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  • The Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago
  • Linda Dempf (bio)

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, increasing numbers of women began to study orchestral instruments and to move from the home sphere of private music making to performing in public. Yet despite their increasing numbers, professional performance was still largely done by men. Women were barred from symphony work for many reasons. In addition to the general resistance women faced in working outside the home, women were perceived as lacking the physical strength required for playing instruments other than the piano, or lacking the stamina to withstand lengthy orchestra rehearsals. A woman's constitution was perceived as "frail" and she might wither under the tyrannous glare of the conductor. Many instruments—such as the double bass, winds, brass, and percussion—were deemed inappropriate for a woman, not only because of the physical exertion they required, but also because a woman might look less than ladylike while performing.1

Women responded to this exclusion and lack of opportunity by playing in all-female ensembles. The earliest of these were small groups that played in cafés and in vaudeville theaters. Full-scale all-female orchestras with permanent residency in cities began to appear in the 1890s, and were prevalent by the 1920s. Nearly every large city had at least one all-women orchestra, and by the 1930s, there were nearly thirty all-women orchestras across the United States.2 The first group of full symphonic size was the Los Angeles Woman's Orchestra, founded in 1893. Musical America wrote of the group in 1907: [End Page 857]

The orchestra is one of the important features of musical development in the city. It is open alike to professionals and amateurs. The girl who may be playing in concerts and café orchestras can obtain by membership a learning that she could in no other way have. The amateur can get professional training and a familiarity with the best orchestral compositions.3

"Seeking to Overcome the Handicap of Being Barred from Established Orchestras"

The Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago was part of this trend, and was one of the most enduring and long-lasting women's orchestra. It was preceded by the similarly named Chicago Woman's Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1924 and conducted by Elena Moneak. Moneak was a violinist and conductor at one of the theater orchestras in Chicago, and formed the orchestra to create opportunities for women to play "under dignified circumstances."4 This group gave its first concert in 1924, and was in existence for four years, until its final concert at the Chicago Woman's World's Fair in 1928.

The Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago (see fig01) was begun in 1925 when three musicians approached Richard Czerwonky, the conductor of the Bush Conservatory orchestra, to lead an orchestra made up of women. Lacking opportunities for orchestral performance, Lillian Poenisch (clarinetist), Adeline Schmidt (flutist), and Lois Bichl (cellist) organized the Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago in order to "overcome the handicap of being barred from established orchestras because of their sex."5 The three women were in the original orchestra conducted by Moneak, but were disappointed with the amateur nature of that group. They were looking for a "commercial venture,"6 a professional experience. As a result, they broke away from the newly formed orchestra to form their own group.

Lillian Poenisch, one of the three founders of the Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, came from a background of theater and vaudeville playing, which no doubt gave her a certain determination and tenacity. At the age of thirteen Poenisch joined a vaudeville company with her mother and brother that was touring Arkansas. She states:

The women musicians of yesterday were hardly more or less than "show people," with café playing and vaudeville heading the list of their activities. Their [End Page 858] education consisted of little more than grade school, if that, probably never continuing through a school semester consistently. They were taught by their parents, and to avoid trouble with the child labor authorities they were always "sixteen."7

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Ten of the original...


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