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The Story of America's Largest Musical Organization: The National Federation of Musical Clubs

Prepared especially for THE ETUDE Woman’s Issue by the President of the National Federation of Musical Clubs


[Not all of the federated organizations connected with the N. F. M. C. are composed exclusively of women, but the organization of the work and the conduct of its important meetings, conventions, etc., have been such a wonderful testimonial to the great efficiency of American women in the musical field that we have made this review of this great enterprise the leading feature of our Woman’s Issue.—The Editor of The Etude.]

OCHESNER.jpgThe Music Club undoubtedly found its beginning in the enthusiasm of the individual student and teacher, who carried to the home the inspiration gathered from great leaders in the larger centers. To no one are we more indebted for this pioneer work than to Lowell Mason. After years devoted to the teaching and advancement of music, in 1840 he called a convention of music teachers to meet in Boston, and thus demonstrated the value of discussion and of united effort.

The next great step in the life of the music club was the result of one woman’s broad vision and well directed energy. Mrs. Theodore Thomas, at work with her famous husband in preparing a Music Festival for the World’s Columbian Exposition, realized that an opportune time had come for calling together the Amateur Musicians of America. The story of her devoted work in carrying out a self-imposed task, the success of her effort, and the subsequent organization of the National Federation of Musical Clubs has often been told; it is ever a delight to pay honor to Mrs. Theodore Thomas, our dearly loved Honorary President.

The programs for the Festival, arranged by Theodore Thomas, included an adult and a children’s chorus trained by William L. Tomlins, and professional soloists of recognized standing. Mrs. Thomas was the President of the Amateur Musical Club, which at that time was the only musical club in Chicago composed exclusively of women. With the co-operation of this body of women, Mrs. Thomas, since then regarded as the “Mother of the Federation,” made an opportunity for the amateur musicians, and took the first steps toward organizing their interests in the hope that from the beginning “might grow a permanent organization which should be the best friend of musical art in America.”

Five years later—January 26, 1898—this permanent organization was effected, at a meeting called in Chicago. Again the Amateur Musical Club—Mrs. William S. Warren, President—served as hostess to the delegates coming from various parts of the country. Mrs. Edwin F. Uhl, of Michigan, was elected first President, and one month later—February 28, 1898—the organization was incorporated under the laws of Illinois, and was named the National Federation of Musical Clubs.

“Pioneer Days”

The Charter members were women of influence in musical life, several of whom afterwards served as Presidents of the organization, two of whom are today members of the Board. The Charter defines the purpose of the Federation as follows: “To bring into communication with one another the various musical clubs of the country that they may compare methods of work and become mutually helpful.” When we look back to those pioneer days of 1893—when we consider the women whose devotion so eloquently proved their faith in the value of the work—when we note the first Biennial Convention held in St. Louis in 1899 with a membership of 70 clubs from 11 States—when we compare this with the tenth Biennial Convention held in Birmingham with a membership of 475 clubs from 40 States, we are satisfied that we have kept faith, and that a great work is well begun.

Thus for a quarter of a century the National Federation of Musical Clubs has signalized a widespread effort to unite musical interests in a common enthusiasm throughout the United States.

Purely an Altruistic Work

As compared with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, we are a specialized organization. We keep close to the text of our Charter and frankly admit that the sole object of our existence is to advance the cause of music in America. As compared with all other organized effort in behalf of the fine arts in this country, the National Federation of Musical Clubs is a purely altruistic organization. We have no paid officers, there is no opportunity for personal exploitation. I believe that it is not claiming too much for our board members to say that each one is actuated only by a genuine desire to promote the value of the work. Not only do they do the work, but in many instances contribute the expense of the office to the organization. Since the first convention in 1899, there has been no interruption to the biennial meeting, each period marking a growth in membership, and an increased opportunity for the development of ideals.

Important Prizes

The fifth convention in Memphis—Mrs. Charles B. Kelsey, President—saw the beginning of a new venture. At this time it was decided to offer prizes for the works of American composers, and a committee was appointed to outline the plan. Mrs. Jason W. Walker was chairman of the committee, and had with her Mrs. David Allen Campbell and Mr. Arthur Farwell. At each successive biennial, prizes have been awarded amounting since 1909 to $16,000. In addition to this, every prize composition has been given a public performance. The judges of the manuscripts are invariably musicians of unquestioned authority, and they give their services gratuitously to a most difficult and ungrateful task.” The Department has aroused general interest and we believe it to be a stimulus to creative art in America. The prize winners include: Henry K. Hadley, Arthur Shepherd, George W. Chadwick, Henry Lang, Horatio W. Parker, Mabel Daniels, Deems Taylor, Bessie M. Whitely, Arne Oldberg, Helen Faith Rogers, Harvey B. Gaul, Frank S. Ward, Harold Webster, Edith Lobdell, Fay Foster and Ralph Lyford.

