Society of Women Musicians

The Society of Women Musicians

Sophie Fuller discusses the history of the Society of Women Musicians and some of its leading members


By the turn of the 20th century, there were many professional women musicians working in Britain, as singers, instrumentalists, composers, teachers and writers on music. But many of these women were still fighting against a refusal to believe that as women it was appropriate, or even possible, for them to play in a professional symphony orchestra or compose a large-scale, complex work, such as a symphony.

The first organisation of women musicians in Britain, the Royal Society of Female Musicians, had been founded in 1839 by a group of leading women singers, performers and composers, including pianist Lucy Anderson (1797–1898), singer Charlotte Dolby (1821–85) and composer Ann Mounsey (1811–91). The aim of the society was to provide ‘for the relief of its distressed members’ since the Royal Society of Musicians, founded in 1738 for a similar purpose, refused to admit women as members. After 27 years the male Society agreed to take women as members and the two groups combined forces. For nearly 50 years, despite the appearance of numerous societies for women in the other arts, there was no other organisation of women musicians.

Early years and aims of the Society of Women Musicians

On 15 July 1911, over 150 women composers, singers, instrumentalists, teachers, critics and musicologists met at the Women’s Institute in Victoria Street, London, for the introductory meeting of The Society of Women Musicians (SWM). The idea of starting an organisation that would bring together women who were composers, performers and writers on music had originated with the violinist and writer on music Marion Scott (1877–1953) together with her friends, singer and social reformer Gertrude Eaton (1861–1939) and composer (and later literary critic) Katharine Eggar (1874–1961). Their idea was to provide a space for women to meet to discuss musical matters and receive help with the business aspects of a musical career as well as giving concerts, bringing composers and performers together.  

Many of the women present at this first meeting were determined supporters of the fight for the right for women to vote. But, as ‘chairman’ of the inaugural meeting, Eggar felt it necessary to stress that the organisation was not a ‘Suffragist Society in disguise’ but rather that the new organization shared ‘a similarity of Ideals’ with the suffrage movement. She went on to highlight how important it was for women to help each other, sharing experiences and providing advice.[1]

Professional women musicians were to pay a smaller subscription (15s 6d) than non-professional women (£1 6s) while men musicians were offered associate subscriptions (5s), but only if they had been proposed and seconded by women members. Eminent musicians who were present at the first meeting included viola player and later composer Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979), pianist Lily Henkel (1860–1936), soprano Agnes Larkcom (1856–1931) and cellist May Mukle (1880–1963). Many other prominent women musicians, including singer Agnes Nicholls (1877–1959) and double bass player and conductor of the Aeolian Ladies’ Orchestra, Rosabel Watson (1865–1959), sent messages of support and apologies for being unable to attend.  

Scott became the SWM’s vice-president, Eggar was secretary and Eaton was treasurer while the first president was the composer Liza Lehmann (1862–1918). The other council members were composer and violinist Ethel Barns (1873–1948), Beatrix Darnell (dates not known) and Lucie Johnstone (dates not known).  

By the end of its first year, the SWM had 152 members and 20 associates, had formed a choir and a library, held six members’ meetings and hosted six lectures as well as holding a composers’ conference (including papers from Scott and Eggar as well as one from composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) and given a concert of music by its members. This concert included songs by Johnstone (who wrote as ‘Lewis Carey’), Scott and Maude Valerie White (1855–1937), a vocal trio Autumn Leaves by Eggar, a Phantasy Trio for two violins and piano by Barns and a vocal intermezzo In Sherwood Forest by Lehmann.  

Businessman and amateur musician Walter Willson Cobbett was one of the early male associates and in 1918 he generously donated the Cobbett Free Library of Chamber Music to the SWM.

Later years of the SWM

In 1921 the SWM moved from the Women’s Institute to 74 Grosvenor Street in Mayfair, London, where the organisation had an office which was open to offer advice on most mornings and which also housed the Cobbett Library.

