Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra/Symphonie féminine de Montréal | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra/Symphonie féminine de Montréal

The Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra (MWSO)/La Symphonie féminine de Montréal. First women's symphony orchestra in Canada and one of the last in a series of all-woman symphony orchestras formed in North America during the 20th century. It was founded in 1940 when arts patron Madge (Mrs. H.B.

Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra/Symphonie féminine de Montréal


The Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra (MWSO)/La Symphonie féminine de Montréal. First women's symphony orchestra in Canada and one of the last in a series of all-woman symphony orchestras formed in North America during the 20th century. It was founded in 1940 when arts patron Madge (Mrs. H.B.) Bowen approached Ethel Stark to direct a group of string players who wanted to play professionally. Stark refused to participate unless the ensemble could be expanded to full symphonic dimensions. For much of the 20th century, performance opportunities for women were limited, and those who did play generally came from upper class families and performed on the piano or violin. To form a full symphony orchestra Bowen and Stark had to find women willing to learn woodwind and percussion instruments normally played by men. Such was the enthusiasm among women musicians in Montreal, that within ten days they gathered 40 instrumentalists for their first rehearsal. Instruments were donated from music stores, thrift stores, schools and members of the community. Membership was extended to any woman who was willing to learn an instrument and practice. Consequently the ensemble included a range of ethnic, social and religious classes with a handful of professional string players. Over the years the number of players grew to 75-80 players with some women brought in from U.S. music schools. Amateur musicians were not used after 1947.

The first rehearsal took place on January 28, 1940 in the basement of a store on Bishop Street. During the orchestra's first year the women practiced two to three times a week, moving from each other's homes to churches, stores and to the cafeteria at the Canadian Pacific Railway station which H.B. Bowen acquired for their use. Eventually the orchestra moved to Plateau Hall.

First Concert

On 31 Jul 1940 the MWSO performed its first concert at the Chalet on top of Mt. Royal, playing a concert that included Bach's Suite for strings in D major performed from memory, to an audience of approximately 3,000. The event was a triumphant success considering that most of the women were amateurs with little or no performing experience and only six months of lessons from Stark prior to the concert. The members worked diligently that year giving four concerts in the 1941-2 season. In March 1942 part of their concert was broadcast on CBC radio. Over the years the MWSO gave an average of 10 concerts per year until dissolution in 1965.

Carnegie Hall, 1947

On 22 Oct 1947, the MWSO became the first Canadian symphony orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall. Under the patronage of the Governor General of Canada (Viscount Alexander of Tunis), the Secretary of the Province of Quebec (Omer Coté), and the Mayor of Montreal (Camillien Houde), the concert played to an audience of about 2,000. The program included Weber's Euryanthe Overture, Sir Ernest MacMillan's Two Sketches from French-Canadian Airs, Strauss' Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor. Critical reception was favourable. Veteran New York Times critic Olin Downes remarked that the orchestra had played "vigorously, rhythmically, and with a large measure of communicative fire." So successful was the performance that invitations came from England, Japan, the USSR and many other European and South American countries. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funding, these tours never materialized, though the orchestra appeared as well in Toronto, Kingston, and London, Ontario.

Repertoire and soloists

The extent of the MWSO's repertoire is indicated by such works as Bach's Concerto in D minor for three pianos, Brahms' Symphony No. 4, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, Schubert's Mass in G, Ravel's Piano Concerto for Left Hand Alone (with the dedicatee Paul Wittgenstein as soloist), and MacMillan's Two Sketches. It premiered Violet Archer's Sea Drift and Leaves of Grass and introduced to Canada Bloch's Concerto grosso No. 2. Soloists included Ellen Ballon, Percy Grainger, Witold Malcuzynski, Zara Nelsova, and Joseph Rouleau.

Financing the MWSO

The orchestra relied on ticket sales and on private patrons rather than on government funding. Throughout its 25 years of existence the MWSO received only a few small grants from federal, provincial and municipal governments. In its beginning stages the members could not afford the union dues and were not paid for their work, the result of a compromise between the orchestra and the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada. However, by 1950 the orchestra was completely unionized and its players paid union wages. Unfortunately that year, as the orchestra was beginning to bloom into a fully paid professional ensemble, it was dealt a blow with the death of Madge Bowen, its president and main financial supporter. The orchestra struggled financially in the following years as appeals for government funding were unsuccessful. From the mid 1950s it alternated in concert with its subsidiaries, the Montreal Women's Symphony Strings and the Ethel Stark Symphonietta.

Final concert

The MWSO gave its last concert in Plateau Hall on 11 Dec 1965 with 73 players and Montreal pianist, William Stevens, as soloist. The program consisted of music by Handel, Mozart and Beethoven. Although it did not continue its activities, the MWSO provided countless professional and educational opportunities for women in the field of orchestral playing. Many of its members, both casual and permanent, went on to win positions in other orchestras in North America, or to become influential music educators. They included composer Violet Archer (on timpani); cellists Lotte Brott, Lyse Vézina, Pearl Arynoff; contrabassist Nathalie Clair-Feldman, clarinetist Violet Grant States, flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer and oboist Lois Wann. Over the years the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra was featured on CBC's "L'Heure du concert"/"The Concert Hour" and in April 2012 the orchestra was featured in a CBC documentary, "It wasn't teatime: Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra" produced by David Gutnick.

Further Reading