The Biggest Tour of 1900s America

I’ve seen several articles over the past several weeks discussing how Beyoncé and Taylor Swift’s recent tours have stimulated the U.S. economy. And although those articles focused on the economic power of women, they also got me thinking: if Clara and Robert Schumann were like the 19th century Beyoncé and Jay-Z… who was the Romantic era Taylor Swift??

Portrait of Cecile Chaminade sitting at her piano.  Her right elbow rests on the bottom of the music stand desk, and right hand rests against her ear.  Her left hand is on the piano keys, and she looks in the direction of the camera.  She wears a long, flowy white skirt and a longsleeved black top with wide white lace around the neckline.  Her curly hair is cut short, and parted down the middle.  Turquoise text at the bottom reads "The Romantic era Taylor Swift??"

What musical woman was out there touring to sold-out crowds of female concert-goers, inspiring girls and young women to become musicians, writing songs that helped her fans feel validated and seen, and inspiring those fans to connect with each other through her concerts? What composer was known more for her ability to write catchy melodies than virtuosic performances, and showed a ton of business savvy in her marketing and public appearances?

American Mega-Star

Although Cécile made annual tours to England and performed in almost every European country, she was also a mega-star in the U.S. She began receiving tour requests in the 1890s; however, she delayed for a decade and a half due to concerns about the trans-Atlantic crossing.

Cécile finally changed her mind after the death of her husband, hoping that a change of scenery would help her forget painful memories and find new inspiration. When Cécile announced her tour, the response from her fans was ecstatic – her debut at Carnegie Hall sold out two weeks in advance, and almost set a new record for gross revenue.

Newspaper clipping from the Evening World from 26 October, 1908 with the headline "Chaminade Charms House Full of Women at Carnegie Hall."

Newspaper clipping showing a review of Cécile Chaminade’s debut at Carnegie Hall, where she played to a sold-out crowd with over 2,000 women. From The Evening World, October 26, 1908.

According to the Musical Courier, it was the most successful concert New York had seen in 12 years. This is even more significant considering that the standing-room-only crowd was 80% women – a demographic that, at the time, was unable to open bank accounts in their own names.

During fall 1908, Chaminade played 17 performances across 14 cities – almost all of them to sold-out audiences of women. Her tour was lucratively successful in the currency of the day (the equivalent of a modern multi-million-dollar tour), and the Musical Courier speculated that demand for tickets was so high, she could have expanded her tour to twice the size.

Contradictory Spaces

Due to the high demand, Chaminade’s tour organizers booked large public venues normally reserved for male performers and “highbrow” music. However, many considered Cécile’s compositions, predominantly character pieces for piano and voice, to be more suitable for domestic salons in the private sphere. This created a clash of gendered social expectations during Cécile’s performances.

To help bridge the gap, Cécile’s onstage setup included “homey” touches like potted plants and flowers, and she moved chairs into the pit orchestra area for a more intimate performance. Many reviews complimented her demeanor as a hostess and characterized her concerts as social affairs. Combined with the absence of her fans’ husbands in the audience, those efforts helped create a salon-ish atmosphere despite the larger venue.

And if you’re picturing a young woman on stage, think again – Cécile also disproved the idea that only talented young virtuosos can be the next big thing by making this tour at age 51, at the height of a well-established career.

Mementos and Marketing

Back when you couldn’t record or view videos on your phone, concert merch was an important part of remembering experiences with visiting artists. With this in mind, Cécile planned her tours and publicity to strategically boost sales of her sheet music and piano rolls. She published about 400 of her compositions, and many became best-sellers anywhere pianos were popular among women.

Waltz Brillante No. 3 (Op. 80) played by Cécile Chaminade (Duo-Art roll) – posted by Julian Dyer

She designed her set lists to match her audience’s needs as piano teachers and amateur pianists – a marketing choice that also helped her connect with fans over pieces that they knew and loved. Cécile also published her sheet music with catchy titles and art nouveau covers, to set them apart on store shelves and entice people to buy them.

On top of that, Cécile recorded many of her pieces on piano rolls and embraced the new technology in performances, playing duets with herself as an additional product advertisement. (Thanks to those recordings, we know what some of her interpretations sounded like today; however, some tempos may need to be taken with a grain of salt as there was a time limit on the recording length).

Cécile also strategically planned her public appearances. Before her U.S. tour, she took many interviews with publications ranging from women’s magazines like The Ladies’ Home Journal to national papers like the Washington Post. In these interviews, she gave tips for performing her most popular pieces and programming suggestions for music clubs and piano teachers. She also shared words of wisdom for aspiring women musicians.

Newspaper advertisement from Morny Perfumes and Fine Toilette Products for the Parfum "Chaminade."  It lists the bath products with this scent in 2 columns, then shows a sketch of a row of bottles at the bottom in front of an autographed line of music from "Air de Ballet, Op. 30" by Cecile Chaminade.

Cécile’s concert merch included autographs, postcards featuring her portrait, and matchbooks. The British soap company, Morny, also created a perfume and a line of bath products inspired by the popular piano solo Air de Ballet, Op. 30.

Gilded Age Fangirls

Sketch of Cecile Chaminade sitting in an armchair with her elbow resting on a side table next to a vase of flowers and her hand resting by her ear.  A text box in the upper left reads "A social function attended by 200 women - no men and all the guests standing is characteristic on the American people."

