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The American Women's Orchestra Movement

May 29, 2013

Authored by: Anna-Lise Santella, author of 'Modeling Music: Early Organizational Structures of American Women's Orchestras', in John Spitzer (ed.), American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century, available through Chicago Scholarship Online

When I first began researching the American women’s orchestra movement (1870s-1940s), I quickly became interested in the way the orchestras told their histories. For while there were many routes to the founding of an orchestra, the origin stories were remarkably similar. They emphasized the strength and vision of their leaders, the talent of their members, the pioneering quality of their work and, most of all the collaborative effort between women that enabled their success. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the notion of women’s collaboration was still a bit of a hard sell to the male-dominated press, despite the fact that groups of women had been organizing suffrage protests, national networks of clubs, and many other large scale events and institutions for some time. “Woman, lovely woman, is always to be admired, except when she is playing in an orchestra,” said Gustave Kerker, music director of New York’s Casino Theater in a 1904 article in the Musical Standard. “She is certainly not in her own sphere, and any leader will find this out after he has had a few quarrels and instances of feminine disagreements.” (“Opinions of Some New York Leaders on Women as Orchestral Players,” Musical Standard [London] 21 (April 2, 1904): 217–18) But “feminine disagreements” aside, women did work together to build dozens of orchestras across the country, and in so doing, created a new professional path for women into careers are instrumentalists.

The orchestra itself is a metaphor for collaboration – the coming together of individuals with different skills and jobs to create something bigger than all of them.  While we tend to know these orchestras through a few of their more charismatic conductors – Antonia Brico, Ethel Leginska – a strong leader alone did not ensure an ensemble’s success, something the orchestras frequently acknowledged when they told their own stories as ensembles.

Scholarly work is similarly collaborative. As scholars, we are often called upon to be the charismatic spokesperson for our work, but our work is invariably built on the work of many others who have gone before us and our ideas are fueled by contact with other scholars, both at our own institutions, but also through academic conferences, at institutions around the globe. 

American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century, a recent addition to UPSO from the University of Chicago Press, grew out of an academic conference organized a few years ago by Music in Gotham at the CUNY Grad Center, which shares a building with OUP’s New York offices.  John Graziano and the late Adrienne Fried Block brought together scholars interested in orchestral music of the 19th century in the United States, a time when musical life and music institutions underwent some enormous changes.  We all worked on our own papers alone, so it wasn’t until we arrived at the conference that we realized how much our papers spoke to each other, how we were encountering the same issues from different angles, even in ensembles with vastly different histories.  Alone, we unraveled things that interested us individually.  Together, we revealed a new landscape, one which changed the way we thought about the way orchestral performance developed in the United States. As John Spitzer began the work of editing our papers into a book, the process became even more collaborative as the authors read and referred to each others work.

You can now read the results of our collaboration on UPSO thanks to another collaboration – one between university presses. By bringing together academic writing from diverse university presses, UPSO itself is enabling still more collaboration:  Anything that makes it easier to search and share research helps scholars collaborate and therefore helps scholarship.  Sharing articles for discussion, for teaching is now as easy as creating a hyperlink on a syllabus, a bibliography, or a c.v. Bringing together articles from different university presses is nearly as important as bringing together articles from different scholars.  There is strength in diversity and the ability to confront multiple ideas from multiple points of view makes for better scholarship.  UPSO is helping to make that happen.


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