The society lasted for a total of 61 years. Later generations of women musicians, including Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–94), Elisabeth Lutyens (1906–83) and Fanny Waterman (b. 1920), played various roles in the organisation which continued to campaign for the rights of women musicians as well as organising concerts and meetings.

Musicians involved in the early years of the SWM

Agnes Larkcom (1856–1931)

Soprano Agnes Larkcom and her husband Herbert Jacobs were both keen suffragists. Four years before the founding of the SWM, in 1907, Jacobs had founded the Men's League for Women's Suffrage. By 1911 Larkcom had retired from her career as a vocalist to concentrate on teaching (she was a professor at the Royal Academy of Music) and publishing writings on vocal technique, notably The Singer’s Art (1920) which was an expansion of a paper she had read to the SWM and in which she said:

The Society numbers among its members a good many women who have had wide experience both as performers and teachers, and I feel strongly that the moment has come when we ought no longer to sit down tamely and allow men alone to decide what we can and what we can not do, what is right and what is wrong, and in fact take up the position of final arbiters with regard to our development mentally and artistically. I consider women know best about their own physical powers and limitations, and I also think we ought to establish a standard of taste and excellence of performance for ourselves, and endeavour to help the younger members of the Society by giving them the benefit of the collective experience of those of us who have had wider opportunities. Women are apt to be timid and afraid to assert themselves – if they hold original views, they give them up too readily if a man comes along and attacks them.

Liza Lehmann (1862–1918)

Although born in London, Liza Lehmann spent the first five years of her life in Italy. She came from an artistic family – her mother was a composer (who published as ‘A.L.’) and her father was a painter. Both parents encouraged their daughter to follow a professional music career. Lehmann became a successful concert hall singer until her marriage to Herbert Bedford, an amateur musician, in 1894. She then turned instead to composition, publishing a wide range of vocal music, from songs and song-cycles to operetta and musical theatre.

Her best-known work was the song-cycle In a Persian Garden (1896), a setting of the Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám in the fashionable translation by Edward Fitzgerald and for four voices and piano. Initially turned down by publishers who felt there was no market for this unusual combination, Lehmann’s friend, the society hostess Angelina Goetz gave a private performance at her salon. Among the guests was music critic Hermann Klein who took the unusual step of writing an enthusiastic review of the work for The Sunday Times. Publication and performances throughout Britain, the United States and beyond followed this review and the work, especially the tenor solo ‘Ah, moon of my delight’ achieved widespread popularity.

Like her friend Maude Valerie White, Lehmann wrote little instrumental music but as a songwriter became a household name in the early 20th century. Her appointment as the first president of the SWM gave the launch of the society an important figurehead.

Liza Lehmann: In a Persian Garden

Liza Lehmann, In a Persian Garden, G.385.m.(7.)

Liza Lehmann’s song-cycle In a Persian Garden was initially turned down by publishers who felt there was no market for its unusual combination.

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Ethel Barns (1873–1948)

Born in London in 1873, Barns studied the violin with Prosper Sainton and Emile Sauret at the Royal Academy of Music. While still a student, she published the first of her many compositions for the violin. After leaving the Royal Academy, from 1894, Barns embarked on a successful career as a violinist-composer, frequently performing her own music, giving solo recitals and chamber music concerts as well as appearing as a soloist with various orchestras. The first of these was in 1895 when she performed Bruch’s third violin concerto (1891) at London’s Crystal Palace, with conductor August Manns.

In 1899 Barns married baritone Charles Phillips whom she had known and performed with for several years. Together they had established the Barns-Phillips Chamber Concerts, at which they programmed a range of music, including Barns’s chamber works. From 1901 these concerts were held at the Bechstein (later Wigmore) Hall. Barns also wrote several works for violin and orchestra, which she also performed herself.

Barns’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor was first performed in 1904, by Barns with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dan Godfrey. Reviewing a performance of the violin and piano version of this work given a couple of years later, a critic for The Times described it as ‘a work of considerable originality, charm, and technical difficulty’.

