We chose seats in the second row of the Seligman Performing Arts Center yesterday for a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The seats were so low, relative to the stage, that we were looking straight at the feet of the performers when looking dead ahead—so that John (of Monique and John and Patioboat fame) said that the way to discover how many musicians were playing, we might count the feet and divide by two.
Up close and personal. Oddly this nearness greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the performance, but a part of my mind went wandering during certain passages. It occurred to me that all that I was seeing—the people, the instruments, the sheets of music, everything would have looked pretty much the same way a hundred, hundred and ten years ago, dress-codes aside. During the intermission, I put the question to Monique. “Look at the orchestra,” I said, “and tell me what would have been different a hundred-and-ten years ago.” Monique thought about it for a while. Then she said: “The women.” And, of course, I nodded. It had occurred to me that a large proportion of the orchestra, particularly in violins, was female; and that that, 110 years ago, would not have been the same.
It turns out that I was quite wrong. The high proportions are a fairly recent phenomenon in large metropolitan symphonies. But using pictures back to the early 1900s, I discovered here one, there two, sometimes three women in the symphonic orchestras even then—and not just playing harps. And by that time, women had already reached high visibility in regional symphony orchestras like the Battle Creek, MI, symphony, shown here courtesy of the Willard Library in Battle Creek (link). The picture dates back to about 1905.