Monthly Archives: June 2014

Women in the Early American Organ World

woman organist

Men dominated the organ world of eighteenth-century America and held most of the major church organist positions. However, in several cities on the East Coast there is documented evidence of women working in the organ world serving as church musicians.

In 1772, Jarvis Henry Stevens, applied for the position of organist at St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Church documents reveal that Mr. Stevens was defeated in his bid for the organist position by Mrs. Ann Windsor. Mrs. Windsor served as organist at St. Michael’s Church only from June to December in 1772, but she made her mark in American organ history by being the first woman to serve a church as an organist in Charleston.

The Moravians are known to have supported several women in the role of church organist in their communities in the late 1700’s. Hannah Weber served not only as organist for the Sister’s House, but also as a music copyist for the musical Moravian community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Another woman known only as Sister Reitz played the organ for the Moravian Congregation at Bethania, North Carolina on April 14, 1782. Whether she served only as a substitute on that day or held the position permanently is not known.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, two women served prominent churches in the late 1700’s. The first was Alice Bradburn, organist at St. Peter’s Church during 1797. Anne Kurtz was the second woman working as an organist at Christ Church.

Anne was the member of the large Kurtz family, many of whom worked as organists in Philadelphia from 1785 to 1816. This tradition of several members of a family serving as organists was first in evidence in Charleston during the 1770’s and 1780’s. However, unlike the Stevens and Yarnold father-son teams of Charleston, the Kurtz family served only one church, Christ Church of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

George Kurtz, the father of this rather large family of Philadelphia organists, began the tradition of serving as organist at Christ Church from 1785-1786. The first child to assume the father’s role was Peter Kurtz, who played the organ at Christ Church from 1793 to 1794. Three of Peter’s siblings, William, Henry and Anne served this church for four years from 1794 to 1798. At times, it appears the three may have shared the job. The organist Kurtz family of Philadelphia with father, George, daughter Anne and her five brothers, George, Peter, Henry, William, Jacob and Charles made up the largest family of organists in the new United States.

Men may have dominated the late eighteenth-century organ world of cities on the East Coast of the new United States, but women held their share of prominent organ positions paving the way for the women organists of the nineteenth-century.