When I think of my heroes in the classical music world, the first name that comes to mind is Lillian Fuchs. When I switched to viola in junior high school, I heard a lot of discouraging comments due to my size - I was too short, my hands were too small, my viola at the time was too small (which eventually lead to me playing an instrument so large it gave me tendinitis before switching to the small but powerful instrument I now perform on). I remember feeling extremely insecure, and my viola teacher at the time told me to research Lillian Fuchs.
Lillian Fuchs (1902-1995) was aptly referred to as, “The First Lady of the Viola.” Born in a musical family with two brothers who also became notable string players, Ms. Fuchs started as a violinist, but eventually became a violist despite her own concerns due to her small height of 4’9”. She played using a Dodd bow (known for being slightly shorter than the standard size to accommodate her height) and a 16” viola outfitted with a gut A string. The viola had long been known as, and performed on as, an instrument for men due to not only the size but also the stigma surrounding playing a smaller instrument.
However, Lillian Fuchs broke down multiple barriers with her instrument, becoming one of the first womxn to perform as a chamber musician in the widely known Perolé quartet. She performed as a soloist, appearing at the Casals Festival in France, the Aspen festival, and Kneisel Hall. Her lush sound and dexterity on the instrument inspired composers Bohuslav Martinu, Quincy Porter, Vittorio Rieti, and more to write works dedicated to her.
Despite her extensive performance career, Ms. Fuchs is most remembered and celebrated for her work in viola pedagogy. While many violists used transposed versions of etudes written for the violin such as Kreutzer and Rode, Lillian Fuchs wrote several etudes, including her 16 Fantasy Etudes, 15 Characteristic Studies, and 12 Caprices specifically to address viola technique. I’ve studied many of these etudes, and playing them is such a magical experience. As a female violist, playing technical etudes not only written for the instrument rather than a transposition, but also by a womxn is such a rare experience. I remember in college feeling absolutely entranced and fascinated by the Fuchs etudes, and when I was first assigned her 1st of her 16 Fantasy Etudes, it was the first time I remember truly enjoying etude studies and connecting musicality with the technical exercises.
She was on faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, the Juilliard School, and the Mannes College of the Music, and taught and launched the careers of several prominent musicians such as Lynne Ramsay, Geraldine Walther, Lawrence Dutton, and Yizhak Schotten.
As a womxn in a male dominated field, performing on an instrument that at the time was predominantly played by men, Lillian Fuchs’ success as a soloist, chamber musician, composer, and pedagogue, as well as her approach to adaptive technique to create ease in performance has helped to tear down the sexism preventing womxn from choosing and pursuing the instrument. As a female violist, I am so forever grateful to womxn, like Lillian Fuchs, who have not only paved the field as a performer but have also provided so much to the pedagogical field. She broke down physical as well as societal barriers for the instrument, helping contribute to technical adaptations to make the instrument accessible.
Pinnolis, Judith Shira. “Contributions of Jewish Women to Music and Women to Jewish Music.” Accessed March 7, 2021.
Randel, Don Michael. The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996. p . 286
Robbins, Sandra. “Lillian Fuchs.” Jewish Women's Archive. Accessed March 7, 2021.
Williams Amédée Daryl, and Lillian Fuchs. Lillian Fuchs: First Lady of the Viola. New York: iUniverse, 2004.