A couple years ago I discovered a series of pieces title “America’s Other Orchestras” at Arab America and it helped me to solidify some thoughts I’ve been having about how we have discussions, and the narratives we create, about Orchestras and Classical Music. These are thoughts that were percolating at least since I first wrote a couple times about the Kennedy Center’s American Voices Festival back in 2013.
“We too look upon music as effeminate, and think only girls should study it. This is not true. To be a good musician requires brains of the highest order. Boys, be not afraid to study music, there is nothing more worthy of the masculine mind.”
– Edbridge W. Newton (1921-1922), Ginn and Company music publishers.
I got my copy of Karen Blair’s “The Torchbearers: Women & Their Amateur Arts Association in America, 1890-1930” last week and immediately read the chapter, “Hear America First” — the quote above is from the end of chapter where the author describes how much classical music had been associated with the National Federation of Music Clubs (NFMC) and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) music department, that male members of the professional classical music community and the broader dominant male culture felt set upon by the success and growing prominence of these women’s organizations. Here are a few other select quotes from the era:
“Women’s musical clubs began to form in many a village, women, and city, and these clubs became the active and efficient nucleus of the entire musical life of the community, but alas, again principally the feminine community. it is to these women’s clubs that the managers turned for fat guarantees for appearances of their artists, it is before audiences of whom 75% are women that these artists disport themselves.”
Walter Damrosch (1926), conductor of the New York Philharmonic
The leaving of all aesthetic questions to women has serious consequences. One result of this is that music, except as the lyrical accomplishments to semicircles of legs, has almost ceased to to exist as a masculine pleasure. In Philadelphia, for example, it is impossible to have a concert in the evenings for the reason that many women cannot very well go alone…an amazing number of men…think that music is effeminate…because music has been so wholly delegated to women.
Joseph Hergeshever (1921)
The NFMC reached the height of its membership in 1930 with roughly 5000 clubs and 400,000 members. Today there are roughly 5500 clubs and 146,000 members. So in a time when the US had around a third of the total population as it does today, the membership was well over double the amount of today–and back then it was primarily women.
I don’t think we can underestimate how much these organizations changed the face of classical music during the pre-depression years, and in many ways this set the stage for the FERA and WPA Federal Music Project during the Depression years. As Blair (1994: pp. 74-75) states:
While members seldom received praise from the male musical establishment, their efforts made an enormous impact on American musical life. This relentless cultivation of musical taste built the respect that Americans developed for music and the enthusiasm that they applied to the federal music programs of the Depression years. The clubs’ public programs also shaped the future supporters of the town symphony, the subscribers to the chamber music festivals, and the donors to music schools throughout the nation.
Blair, Karen J. (1994) The Torchbearers: Women & Their Amateur Arts Association in America, 1890-1930, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Damrosch, Walter (1926) My Musical Life, New York: Scribner’s, pg. 323
Hergeshever, Joseph (1921) “The Feminine Nuisance in American Literature” Yale Review 10, pg. 722
Edbridge, W. Newton (1921-22) “Federation Manual,” Massachussetts State Federation of Women’s Clubs
Whitesitt, Linda () ““Women as ‘Keepers of Culture’: Music Clubs, Community Concert Series, and Symphony Orchestras.”