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Notes from the Past: To (Have) Tea, or Not To (Have) Tea

As the wives of prominent men in the professional and business world, the six women who founded the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg were from a privileged group for whom “at homes” teas and dances were common social occasions. Their names were often among those appearing in social columns like Through Milady's Lorgnette, which described events in loving detail. One such “Talent musicale” held at the home of Mrs. Kirkland, one of the WMC founders, describes how she had “devoted special pains to the arrangement of her rooms” and that “the display of flowers was particularly pleasing”. Miss Rattan, one of the performers, “looked exceedingly graceful in a very becoming dress of pale pink duck and a vest of fine white lace.” Music may have been a feature of such events, but perhaps secondary to the socializing.


It should not be surprising then, that in 1894, when these women began to meet informally to study the lives of composers and to perform their repertoire, they would do so in an “at-home” setting, with tea. But these meetings had a serious purpose, and music was definitely not secondary. At least one of the women, Constance Bodington Hamilton, was a trained pianist who had studied at the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, and the others were all accomplished musicians. Over the next few years, even as the numbers of attendees increased, meetings continued to be held in members’ homes, followed by tea. By the spring of 1900, when the first formal annual meeting took place, this setting appears to have created a problem. Charles Wheeler, music critic for Winnipeg Town Topics, wrote about the WMC, “However delightful to the members this social function might have been, it was soon discovered by progressive minds that tea drinking was hampering the work of the club and was wisely discontinued.” The WMC moved on to its next phase of larger venues, larger audiences, including “several gentlemen who are especially interested in music”, and following “a strict rule and principle of keeping silent during the performance of music”, but without tea.


Fortunately, the WMC has again found ways of combining music and social occasions to the benefit of both. In normal times, the after-concert get-togethers with refreshments provide a time for a lively discussion of the music and an opportunity to meet the musicians. Our “Swing into Spring” event, inspired and nurtured by Margaret Morse, has become a much-loved WMC tradition. The women who founded the WMC would have been completely at home at our “Tea with James”, the 120th WMC Anniversary Celebration with James Ehnes. We look forward to when we can have these social occasions again, but in the meantime a virtual concert and dinner with over ninety guests has kept our tradition alive. Would our six founders approve?

(Quotes from The Winnipeg Daily Tribune and With Every Note Played by Kathyrn A. Young.)

Mary Lynn Duckworth, WMC Chair of Archives

May 2021


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