There may be a difference of opinion as to the value or the ethics of prize giving, but if even one composer found in it the encouragement which saved a life, or saved a soul—and there may have been such—the work is worth while, and commands respect. (Chairman, Mrs. John R. MacArthur, New York City.)

Young Artist Contest

Another department which has met with much criticism, for the most part, though not altogether, helpful and constructive criticism, is that of the Young Artist Contest (Chairman, Mrs. Louis E. Yager). The few rules which govern the contest demand that the contestant must be entirely American trained; must be between 21 and 30 years of age, and must be prepared to demonstrate a high standard of artistic attainment before unknown and unseen judges.

From the ambitious teacher who wished to exploit the talented child, we learned the necessity of the age limit. From teachers of large experience and well established authority, we have gathered the elements which make for a fair test, both in the choice of acceptable repertoire and in schedule of markings. At the Biennial Festival, the district winners are given an appearance, and in each of the departments—piano, violin, and voice—a prize of $150 will be awarded the national winner. State and district contests are now being heard, in preparation for the third national contest for the next biennial which meets in Petersborough, New Hampshire, June, 1919.

To the young artist is given the encouragement of success which promises further effort; to the American people is given the encouragement that our sons and daughters need not go to foreign countries for musical training—as good as the best is to be had at home.

Three Departments

The work of the Federation is divided into three departments—Education, Philanthropy, and Publicity, each Department Director presiding over four standing committees. The three Directors, the twelve chairmen of standing committees, together with the ten elected officers, constitute the Board of Managers. Retiring Presidents are given the title of Honorary Vice-president and make up an Advisory Board. The State Presidents form an Auxiliary Board and meet with the Board of Managers annually.

The committees of American Music and of the Young Artist Contest are conspicuous for the reason that in their work is found the point of direct contact with individual musicians, not members of the Federation. No less important, however, is the work which more especially belongs to the music club. The Educational Department (Mrs. W. D. Steele, Director) publishes every month a “Course of Study,” which the study section of all music clubs will find interesting, but which is especially intended as an aid to those clubs that have not the advantages of local orchestras and frequent concerts. Public school music and sacred concert music as well as Library Extension are represented in this Department.

The Program Exchange explains itself literally; as many as 100 clubs send a year book or the season’s programs to the Chairman, Mrs. A. C. Potter, Oneida, N. Y., and she distributes them in monthly packages to the members. Encouraged by letters of inquiry and appreciation, we know that the committee gives real help.

Under the Library Extension a new committee has been appointed to collect music and musical instruments for the boys in camp; Mrs. Anne Faulkner Oberndorfer is Chairman, and devotes a splendid energy to this war service, which so essentially belongs to the music clubs. “For the period of the War,” we have created a “War Council” (Mrs. W. A. Hinckle, Chairman) whose chief desire is to co-operate with the State Councils of Defense in developing “The Liberty Chorus,” a new name for Community Singing. Our Federal Government declares that “Music as a war measure has passed the stage of experiment;” Community Music as a great patriotic force passed the “stage of experiment” long before we were at war. Miss Anne McDonough is the Chairman of Community Music. Musicians everywhere must rejoice that it is at a time when every resource of our country must be utilized to the highest limit of efficiency “to preserve us a Nation,” that music is given the high place to which it has ever been entitled.

One Hundred Thousand Strong

The four hundred and seventy-five clubs approximating a hundred thousand members, probably represent not more than one-third of the music clubs in the country. We believe it is not only the privilege but the duty of every music club and individual musician to join the Federation and add the force of their working influence towards a broader accomplishment. Always striving to increase its usefulness in a program of activities, the National Federation of Musical Clubs has a generous vision out-reaching the boundaries of a charter. It is ever ready for service in National undertakings for musical extension.

We have ever been convinced of the fundamental necessity of music in the life of the Nation. From the earliest instruction to the smallest child in the public school, through the Music Department of our State universities, which eventually must be the nucleus of state orchestras and state choral societies, and looking forward to the establishment of a National Conservatory which shall enroll in its faculty teachers of international fame, each step in musical education is filled with significance. We do what we do, believing that “Music is, in sober fact, the only international language,” and that a knowledge and understanding of that language makes for better citizenship.

The plans are in the making for the eleventh Biennial Convention. When deciding to assemble at Peterborough we were influenced by the thought that in these unsettled times of warfare a pilgrimage to the shrine of America’s greatest composer would inspire a loftier patriotism and a renewed dedication to the highest ideals of the National Federation of Musical Clubs.

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