Ethel Barns: Violin Concerto no.2

Ethel Barns, Concerto no. 2 for violin, Add MS 63634

This manuscript volume contains a draft for most of the first movement of Ethel Barns's ‘Concerto no.2’ for violin.

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Usage terms Reproduced by kind permission of the estate of Ethel Barns.  Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
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Ethel Smyth (1858–1944)

In the early 21st century, Ethel Smyth is perhaps the best known British woman composer of this generation. She was a determined, confident and forceful woman whose compositional output embraced all genres from song through orchestral music to opera, the genre to which she devoted most of her career, producing six operatic works. The most successful of these was her three-act work The Wreckers (1906), originally set to a French libretto by Henry Brewster and entitled Les Naufrageurs, and when performed in Leipzig and Prague translated into German and known as Strandrecht

This is a powerful work, set on the Cornish coast and telling the story of two lovers, Thirza and Mark, who light beacons to warn ships approaching the treacherous coastline, in defiance of their community of ‘wreckers’ who feed their families by luring ships onto the rocks and plundering their cargoes. The sea plays an important part in the opera, perhaps particularly in the orchestral prelude to Act II, which was frequently performed as an orchestral work, On the Cliffs of Cornwall. It is probable that Smyth’s work influenced aspects of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945) – also an opera about an outsider set against his community and in which the sea plays an important role.

Libretto of The Wreckers

The Wreckers, libretto with manuscript notes, Add MS 68898

This copy of the libretto for Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers  was used for the first UK performances of the work in 1909.

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Smyth had an interesting relationship with the SWM. The founding of the society happened at about the time Smyth became involved with the militant suffragette movement (the Women’s Social and Political Union), deciding in 1910 that she would devote two years to the cause. She composed a rousing anthem ‘The March of the Women’ for the suffragettes, setting an Italian folksong to words by Cicely Hamilton. This tune was also heard in her fourth opera The Boatswain’s Mate (first performed 1916) and formed the third movement of her choral work Songs of Sunrise dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union (1911). At the first SWM composer’s concert in 1912, the first two (and only completed) movements of Smyth’s string quartet from 1902 were performed.

The SWM archives show that Smyth resigned from the society in 1914, presumably when she refocused her energies on composition after her two years of feminist activism, which had included being sent to Holloway prison for throwing a stone through a cabinet minister’s window. But in 1922 she became an honorary vice-president of SWM, a position she was to hold until her death.

Ethel Smyth: The March of the Women

Ethel Smyth, The March of the Women, I.600.d.(165.)

Ethel Smyth’s rousing March of the Women was introduced as the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union and became associated with the suffrage movement.

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In many ways the Society of Women Musicians can be seen as a culmination of the growing sense of confidence and conviction that characterised women musicians at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Like all women of the time, musicians faced a complex mixture of opportunity and discrimination in a world that was rapidly changing almost beyond recognition, partly through their own persistence and determination. As they broke down employment barriers and found strength in co-operation women also conquered their own lack of belief in themselves and their abilities.


[1] The archives of the Society of Women Musicians are held at the Royal College of Music Library Archives. The SWM has been discussed in detail by Laura Seddon in the third chapter of her book British Composers and Instrumental Chamber Music in the Early Twentieth Century (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). See also various writings by Pamela Blevins, particularly Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008).

© Sophie Fuller

  • Sophie Fuller
  • Sophie Fuller is the author of The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, 1629-present (1994). As well as women’s musical creativity, her research interests include many different aspects of music, gender and sexuality but focus in particular on musical life in late 19th- and 20th-century Britain. She has published a wide range of essays in these areas, including ‘“Something Revolting”: Women, Creativity and Music after 50’ in Gender, Age and Musical Creativity ed. Colton and Haworth (2015) and ‘“The Finest Voice of the Century”: Clara Butt and Other Concert-hall and Drawing-room Singers of fin-de-siècle Britain’ in The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century ed. Cowgill and Poriss (2012). Among other projects, Sophie is currently working with Phyllis Weliver on ‘Sounding Victorian’ [], a collection of digital projects that explore aesthetic sound in Victorian Britain. She works at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music in London.

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