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Society of Women Musicians of Otago

1925 –

This essay written by Suzanne Court was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1925 – 1993

The Society of Women Musicians of Otago was formed primarily to encourage music-making by and for women. Ida White was inspired to form a musical society for the mutual benefit of professional women music teachers while she was resident in London at the height of the suffrage movement:

I was influenced by those intrepid women who fought so long and earnestly for the privilege of being able to have a vote. Why should I not follow in their example and ... get women music teachers to form a society of their own. [1]

Encouraged in 1925 by meeting Dorothea Vincent, a member of the Society of Women Musicians in London, White invited 60 or 70 women music teachers to a reception in Dunedin, where the proposal to form a society was positively received. At the inaugural meeting on 6 May 1925, Effie Yorston was voted president, and White one of the three vice-presidents. The 'Objects of the Society', which remained essentially unchanged in the early 1990s, were to advance musical education through lectures and discussions; to support visiting and local artists; to arrange recitals by members; and to promote friendly intercourse between members.

Members were educated, largely single women from the middle classes, who were professional music teachers. Numbers grew steadily, from 104 in 1925 to 149 by 1932. From the beginning of World War II, the abundance of teachers in private practice declined, and the need to recruit was at odds with maintaining professional standards. The necessity for members to hold a Diploma of Music contributed to a steady decline in membership. [2] In 1992 it stood at 87, with between 20 and 25 members attending monthly meetings.

To augment membership, the society admitted non-professional musicians in 1928 as honorary or associate members, on the understanding that they would be actively studying for professional qualifications. Student membership was introduced in 1965, but by 1979 only full membership and life membership remained. Maintaining high professional standards in the early years extended to behaviour and dress. Before World War II full evening dress was expected at monthly meetings, the incumbent committee members making it plain that those attired in anything less were not welcome.

The society became affiliated with many organisations, including National Council of Women (from 1929), the Women's War Service Auxiliary, the Pioneer Women's Association, the Women's Centennial Council, the London Society of Women Musicians, Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association (PPSEAWA), the Emergency Advice Service, and the Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Civic Arts Council. Proceeds from special concerts were donated to many worthwhile causes, especially disaster relief. The society also gave annual prizes to the Dunedin Competitions Society and to outstanding music students from the University of Otago, and provided a valuable platform for performance students. It regularly sponsored promising young musicians, including Patricia Payne and William Southgate, for overseas study.

By 1993 the society's programme had changed little since 1925, when the monthly meetings included a social evening, and talks on the development of song, French music, the properties of acoustics, piano technique, and the teachers' course at the Royal Academy of Music, London; a chamber music recital in August presented music of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Rachmaninov. Variety was provided by lectures and recitals of music from particular periods of history, composers or countries. The society continued to concentrate almost exclusively on pre-twentieth century European music. It showed some interest in the folk music of countries such as the Hebrides (1928), Majorca (1929), and America (1955), but none in the indigenous music of New Zealand. Contemporary New Zealand music did, however, feature on several occasions.

Acquiring its own piano was a major concern of the society in the early years, although it did not open a piano fund until 1958. In 1961 a reconditioned grand piano was sent from Edinburgh. Eventually the society sought a better quality instrument, and in 1975, after a decade of fundraising, it bought a Grotrian Steinweg. These instruments became valuable assets for recitals and for hiring to students and examiners.

The society made a point of inviting visiting women musicians to morning or afternoon tea, an invitation which many would decline or ignore. Joan Sutherland, unavoidably delayed, later apologised for her non-attendance: 'I would have loved to have come, but it is just as well for you that I can't because I talk too long anyway.' [3] Some eminent women musicians performed for the society, including Lili Kraus, Joan Hammond and Rita Streich. Men were also welcomed as performing musicians, lecturers, and members' guests at open meetings. Indeed, in the early years the invited speakers were predominantly men. The issue of men joining the society does not seem to have arisen, although White was reported to have challenged the committee over why they had never admitted male members. [4]

The society did not demonstrate a specific concern for the history of women in music until 1974, when the Camerata Quartet – four women from the University of Canterbury – gave a recital, and Lorna Brown and Wendy McTavish lectured on 'Famous Women in History'. Two years later, three Dunedin women gave a lecture-demonstration on 'Women in Poetry and Song'. The society did, however, concern itself with women's issues. In 1937 it sent a letter to the Minister of Justice apparently in support of the NCW's proposal to include women in the police force. [5] In 1989, the committee recognised the rare engagement of a woman conductor for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with a letter of congratulations to Dalia Atlas.

For over 60 years the society offered a significant support system to a profession practised by mainly single women. Its inability to maintain membership into the 1990s was due to a decline in the number of private music teaching practices, and to the changing musical tastes of younger members of New Zealand society.

Suzanne Court

1994 – 2018

By 2018 the Society of Women Musicians was continuing as before, in good but small heart.  It still held monthly recital meetings from March to November for its members, friends and interested members of the public.  

There were 50–60 financial members, but actual audience size was usually between 30 and 45.  Membership was open to any woman with an interest in music, and she was welcome to bring a partner at no cost.  This differed from the rather strict membership criteria of the past, where music qualifications were a requirement. Student membership at reduced cost was also available again.

Although the aims of the society remained the same, the breadth of musical taste had changed, and recitals included many types of music, as well as dance and literature.  Moreover, the evening dress code no longer applied.

Funds raised by its own membership subscriptions, together with grants from local charities, enabled the society to maintain its grand piano, hire a suitable venue for its recitals (in 2018, this was the Hutton Theatre at the Otago Museum), and support young artists through sponsoring prizes at the local performing arts competitions.

A highlight was the large-scale celebration for the society's 90th anniversary in May 2015, consisting of two concerts and a gala dinner, with Dame Malvina Major as guest speaker.  This event took place at Otago Museum over a Sunday afternoon and evening, and greatly boosted the society's public profile.

Jenny Whitaker [6]


[1] Ida White, Foreword, in Hendry, 1991, p. 1.

[2] Rule 3.2 states that members 'shall be holders of diplomas and others who can give tangible proof of musicianship'.

[3] Jean Hendry, interviewed by Suzanne Court, Dunedin, 1992.

[4] Jean Hendry, obituary for Ida White, read at general meeting, 10 May 1976.

[5] Committee meeting minutes, 31 May 1937.

[6] Secretary of Society of Women Musicians of Otago from 1995.

Unpublished sources

Court, Suzanne, interview with Jean Hendry, Dunedin, 1992

Society of Women Musicians of Otago minutes, 1925–1975, Hocken

Society of Women Musicians of Otago records, 1976–1992, in possession of the society, Dunedin

Published sources

Hendry, Jean N., 'Their Endeavour Endures', booklet produced for the Golden Jubilee of the Society of Women Musicians of Otago, 1925–1975, Dunedin, 1975

'This is a British Colony', Music in New Zealand, Spring 1991, pp. 30–37