Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Women's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago - January 1930


Dear Mr. Austin:

Am leaving for New York in the morning – after a very wonderful visit.  Kindness of every sort has been showered upon me – officially and personally.  Am enclosing two notices which I’d like back – please later.  All the papers were good to me – and the consensus of opinion seems to be that I really can conduct!

(January 18, 1930 Gena Branscombe letter to her publisher, Mr. Austin, at Arthur P. Schmidt Co. in Boston- held at the Library of Congress)


On January 8, 1930 a woman conductor, Gena Branscombe, led The Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago in a performance of her music, “The Dancer of Fjaard, ‘On Over the Water’ from “Pilgrims of Destiny,” and the ‘Symphonic Suite for Orchestra’ from her “Quebec Suite.”  From this concert she noted the importance of kindness, positive press coverage and the recognition that “…I really can conduct.”

The Chicago women’s orchestra was found in 1925. Their mission was to premiere music by women composers, play under the direction of acclaimed women conductors, award scholarships and give female professional orchestral brass and woodwind musicians the opportunity to perform on a high level.

Having been part of the Chicago music culture from 1896 through 1907, Gena Branscombe was invited to conduct The Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.  

“…I really can conduct.” 

Over 90 years ago the inequity in the classical music world was jarring.  Inequity? Has the inequity vanished?  Does it continue to be a problem?   Hmmmm – let’s take a look at those questions. 

Gena was conducting a women’s orchestra because of gender gap.  She was capable of conducting any orchestra whether men or women or a combination of both.  Women were not auditioned or hired by all –male orchestras.  They were considered second rate musicians unable to handle long, arduous rehearsal schedules and extended hours of touring and concertizing. 

To right this obvious wrong – as we roll our eyes in disbelief - women formed their own orchestras to perform music they were capable of playing.  The same music men played.  From the mid to late 19th century through the mid-20th century women’s orchestras such as the Vienna Damen Orchester, The Berlin Lady Orchestra, Ladies Philharmony, Montreal Women’s Orchestra, Women’s String Orchestra of New York, The Cleveland Women’s Orchestra and the Boston Fadette Orchestra existed.  These women orchestral musicians were as serious, capable and as well trained as their male counterparts.  Yet they had to be self-made orchestras, self-promoted and self-supporting through their own fund-raising! 

“…I really can conduct.” 

By 1919 women were admitted to the Queen’s Hall Orchestra of London.  World War II opened chair positions for women orchestral musicians as men went off to war.  Women were able to keep those positions post war.  A small part of the gender gap was eroding. 

  Edna Philips, harp, joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.  It was 1997 before the Vienna Philharmonic allowed harpist Anna Lelkes to become full member status of the orchestra.  In 1982 the first woman was allowed membership in the Berlin Philharmonic.

 “…I really can conduct.” 

And, what about women orchestral conductors?  Where were they in this gender gap?  When did they begin conducting orchestras? 


Mary Wurm became the first woman conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1887.  Since then women such as Antonia Brico conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1930.  Of today’s women conductors Simone Young and Susanne M√§lkki have performed with the Berlin Philharmonic.  Major American orchestras have opened their podiums to women conductors.  Nathalie Stutzman is the Atlanta Symphony’s Music Director and recently made her New York Philharmonic debut. Jo Ann Falletta is Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic.  Marin Alsop was Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2007-2021 and continues to conduct orchestras around the world.  The gender gap continues to erode yet we want more women on the podiums as Music Director of the major symphony orchestras!

“…I really can conduct.” 

And, what about women composers whose music is being performed by orchestras?  Recently the media published articles about the increase in the number of women composers whose music is being performed by leading orchestras.  The Orchestra Repertoire Report research shows a 638% increase in performances of music composed by women at symphony halls and women composers of color – the increase in their music being performed is 1425%!  Yet, why has it taken this long to get where we are today? 

Composer Julie Wolfe has said she has battled sexism in the classical music world.  She gives credit to her mentors and predecessors who had career paths more difficult than she as no one in classical music recognized them or their fight to have their music performed.  Quoting Ms. Wolfe, “You just want to be a composer.  You don’t want to be a “female composer.” 

Isn’t this what women composers from Hildegard von Bingen to Clara Schmann to Alma Mahler to Margaret Ruthven Lang to Fanny Mendelssohn to Amy Beach to Meredith Monk to Florence Price to Margaret Bonds to Gena Branscombe have been saying across the ages?  Why has it taken this long? 

Orchestras are giving heed to the gender gap and programming women’s music.  From the Philadelphia Orchestra to the New York Philharmonic to the Chicago Symphony, Sarasota Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, San Diego Symphony and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra -  programming the music of women composers has become important, yet, in reality, it is music composed by people whose hearts are expressed in their art. The gender gap is eroding.

Conductors raise your batons to give downbeats because you are a conductor no matter your gender. 

And, in Miss Branscombe’s words, “…..I really can conduct.”


Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Ladies Speak Podcast - Gena Branscombe

It has been an honor and wonderful experience to work with the creator and producer, Matt Spangler,  of the podcast "The Ladies Speak."  This past November outside Boston we recorded the new episode about Gena Branscombe.  

Miss Branscombe's passion filled life of music, women composers, American music and especially education is highlighted in this episode.  We, The Gena Branscombe Project, carry on the example she set for us.