It Happened in Texas: Josephine Boudreaux at the Houston Symphony

May 6, 1931. The Palace Theatre on Texas Avenue was packed from floor to gallery to witness the rebirth of the Houston Symphony. It was the same venue (then called “The Majestic,” Houston’s principal vaudeville theater) in which the orchestra had begun its life in 1913. But the nascent ensemble could not weather the personal and financial toll of the Great War, and after only five seasons, faded into its grim aftermath.

On this evening, under the baton of Maestro Uriel Nespoli, 75 of Houston’s most accomplished musicians performed an inspiring program that would lead to the reestablishment of the Houston Symphony.   At the helm of the group was concertmaster Josephine Boudreaux, a virtuoso violinist already well known to Houston audiences.

Josephine Boudreaux in Budapest,1920s.

“She played with a fine fury all evening, and her bow was a rod and a staff for the comfort of Nespoli,” lauded music critic Hubert Roussel, writing for the Houston Gargoyle. “It was a night of triumph for her,” remarked another critic, going on to mention the special recognition Boudreaux received by being presented as a solo violinist in an encore, the popular “Meditation” from Thais by Massenet.

Although women were included in the Houston orchestra from the very beginning, the exception rather than the rule for American orchestras in that era, it remains extraordinary for a woman to occupy the top leadership position in the orchestra. Interestingly, no one in the growing metropolis of Houston seemed to make a big deal out of it at the time. After all, one of the most resolute women in Texas history, Miss Ima Hogg, was the driving force behind the organization and success of the Houston Symphony.

In today’s orchestra world, it is still relatively rare to see a woman in the concertmaster position. Of the top 20 American orchestras by pay, only the National Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, and the Utah Symphony are led by female concertmasters. That makes the story of Josephine Boudreaux, concertmaster of the Houston Symphony from 1931-1937, even more fascinating.

Boudreaux was one of only seven musicians in the reconstituted orchestra who had been with the Houston Symphony in its earliest years. She had played in the second violin section when she was merely a teenager, from 1916-1918. Born in Crowley, Louisiana in 1898 to Philippe Mozart Boudreaux and Margarite Octavine Clotiaux, the family moved to Houston when Josephine was seven years old. Her only known violin teacher was German-born Emil Lindenberg, the prominent pedagogue and music promoter who had taught several players in the orchestra. Lindenberg encouraged Boudreaux to continue her studies and urged her to greater achievements in the music world. Boudreaux was devoted to music and determined to fulfill her dream of studying abroad with the best of the Old World. She was also an independent-minded young woman, turning down offers of monetary assistance, preferring to make her own way unassisted.

Houston Symphony Orchestra in the early 1930s with Frank St. Leger, Conductor and Josephine Boudreaux,Concertmaster.

In the era of silent films, professional musicians made a good living playing in theater orchestras. The Isis Theatre on Prairie, Houston’s first deluxe motion-picture theater, came to life with the sound of its magnificent $5000 pipe organ and live orchestral accompaniment to the feature films of the day. Hidden Fire starring Mae Marsh, The Spender with Bert Lytell, Bonds of Love (lost film) with Pauline Frederick, Cheating Cheaters starring Clara Kimball Young: The big features were all accompanied by a musical score played live by the resident orchestra. An orchestral overture, an instrumental solo, the news digest, and comedy shorts were regularly part of the entertainment.

In 1918 the Isis Orchestra, under the direction of Henry Seel, had a star in its violin soloist Josephine Boudreaux. Local newspapers of the day reported that patrons would go to the picture house principally to hear her play; “there are many patrons of the house who say her number is their favorite.” Boudreaux herself credited the experience of playing for the theater with helping her overcome stage fright and her innate shyness.

Later in her career, she recalled in a letter, “To me the dread of a difficult program was never so terrible as the dislike of sitting before the public in such a conspicuous place. Of course all those circumstances are past, and today I should be braver, but it was hard at that time when no other woman played in a picture show.”

Boudreaux studying in Europe in the 1920s.

For four years Boudreaux delighted patrons at the Isis, all the while working steadfastly to improve her art and save enough money to study abroad. Opportunity finally came with her acceptance into the inaugural class of the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, a storied institution that continues to thrive today. She set sail from New York City to Havre, France on the steamship Lafayette in June, 1921.

Founded in 1921 by New York Symphony Orchestra conductor Walter Damrosch and French conductor/composer Francis Casadesus, the Conservatoire Americain de Fontainebleau offered the best of French music education to promising American musicians. Interestingly, the idea for such an institution was instigated at the urging of General Pershing, whose desire for better sounding U. S. military bands led him to Damrosch. The French government saw this as an opportunity to help repay one of its important allies in World War I and to promote French culture (over German) in America. The spectacular opening ceremony at the Palace of Fontainebleau was front page news in both a diplomatic and cultural sense, with renowned French composer Camille Saint-Saëns expressing hope for the future musical possibilities of America in a moving speech.