This is one area where Cécile Chaminade differs from Taylor Swift and Beyoncé – even though her music appealed to multiple generations of women, her largest fan base was a little older. Cécile’s main audience was middle-aged women from the middle & upper classes, piano teachers, and amateur musicians with a piano at home. Around 1908, this demographic was rapidly expanding – there was a “piano boom” in the U.S., and increasing in class mobility brought new audiences to classical music. The vast majority of Cécile’s fans were also members of women’s music clubs.

“The American people have always opened their hearts to me. In one way I am not in a strange land. There are Chaminade Clubs formed all over the United States and I am in correspondence with them and write at least once a year to each of them. Many of the members I shall meet in my tour.”

Cécile Chaminade in The Sun, 1 November 1908

Chaminade Clubs

These fans sought to embody the characteristics they admired in Cécile – being ladylike, passionate, and forward-thinking, and collaboratively supporting the musical endeavors of other women. Clubs provided entertainment at community gatherings and charity events, hosted performance competitions, sponsored performances by guest artists, supported young musicians through scholarships and performance opportunities, and broadcast programs on local radio stations. Their programming featured music by Chaminade, her circle of family, friends, and mentors, and other works by women composers.

These clubs were not only inspired by Cécile’s tour – they began appearing as early as the 1890s. And at their highest point, about 200 Chaminade Clubs had registered across the U.S. As a result, American journalists dubbed Cécile “the patron saint of musical women.”

Cécile’s Legacy

“I do not believe that the few women who have achieved greatness in creative work are the exception, but I think that life has been hard on women; it has not given them opportunity; it has not made them convincing… There is no sex in art. Genius is an independent quality. The woman of the future, with her broader outlook, her greater opportunities, will go far, I believe, in creative work of every description.”

Cécile Chaminade in The Sun, 1 November 1908

Hometown Reputation

If Cécile Chaminade was such a big deal… why don’t history books present her that way?? There are a lot of layers to this (more than I can fully explore here), but let’s start with her hometown of Paris, France.

Cécile wasn’t a student of the Paris Conservatoire, and she also wasn’t a socialite who frequented salon gatherings. She didn’t enjoy that kind of social setting, and preferred to keep to herself and close family and friends. There isn’t anything wrong with that – but it did isolate her from potential connections, advocates, and allies who may have been able to help promote her works. Although she won several awards for her music, both at home and abroad, she was likely out of sight, out of mind from the biggest musical circles in the city.

Defying Gender Norms

In addition to not being a socialite, Cécile also didn’t marry a famous musical star whose professional success, network, and resources she could piggyback off of. And while Cécile did marry her publisher, it was later in life, after she already had a well-established career.

But that wasn’t the only gender norm that Chaminade defied. As previously mentioned, her tour used venues that typically hosted male performers and catered to male audiences. Music critics at the time were typically men, and did not take kindly to their concert spaces being overrun by tons of fangirls for a full night of trendy, popular music. Consequently, they tried to undermine Cécile ‘s success with derogatory sexist comments in their reviews. Unfortunately, academic musicological research tends to favor these guys’ writings over sources like The Ladies’ Home Journal and other women’s magazines that published interviews with Cécile.

“Idol of the Girls”

But Cécile wasn’t the only one discussing women’s roles through her music. Several novels and newspaper serials written for an early 20th century female audience reference Chaminade’s music in scenes featuring musically talented women. These characters were often young, upper-middle class women seeking to gain control over their destinies – solidifying the association between Cécile’s compositions and the “New Woman” in popular culture.

Hearts and Memories

“Not to be forgotten, to live in the heart and memory of those who understand you—that is the supreme consolation for an artist.”

Cécile Chaminade, 1942

I’ve seen a lot of sources that chock up Chaminade’s decline to things she did or didn’t do, like update her compositional techniques to match early 20th century trends, or reflect a more German aesthetic while that was in style… But viewing her decline in popularity through an individualist lens ignores the backlash to gains in women’s rights in the decades after the World Wars that increased pressure for women to resume traditional domestic roles.

Since Cécile’s music embodied strong connotations with progressive women, that backlash also drove down its popularity – mid-20th century media either associated her compositions with women who were too intellectual for their own good, or dismissed them as frivolous wastes of time.

Check out the links below to explore Cécile’s flute solos and transcriptions, learn about the woman who commissioned and premiered the orchestrated version of the Concertino, and visit some Chaminade Clubs that are still active today!

Additional Resources

A flute lays diagonally across several pages of sheet music spread out on a pandanus leaf mat.  On a square, semi-translucent white overlay, text reads: Virtuosa Flute Solos: Flute Music by Women Composers

Cécile Chaminade wrote a LOT more than just the Concertino! If you love her music but feel like the Concertino is overplayed, there’s good news – many of her piano pieces have been transcribed for flute with piano accompaniment (there’s also one other flute solo).  Check out VFS for the full list of Cecile’s music for flute!

Black and white portrait of Marguerite de Forest Andersen, wearing a long white gown with bell-shaped, lacy sleeves.  She wears her hair up, with a long, curled lock draped across her left shoulder, and she holds her wooden flute with the headjoint resting on her shoulder below the lock of hair.

Did you know that the orchestrated version of the Concertino, Op. 107 was commissioned by one of Cécile’s American friends, who premiered it at the Queen’s Hall in London in 1905? Check out this blog post to learn about Marguerite de Forest Andersen and other flute virtuosos who toured Europe in the Romantic era!

Modern Chaminade Clubs

Check out these clubs’ websites to see how Chaminade Clubs have evolved over the past century, and if there’s one near you, view their upcoming events!

(Note: these aren’t the only surviving Chaminade Clubs out there, just the ones with the most info on their websites. If you’re in the U.S., you can find additional clubs via local directories or the National Federation of Music Clubs).

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