Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

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The Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra

Under Conductor Ethel Stark, the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra was the first all-women orchestra in Canada. They reached the pinnacle of music performance in 1947.

Eighty women gathered in Plateau Hall Auditorium in the City of Montreal, creating the wonderful strains of music that only a full range of symphony instruments in the hands of talented musicians could produce. The musicians were professionals and amateurs, collected at the hall to form the Montreal Women’s Symphony

In performance on May 8, 1946, conductor Ethel Stark and Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra.

Orchestra, called Symphonie féminine de Montréal in French. Founded by Madge Bowen and Ethel Stark in 1940, they made their mark as the first all-women’s symphony in Canada. And in the same year, decades after most women across the country received it, Quebec women finally achieved the right to vote.

Ethel Stark Founded MWSO in 1940

The Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra (MWSO) held its first concert performance on July 29, 1940 under the direction of conductor Ethel Stark. A professional violinist, Ethel was born in Montreal, Quebec on August 25, 1910. She honed her talents, studying in Canada and the United States under Artur Rodzinski and Fritz Reiner.

A musical pioneer, in 1934, Ethel was the first woman soloist on an American radio program, playing with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, noted Collections Canada,  She performed several Canadian pieces, including “Fantasy for the Violin and Piano” by fellow Canadian musician, Violet Archer.

Composer Violet Archer

Violet Stark, composing at the piano, University of Alberta

Percussionist with the MWSO from 1940 to 1947, Violet Archer was trained in Music Composition. Born in Montreal on April 24, 1913, she grew into a life that fully encompassed music; she created many of the pieces performed by Ethel Stark and the Symphony Orchestra.

In 1949, Violet earned a Master’s Degree in Music Composition from Yale University. Later, she took a position leading the Music Theory and Composition Department at the University of Alberta in the 1970s. Prolific in her creations, Violet composed over 335 musical works: chamber music, film scores, children’s music, including pieces for accordion, organ, choir and piano along with violin. She believed that poetry inspired music, said University of Alberta.

Ethel Stark and the New York Women’s Chamber Orchestra

While studying and performing in the United States, Ethel Stark founded the New York Women’s Chamber Orchestra, according to Canadian Women. She spent decades teaching the intricacies of the violin at several universities in the United States and Canada. In 1979, Ethel Stark’s inspiring work was honoured with the Order of Canada, and in 1992, she received the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canada’s Confederation.

MWSO Performed in Ontario

The MWSO held four concerts during the 1941-1942 season, and then built up to 10 performances a year, visiting Ontario cities of Toronto, London and Kingston, said the Canadian Encyclopedia. The orchestra also had musical performing subdivisions: The Montreal Women’s Symphony Strings and the Ethel Stark Symphonietta.

Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

In the mid-1940s, the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra reached the crowning point of musical performance. On October 22, 1947, the women conducted a concert at the distinguished Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Not only was the MWSO the first women’s symphony to achieve such success, they were the first Canadian symphony to appear at the prestigious venue.

Carnegie Hall was built in 1891 by Andrew Carnegie, the renowned wealthy American industrialist and philanthropist. With his own money, he established libraries, universities and many other institutions for the betterment of all people.

The Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra continued performances until 1960, when the symphony disbanded. Attempts were made to re-start, but the efforts failed.  Conductor Ethel Stark and the beautiful strains of music created by the brilliant women of the MWSO inspired Canadian women, musicians and performers for over two decades.

This article first appeared on in August 2009. © Susanna McLeod



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