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Helen Kotas

In 1941, Frederick Stock appointed Helen Kotas to the position of principal horn, making her the first woman to hold a rostered position in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She was the first female to secure such a position—in fact, the first woman to be hired as principal of any section, except harp—in a major U.S. orchestra.

While still a student, earning a degree in psychology from the University of Chicago (which she received in 1936), Kotas served as a member of the Civic Orchestra and principal horn in the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra. Stock hired her as a regular extra horn at the beginning of the Orchestra’s fiftieth season in 1940, although she was not under contract. In 1940 and 1941, Kotas performed in Leopold Stokowski’s All-American Youth Orchestra’s summer tours; also in 1941, Fritz Reiner offered her the third-chair seat in the horn section of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Oct 1941 (Pottag, Erickson, Mourek, Verschoor, Kotas

Kotas surrounded by the rest of the horn section in October 1941: Max Pottag, Frank Erickson, Joseph Mourek, and William Verschoor

Shortly after her audition in Pittsburgh, Stock auditioned Kotas for principal horn to fill the vacancy left by Philip Farkas when he left to join the Cleveland Orchestra. Stock offered her the job and contacted Reiner, who agreed to release her from the Pittsburgh commitment. Kotas would serve as principal until 1947, when Farkas returned to the Orchestra. She moved to third chair for one season and left the Orchestra in 1948; she married University of Chicago pathologist Edwin Hirsch the following year.

Kotas later was principal horn of the Grant Park Orchestra from 1950 until 1958, and she also served as principal horn of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra from 1954 until 1959, and third horn until 1965, after which she largely retired from performing.

The first woman listed on the Orchestra’s roster was Mrs. Lawrence (Anna) Winch, second harp for the 1892–93 season. Other women subsequently performed as second harp; however, the position was not contracted and rostered full-time until the beginning of the 1957–58 season, when Carol Baum was hired as second harp. The first rostered woman in the string section was cellist Alice Lawrence in the 1942–43 season, and the first in the wind section was flutist Caroline Solfronk Vacha in the 1943–44 season.

This article also appears here.

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