You’d think that a female conductor who toured the world with her own orchestra in the 1870s would be well-known, but sexism.
I’ll start off by being blunt: there aren’t many English language articles about Josephine Amann Weinlich that are easily accessible online. Maybe I’d find more if I was associated with an institution, but I’m not. So I’m using a Google translation of a German webpage to scrape together some biographical factoids for my English-speaking readers. Take everything with a grain of salt until an actual scholar can pick up the baton. (Thrillingly, I’ve heard from some via Twitter, so it’s possible we’ll hear more about Josephine in future! Stay tuned!) In the meantime, here are what appear to be the broad strokes of her story, as best as I can ascertain:
Josephine Weinlich was born around 1840 in Vienna. Her dad was a merchant and amateur musician. (I’ve found nothing about her mom, but judging by most historical records, moms were invisible throughout the nineteenth century. /sarcasm) Josephine’s passion for music-making must have been encouraged, because she played both violin and piano, and her sister Elisa Weinlich was a cellist.
In 1868, Josephine and Elisa founded a ladies’ quartet which performed privately in Vienna. But soon something happened (financial issues? artistic ambition? a bad case of badassery?). The group gained three players, bringing the total up to seven, and started playing publicly. And not only did they start playing publicly, they started touring internationally: to Austria, Hungary, Italy, Germany. They even earned this generous and open-minded review in Prague in 1869:
On the other hand, there’s this (sort-of) rebuttal from Dwight’s Journal of Music, dating from May 1870:
This new ensemble – alternately called the “Weinlich’sches Damenorchester”, “Wiener Damenkapelle” and “Viener Damenorchester” – specialized in performing light entertainment music such as waltzes, polkas, overtures, and the like. (Flashbacks to Edith Lorand, no?) Some contemporary reviews of the orchestra dismissed its lightweight repertoire, but in between the von Suppé bon-bons and operatic potpourris, Josephine indulged in a bit of radical programming, in that she often played her own compositions. She also spotlit her orchestra members in instrumental solos.
The German article suggests that Josephine initially led her ensemble from her fiddle, à la the Waltz King himself. But as the orchestra grew in size (by 1871, it was a full twenty-two players strong), she eventually, in the picturesque words of Google Translate, “conducted on a pedestal with a conductor’s staff.”
In 1871, the intrepid ensemble hired (or was hired by) impresario and ticket broker Frederick Rullman to tour the United States. Here’s a New York Times review from that September:
The spectacle was certainly a novel one. The platform was changed into a bower, and under the roses were sheltered, instead of the familiar profanum vulgus of music-makers, a score of blushing maidens attired in purest white, and armed, after the orthodox style, for their harmonious work. The sight of an instrumentalist of the gentler sex has little rarity about it, but the view of an organized force of female musicians was, until Monday, never offered in this country. On this fact was founded a very large share of the first success at the Vienna Lady Orchestra, and on it will rest their prospective triumphs.
Were their roses and ruffles a conscious attempt to ease people into the idea of women making orchestral music publicly? Or was it simply the way they enjoyed presenting themselves as performers? (Maybe both?)
Another review, this time from Paris:
Tall, thin, an expressive face, an ardent eye, the directress of the Damen Orchester is above all entirely mistress of her orchestra. Her musical capacities are varied. Composer, conductor, interpreter and directress all at once, accompanying on the piano when necessary, Mme. Amann-Weinlich represents the perfect type of grand priestess of the musical world. Her glance is sure, her arm vigorous, she knows the music by heart – as they say – and conducts from memory, for which we are grateful. Her intelligent face is not hidden behind the pages of a musical score, and one follows with interest the waves of harmony that unfold under her command to the applause of the public.
In 1872, the group crossed the globe and went to Russia. One of the complaints they’d received was that the ensemble lacked winds and brass. So Josephine Weinlich augmented her forces by hiring seven men to play those instruments. The orchestra may have been known as a ladies’ orchestra, but it was also, at least at this point, an integrated one.
The year 1873 brought a variety of personal and professional milestones for Josephine. First, she married a businessman named Ebo Armann. (I can’t find much about him, besides the fact that he helped support the Gazeta Musicale magazine, which Josephine apparently edited and contributed “some Piano pieces of mediocre level” to.) Her orchestra’s name changed to the grander-sounding European Women’s Orchestra. And the ensemble was prominently featured at the Vienna International Exposition of 1873. Autumn 1876 apparently brought the orchestra’s last known performances. But scores of copycat ensembles flourished for decades afterward and in multiple countries.
As for Josephine, after the orchestra disbanded, her biography becomes even more obscure. But it appears that she kept touring with her sister as a member of an ensemble called the Caecilien-Quartett. And she even played the piano at many of her concerts.
In January 1879 during a tour, Ebo and Josephine and Elisa stopped in Lisbon. In the words of our Google translation, “There they met a musical life where, for a decade, the urban orchestra was hardly able to play any more because of the disputes between different groups.” Somehow Ebo was involved in getting Josephine hired as conductor at the Lisbon orchestra for the remainder of the season. I’m assuming this was an orchestra made up of men, or maybe even an integrated ensemble, but I don’t know for sure. It appears that while in Lisbon, Josephine conducted works by Weber, Rossini, Saint-Saëns, Johann Strauss (of course), and even Liszt and Wagner. “In the following year” a new conductor named Louis Brenner took over, and ultimately Josephine returned to her chamber music career.
Josephine Amann Weinlich died on 9 January 1887 of tuberculosis. She was only in her forties.
At first glance, her legacy isn’t a particularly concrete one. Unlike fellow orchestra leaders Johann Strauss Senior and Junior, many (most?) of her compositions have been lost. But she did affect the field in a major way: after the Vienna Lady Orchestra toured the world, it became relatively common for women to play orchestral music publicly (albeit in specifically female ensembles). Post-1870, you can find dozens of examples of Ladies Orchestras, both in America and abroad. These ensembles often had large repertoires of light music and performed at resorts or restaurants. They gave many women their first taste of playing music professionally and helped to normalize the idea of women playing in ensembles in public.
After reading about Josephine Amann Weinlich – learning about her dual facility on piano and violin – seeing how she toured the world with a group of women – and hearing about her “mediocre” compositions that were probably just as good as some of the sh*ttier Strauss waltzes we occasionally pull out – I find myself asking yet again:
How the f*ck did I not know this woman?
While researching this entry, I kept coming across references to the New York Women’s Philharmonic Society. The Society was founded by two strong-willed sisters, and they. were. amazing. So come back in two weeks on September 6th when we look at the life of pianist, author, and educator Amy Fay, with a cameo by her sister, Zina.
As always, you can support this series of entries on forgotten female musicians for as little as $1 a month on the blog’s Patreon page! Thank you thank you thank you to those who have pledged!!