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Suggested Reading

Rooney, Frances. "The Montreal Women's Symphony," Atlantis, vol 5, 1979

Noriega, Maria L. "The Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra and the Emergence of Orchestra Musicians in Canada, 1940-1965." MA thesis, University of Calgary 2010

 
 

From Kitchen To Carnegie Hall

The all-women's symphony orchestra that revolutionized music


In 1940 two extraordinary women, meeting over tea at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, changed the face of classical music forever, by agreeing to create the first all women’s full symphony orchestra. Socialite Madge Bowen and talented violinist Ethel Stark flaunted convention to assemble a disparate group of women from all walks of life, many of whom had never set foot on the stage, and within seven months were performing their first public concert. With Maestra Ethel Stark at the helm, the women managed to find instruments, organize rehearsals in members’ homes and unheated basements, and learn to play “masculine” instruments such as the trombone and the double bass, much to the cynical amusement of the country’s male music critics who wrote that there were better things for a woman to do with her lips than play a horn.

Undaunted, for nearly thirty years the women of the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra – French, English, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, black, white, socialite and domestic – responded to the fierce passion and relentless work ethic of their leader for the sheer love of making music together. They did all of this at a time when society was heavily stratified based on race, class and language. In the process they became the first Canadian orchestra to perform in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hallto rave reviews. One of its members also became the first Canadian black musician to play in a symphony in Carnegie Hall. Ethel Stark and the MWSO opened doors of equal opportunity for marginalized groups and played an important role in breaking down the gender stereotypes of the classical music world.