe a woman as a ‘virtuoso’ once you know that the word signified manliness. But women pianists can be every bit as dazzling as men. Perhaps we need a new word to describe them?
There used to be a word ‘virtuosa’, but the OED says it was a specialised word, ‘now rare’, referring to a learned religious woman. Although some modern dictionaries claim the word is available to signify ‘a female virtuoso’, it has never caught on in the world of music.
So if ‘vir’ is the Latin for ‘man’, how about using the Latin word for ‘woman’? It’s ‘mulier’ (today its descendant is found in the Spanish ‘mujer’, a woman). A female equivalent of ‘virtuoso’ might be something like ‘mulierosa’, ‘full of womanly strength’. I tried to imagine using it in a phrase like, ‘the mulierosa pianist Martha Argerich’. ‘Clara Schumann had a mulierous piano technique.’
Hmmm. But is ‘womanly strength’ the female equivalent of ‘manly strength’, or are women’s strengths different? In that case we still need a good word for ‘a woman musician with a dazzling technique’. The search continues.