Symphony Orchestras of Women, 1913

Here is a passionate plea by music writer and founder of Musical America John C. Freund to allow women jobs in symphony orchestras. Unfortunately, nearly half a century would pass before women were consistently seen in orchestral positions. By that time, Freund was long dead.

This article appeared in The Violinist in September 1913.


Nearly six hundred million dollars, or almost seven dollars per head for every man, woman and child of the population, spent in the United States for music in every form! That is, for the purchase of musical instruments, from the mouth harmonica and the talking-machine to the concert grand, for music teachers, for concerts and recitals, for church music, for bands, for opera, and let us not forget the music in the theaters, the vaudeville shows and the “movies.” Of these $600,000,000 you may safely estimate that at least eighty-five per cent are spent by the women. And yet, with this vast expenditure, at least six to eight thousand young women, graduating with honors from our leading music conservatories as instrumentalists, have no hope of being able to learn a living at their chosen profession, except they, in turn, become teachers, descend to a cabaret show, or play slumber songs to their babies.

The great feminist movement which is taking place all over the world, in Islam, in Europe, and more particularly in the United States, where it is finding its highest and its noblest form of expression, as we saw in the suffragette parade this Spring, is in my judgment, the great reform movement of the hour, because it is going to make the world better, for it will make it sweeter and cleaner.

In this uplift music, literature and the arts will play their part with our ninety millions, just as surely as all the various movements for betterment will play their part.

Already there are not only popular but municipal and even State movements for the recognition of music, not only as a necessary and integral part of education but as a necessary integral part of that recreation which is as much a duty in human life as the providing of food, drink, clothes, sleep and sanitation.

What we need right here in New York is a symphonic orchestra composed of women and led by a woman. In the first place, as we have the material, why would we not have the orchestra?

Such an orchestra will be supported by liberal-minded people, perhaps, first, for its novelty, but afterwards for its value and its excellence.

It will not provide positions for the thousands of competent women musicians, but it will act as an example, and other orchestras composed of women will be formed all over the country.

The question as to whether woman is musical or not is so easily answered that one need only mention the names of the great singers, pianists and violinists of world renown. As to whether women has creative ability as a composer has nothing to do with the question, though Musical America, two years ago, found there were in this country no less than sixty women composers whose work had merit sufficient, at least, to be printed and be profitable to the publishers.

But why should not woman prove to have creative ability in music, as she has shown she has in literature, as she has shown she has in art, as she has shown she has in science? – for it was Mme. Curie who discovered radium.

An orchestra of women would not be a fad. Indeed, it is not any new thing. There is the well-known Fadettes Orchestra of Boston; there is a fine women’s symphony orchestra in Los Angeles, with Cora Foy in the concertmaster’s chair; there is the noted Aeolian Ladies’ Orchestra in London, England, now over twenty years old, with a woman conductor; there is the Olive Mead Quartet, the American String Quartet, there are women who play in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra; not long ago, in Detroit, Mich., the ladies of the Fine Arts Society organized a string quartet, for which Elsa Ruegger was solo ‘cellist. The Soldat String Quartet is known throughout Germany, and the Nora Clench Quartet holds its own against many masculine rivals. So, you see, it is already in the working; it needs only expansion and encouragement – the encouragement given by publicity to the movement to break down the ridiculous prejudice that a great musical composition cannot be interpreted by humanity except it be dressed in evening clothes, white ties and patent leather boots.

“It may be objected that the attitude of the Musical Mutual Protective Union is opposed to having women in the orchestras. I understand that they do take women members, though this applies only to women playing in orchestras with men. My proposition is for the formation of high class orchestras of women, to give opportunity to the women who can perform the music.”

If you say, “We have already too many orchestras,” I reply, “Possibly too many in New York; possibly in one place; but we have over ninety million people who are showing every day a greater appreciation for music.”