Extraordinary for its time, one of the Conservatory’s stated goals was that men and women would be trained for professional careers on an equal basis. Slightly more than half of the inaugural class of 85 American musicians were women. Musicologist Kendra Preston Leonard notes in her excellent history of the school that “women who attended the Conservatoire before the Second World War were often pioneering in their accomplishments and were among the very first American women to gain permanent orchestral positions, have professional chamber music ensembles, and hold positions of power within the musical education establishment.” Boudreaux’s career would prove to be one of the successful products of that short but intensive experience. Among her classmates was Aaron Copland. Her teacher was distinguished pedagogue Lucien Capet, founder and first violinist of the Capet Quartet, the preeminent string quartet of the time.

Emil Lindenberg, Boudreaux’s violin teacher.

Success at Fontainebleau came almost immediately for Boudreaux. Houston papers lauded her first prize win at the end-of-term competition in which she had performed Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. She won a scholarship for a second term at the conservatory, but she had no intention of resting on her laurels. Accordingly she planned the next stages of her education to suit her own musical needs. After absorbing the teachings of Capet and Maurice Hewitt (second violinist of the Capet Quartet) in Paris for two years, she settled in Budapest to study with the great Jenö Hubay (student of the legendary Joseph Joachim and teacher of Joseph Szigeti).

Of the transition between teachers, Boudreaux explained in a letter, “Hubay is quite different from Capet. Both are great masters, but for the present I think Hubay, with his thoroughness in teaching violin technique, is the instructor I need, but afterwards I would like to be again in the atmosphere of the French art.” She also studied chamber music with Adolph Schiffer (student of David Popper and teacher of Janos Starker) at the national conservatory in Budapest, even playing in a string quartet with him.

Boudreaux did eventually return to Paris in 1926 to concertize, but not before seeking out Otakar Ševčík (ask any violinist about his voluminous exercise books on violin technique) in Pisek, Czechoslovakia for two more years of study. While in Pisek, she performed to great acclaim as soloist with the Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s violin concerto. Back in Paris, the reviews of the young violinist’s solo concerts were glowing:

“Her technic places her in the very first rank violinistically and her interpretation evidences a deep musical and artistic sense. A brilliant future is opening for this young artist.” —Le Figaro, Paris, May 25, 1927

“This young American violinist is a remarkable artist, with a technic of the first order; a breadth and warmth of tone and taste which excludes any but purely musical interpretations. Her recital was a success near to a triumph.” —Le Courier, Paris, June 1, 1927

Josephine Boudreaux,1920s

After six years in Europe, Boudreaux, now a mature musician, returned to Houston in August of 1927 to build her career. Her first hometown concert, on March 1, 1928 at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, was eagerly anticipated by Houston music lovers, widely covered in the local papers, and according to a Houston Chronicle review, well attended by “an audience decidedly representative of the musically informed of the city.” The program was wide-ranging, from old Italian school a la Corelli to the modern impressionism of Claude Debussy, with a good dose of Classical and Romantic in between. Houston was rightly proud of its own highly accomplished concert artist.

Soon Boudreaux was exploring all aspects of a full-time professional music career. She organized her own string quartet, initially named the Houston String Quartet. As the whole world celebrated Schubert week on the centennial of Franz Schubert’s death in November of 1928, a memorial concert was planned in Houston and served as the perfect occasion for the debut of the group. Its performance of Schubert’s transcendent string quartet “Death and the Maiden” gave the audience the promise of a truly “splendid” ensemble (Houston Chronicle, Nov. 18/1928).

By the following year, with a change in personnel in the second violinist, the group had become known as the Boudreaux Quartet. She was joined by Octave Pimbert, second violin; Athelstan R. Charlton, cello, and Grace Keller, daughter of her former teacher Emil Lindenberg, on viola.

Meanwhile, the symphony movement in Houston was puzzlingly subdued. When the Houston orchestra disbanded in 1918, its supporting organization, the Houston Symphony Association, remained. In the intervening years it had sponsored visiting performances by the St. Louis and Minneapolis symphonies, as well as the occasional chamber music program. But a sense of inertia seemed to take hold in the cultural life of the city at the end of the 1920s. There were dire pronouncements in news editorials—“Houston is going backwards musically.”

Ruth West, in the ever-spry arts column Lyres and Easels for the often satirical news magazine Houston Gargoyle (Nov. 17, 1929), alluded to a famous quote from H. L. Mencken when bemoaning Houston as not exactly an “oasis” in the “Sahara of the Beaux-Arts.” She goes on to credit the Boudreaux Quartet as among the few who have kept alive the hope of a “musical entity” in the city, “working in a field of hardly tillable ground to produce…the most precious flower of melody.”

