Ladies Musical Club of Seattle, historical image (courtesy of Classical Music Chat/General Arts Touring, Inc.)

How women’s amateur music clubs spawned concert presenting organizations in America

A version of this article originally appeared in Classical Music Chat, a newsletter edited by Tom Gallant, Director of General Arts Touring, Inc.

Gail Wein | 18 JUL 2022

For many years, I satisfied my urge to make music as an amateur bassoonist by playing with an orchestra run by the Friday Morning Music Club (FMMC) in Washington, DC. The organization was founded in 1886 by 15 women who met every month to study music and perform for each other.

Even in the 19th century, FMMC was not unique. In 1883, the first national convention of women’s amateur music clubs was held at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. By the turn of the last century, many of the clubs had already developed well-attended and well-financed concert series and were being described as the country’s most successful sponsors of European artists, according to the book Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860. By 1919, there were over 600 similar organizations in the United States, with a combined membership of around 200,000, all founded by small groups of women who craved participating in the performing arts.

Cultivating Music in America declares that these grassroots clubs were so successful that by 1927 the National Federation of Music Clubs reported that, outside of large cities, individual clubs managed three-fourths of the country’s public concerts, spending approximately a million dollars to book performing artists.

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In the 21st century, some of these clubs continued to focus on their own members’ music-making. Many others, such as St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids, Cleveland Fortnightly Musical Club, Ladies Musical Club of Seattle and the Tuesday Musical Concert Series in Omaha, bring top-rank classical performers to their community for public concerts.

Earlier musical societies in the United States were created and run by men – notably the St. Cecilia Society in Charleston, SC, founded in 1766; one of the first musical societies in the Colonies. In the spirit of the 18th century British concert organizations on which it was modeled, membership was not open to women. The society presented full seasons of concerts, including performances by its in-house professional orchestra, for nearly 50 years.

However, according to Smithsonian Magazine’s December 2020 article, How Young America Came to Love Beethoven, it was the proliferation of the women’s clubs that spawned the performing arts presenting industry in this country.

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Another group, also named for St. Cecilia (she is the patron saint of music, after all), was founded in 1883. Nine women in Grand Rapids, MI, were determined to “promote the study and appreciation of music in all its branches.” Like many other clubs of its ilk, members initially performed for one another in house concerts. However, it wasn’t long before they were bringing internationally renowned musical artists to the city to perform for the general public, according to St. Cecilia Music Center’s website. Within ten years of its founding, the organization broke ground on a concert hall with a 600-seat auditorium and several smaller event spaces. The organization continues to present performances at the now-landmarked St. Cecilia Music Center, where there is also an active School of Music.

According to Cultivating Music in America, some of the women who had organized concert series for their respective clubs stepped out on their own to become independent concert managers. One particularly successful independent female manager was Adella Prentiss Hughes. She honed her skills as a manager through a position created specifically for her by Cleveland’s Fortnightly Musical Club in 1901. From the beginning, ticket sales under Hughes exceeded expectations, and by its sixth season, Fortnightly was in the black. In her first 15 years with Fortnightly, Hughes presented the orchestras of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, as well as the Thomas Orchestra and the Russian Symphony Orchestra (a New York-based émigré ensemble). She went on to a successful half-century career in concert management, and Cleveland music became known in New York as Hughes Who.”

The Ladies Musical Club of Seattle began in 1891 by women who were classically trained musicians. Their mission was to bring high-quality music to the Pacific Northwest town, which just ten years prior had a population of 3,500. At their annual Artist Concert Series, they brought an eye-popping parade of luminaries to the burgeoning city. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Marian Anderson, Percy Grainger, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Casals, Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra, Marilyn Horne, and Artur Rubenstein top the list.

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The St. Cecilia and LMC music clubs and many others live on. However, the Tuesday Musical organization in Omaha closed its doors in 2015, after 123 years of presenting concerts. When it began in 1892, its members performed for each other in private concerts, but just as Fortnightly and others did, it soon began presenting concerts featuring international artists.

A 2015 article in Classical Voice North America states that during the early decades of its existence, Tuesday Musical was the only presenter of top-quality classical music in Omaha, and its concerts attracted more than 1,000 people. “Tuesday Musical was the only game in town when they started,” said Barbara Taxman, board member and spokesperson for the group, in an article in the Omaha World-Herald in 2015. “After 1911, it expanded into local theaters and emerged as a nonprofit concert series of international artists.” By the 2010’s, ticket sales were in a steep decline. Taxman said, “I thought ‘Maybe it is time to say goodbye’. There are other places to go to hear very fine music.”

In that way, Tuesday Musical has achieved its mission. Nowadays area audiences have their pick of events put on by Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony and Omaha Performing Arts.

In March, Women’s History Month, it is particularly apt to tell the story of the significant role that 19th and 20th century American women played in the development of today’s concert presenters. It’s hard to imagine what our country’s concert scene would be without their contribution.

Sources cited:

Mark Gresham

Gail Wein is a music journalist and media consultant, contributing articles to Playbill, Symphony Magazine, and New Music Box, and audio features for NPR and Voice of America. She has been classical music critic for The Washington Post, producer of NPR’s Performance Today, and music host at radio stations across the country.
(photo credit: Tatiana Daubek)