And the women are working. There are already in this country several hundred musical clubs, composed of women, with a membership of nearly 100,000, who are the greatest factor in the encouragement of artists of the highest rank. They are the backbone of our festivals. They are, indeed, the backbone of our best orchestras, for the Philharmonic, it is a well-known fact, would have gone to pieces not so long ago but for the public spirit of the late Mrs. George R. Sheldon.

Why, at this very moment, with preparations for the great exhibition going on in California, to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, who is working for music? Who is doing something? The women! Only recently two women of high social standing came here from California to make the conditions under which the sum of $10,000 is offered by the city of Los Angeles for a prize opera, which is backed by $70,000 more for the production of that opera by an American composer on an American subject.

Someone may say, “Yes, you may be able to get together fifty or sixty women of superior ability to perform the finest works; but who, pray, will conduct them?”

Well, we have, to begin with, Maud Powell, a master mind, as well as a great musician with an international reputation. Here is a telegram from her, which reads:

“Of course women should play in symphony and other orchestras, if they want the work. Wanting the work implies measuring up to the standards of musical technical efficiency, with strength to endure well hours of rehearsing and often the strain of travel, broken habits and poor food. Many women are amply fitted for the work; such women should be employed on an equal footing with men. I fail to see that any argument to the contrary is valid. But if they accept the work they should be prepared to expect no privileges because of their sex. They must dress quietly and as fine American women they must uphold high standards of conduct.”

You see how sensibly she talks. She claims for woman no privileges whatever on account of her sex, and there she takes ground that is unassailable. Capacity has no sex. A person can do a thing or not, whether he or she wears pants or petticoats.

If it be said that should women invade the orchestra and concert field or the theaters, they will take the bread from the mouths of some of the men, I reply, “They will not do it where the men are competent, and if they do it where the men are not competent the public and my ears will benefit.”

When the ancients desired to represent, to typify the spirit of music, of art, of literature, did they do it in masculine terms? Did they do it with male forms? In every case the very words were feminine, as were the forms that represented the spirit of men’s nobler attributes. Why? Because they realized that in the stress and strain and struggle for existence the nobler qualities will always be submerged, and therefore it would be left to the women ultimately to put humanity on a higher plane, not only of civilization, but of aspiration and accomplishment.

This does not mean that every woman is fitted to be a musician, or that every woman who is a musician is fit to play in a symphony orchestra. But it does mean that when a woman is fit to play in an orchestra and wants to do so, that she shall have an opportunity – that is the crux of my whole position.

If women have inspired the poets, the writers, the thinkers, the statesmen, the scientists, the musicians of the world, do you not think that some of them, at least, are capable of interpreting the very works to which they have given inspiration?

One thing is certain: while a woman in an orchestra may carry, surreptitiously, chewing gum and a powder puff, she won’t have to go out in between times for beer and a cigarette.

Now, let me tell you a little story to illustrate my position: Many years ago, at a time when even a woman pianist was almost unknown here, and a woman violinist would have been almost hooted in the streets if she carried her violin case, I became acquainted with a little Russian, or Polish, Jewess who had extraordinary musical talent. Her parents were, as most of her class are, extremely poor. A German musician of great talent, but himself poor, recognized the child’s ability and gave her lessons for nothing, for years. She tried to get engagements, without success; and finally she went to the conductor of a well-known orchestra and applied for a position. He heard her play, and said: “My dear young lady, you have so much ability and talent that you would put to shame some members of my orchestra. I could use you as my first violin, but if I were to put you in that position there would be not only a riot on the stage, but one in the audience.”

For a time, her parents having died, the young girl endeavored to maintain herself, playing around in little restaurants on the East Side, till the usual love tragedy happened, with a handsome but unscrupulous young Italian singer. She had a child, which, from lack of proper nourishment, died.

In her despair she took to drink and sank and sank – till she sank out of sight.

Here was a genius, a great talent, who was told that she had no show, no opportunity – because she was a woman. And we boast of our civilization and we call ourselves a Christian people!

This whole question, wherever we touch it, wherever we tackle it, is not a question of sex at all. It presents to the thinking mind no problems. It is a matter of elemental truth, of basic, elemental justice. – Musical America.

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