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Mementos from the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago Opens Today

The Sousa Archives’ newest exhibit, Anna Fay Herron and Bohumir Kryl: Mementos from the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, opens today and provides a lively portrait of the women who performed in this ensemble under the baton of Bohumir Kryl (1875-1961).  Kryl was a cornet virtuoso from Bohemia who worked as a music librarian and cornet soloist for the Sousa Band in 1898 and the Frederick Innes’ Band in 1904.  In 1906, he formed his own band and traveled extensively across the country through the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1943 Kryl formed the Kryl Women’s Symphony Orchestra, which toured across the Midwest and East Coast between 1943 and 1949.  All-women music ensembles first appeared in the United States in the early 19th century as novelty acts.  During America’s Suffrage Movement (1848-1919) many women’s symphonies were established to give their musicians opportunities to perform classical music professionally.  After Congress ratified the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920, nearly 30 all-women’s bands and orchestras performed around the country.  These included the U.S. Talma Ladies Military Band started by Helen May Butler in 1891, the Los Angeles Woman’s Orchestra founded by Henry Schoenefeld in 1893, and the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago created by Elena Moneak in 1924. By the start of WWII, most women’s symphonies had disbanded as these musicians began to gain footholds in male-dominated orchestras when the men left their positions to serve overseas in the war.  After the war the men returned to their orchestras, and the women musicians were forced out.

Kryl’s decision to hire female musicians for his ensemble’s 1943-1944 tour was most likely opportunistic.  While the Kryl Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago was marketed as an exclusively women’s ensemble, Kryl did utilize several men for parts that he could have covered with other female musicians.  Kryl was a demanding and temperamental orchestra director who did not always treat his women musicians with respect.  He was frequently skeptical of both their musical abilities and attention to artistic details as performers. However, several of his women musicians had very successful music careers after leaving his orchestra, and the professional experience that his symphony provided them was invaluable.  For Anna Fay Herron who was born and raised in Central Illinois, the ensemble was the first step in a nearly fifty-year career as a local music educator and performer. This exhibit documents some of her daily experiences performing oboe and traveling as a member of the Kryl Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, and sheds some new light on this once forgotten women’s ensemble and its director.

Further information about this exhibit call 217-333-4577 or email sousa@illinois.edu.

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