Fredell Lack, student of Boudreaux,1938 Cecil Thomson Studios with inscription “To darling Miss Boudreaux with Love and admiration, Fredell 8/23/38”

Perhaps in part to maintain its relevance in the civic mind while it had no hometown orchestra under its auspices, the Houston Symphony Association announced its sponsorship of the Boudreaux Quartet in a series of chamber music concerts at the homes of Association members for the 1929-1930 season. The news immediately created a buzz in the music community. The 200 tickets available for the first of these concerts were completely sold out. The last concert of that season, featuring quartets by Mendelssohn and Borodin, was held at the home of Miss Ima Hogg. The patrons and the news media were consistently enthusiastic about the quartet’s progress. Ina Gillespie, writing for the Houston Chronicle, asserted that the Boudreaux Quartet, “by its existence, proved this city capable of a deed of love in the name of art.” The radio station KTRH sponsored the quartet for weekly half-hour concerts. The ensemble also performed at the Museum of Fine Arts and presented a series of concerts at the Public Library Auditorium. Its partnership with the Houston Symphony Association continued throughout the 1930-1931 season, and even after the reestablishment of the orchestra.

It is widely acknowledged that the high caliber performances of the Boudreaux Quartet in those years generated a renewed interest in rebuilding a professional symphony in Houston. Other events, chronicled in Hubert Roussel’s highly entertaining history of the Houston Symphony from 1913-1971, would force the Association into action. But whatever the other circumstances, one decision was easy: There was no doubt who would lead this orchestra from the concertmaster chair. Josephine Boudreaux was simply the most accomplished, experienced, and respected violinist in the city.

A real sense of pride and excitement accompanied the rebirth of the Houston Symphony on the night of May 6, 1931. It was in large measure a test concert to see if Houston was ready for a permanent symphony orchestra. If that was the question, the answer was an overwhelming yes from the greatest crowd the old Palace Theater had ever held.

In June, the Symphony Association announced a series of six concerts for the 1931-1932 season. Each concert would present a local musician as soloist. Boudreaux was the featured soloist in the second concert of the season (Dec. 4, 1931), performing the technically and musically demanding Beethoven Violin Concerto, the same piece she had played with the Pisek orchestra while studying under Ševčík.

Admiration for her playing came from all quarters—the audience, fellow musicians, and critics. Beyond exquisite virtuosity was her mature and soulful interpretation of masterpieces. Unfortunately there are no extant recordings of her playing. One can only imagine the “ardent artist” who “puts her whole soul into an interpretation,” giving “poetic expression” to the music (Houston Chronicle July 5, 1931).

Boudreaux served as concertmaster for seven seasons, under conductors Uriel Nespoli, Frank St. Leger, and Ernst Hoffmann. Another highlight of her career occurred on January 13, 1936, under the baton of visiting conductor Alfred Hertz, who took the orchestra to a new level with his commanding musicianship. She played the beautiful solo violin part in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Prelude to The Deluge, a piece rarely performed now but popular on symphonic programs then.

Not much is known about the injury which forced her to leave the orchestra. Whatever the cause, an accident or carpal tunnel syndrome, her performing career came to an abrupt end in 1937. Her last performance as concertmaster of the Houston Symphony was in January 1937, under the baton of Ernst Hoffmann, the orchestra’s first master builder.

Boudreaux began a private violin studio soon after her return from Europe. After leaving the orchestra, she focused her energy on teaching. According to a former student who studied with her in the 40s and 50s, she was known as the best violin teacher in Houston. Renowned violinist and teacher Fredell Lack, a Houston legend, studied with Boudreaux for two years in the 1930s before going off to New York City to continue her training at the age of 12. Fredell Lack would go on to a long and illustrious international performing career. Even longer was Lack’s career as an educator. A founding faculty member of the University of Houston School of Music in 1959, she continued to teach there for more than 50 years.

Thus the Houston lineage that began with Boudreaux continued through Lack, down to a number of past and present Houston Symphony musicians. She taught former HS Concertmaster Frank Huang, now Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic; current HS members Qi Ming, Si-Yang Lao, Mihee Chung, and Ferenc Illenyi; and former HS members William Pu, Jun Zuo, Yeh Shen, Charles Tabony, and Yuan-Qing Yu, among others.

Yet few people today know the name Josephine Boudreaux and of her incredible accomplishments as a musician and a trailblazer. She never married, dedicating her life to music. We are lucky that friends of her aunt and uncle, grandparents of Houstonian Sandra Matthews, took care to acquire her scrapbooks, photos, letters, and postcard collection when she passed away in 1993, then made them available for the Josephine Boudreaux Collection at the Houston Symphony Archives.

“Josephine is very near and dear to my heart,” Matthews said. “My family was very proud of her.” She also revealed that Boudreaux was a connoisseur of poetry, with a collection ranging from romantic to whimsical to dark.

We may never have a complete picture of Josephine Boudreaux, but she should be celebrated as the pioneering first female Concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. May her legacy live on for a very long time.