Founders Day Message

Each year we remember the founding of Mu Phi Epsilon in Cincinnati on 13 November 1903. Usually, we look backward, celebrating our rich heritage of achievements and experiences in music and friendship and focusing on a comfortable tradition of harmony. This year, however, I’d like to remind us all that the creation of Mu Phi Epsilon was a profoundly radical act—one that our founders, Dr. Winthrop S. Sterling and his colleague Elizabeth Mathias, undertook not primarily intending to inaugurate a historical tradition upon which we now look back with pride but rather to look forward with hope and to change the future.

In 1903 the fundamental rights of women were hotly debated all across the United States. In no state could they vote for President and in only four could they vote in statewide elections. Women were fighting for their economic and property rights, too; 1903 also was the year that the organization that became the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was founded. In 1903 talented women encountered opposition and discrimination in seeking to enter any of the skilled professions as doctors, lawyers, clergy—or musicians. They were not welcome in Dr. Sterling’s own professional fraternity.

It was in this social context that Winthrop Sterling and Elizabeth Mathias founded Mu Phi Epsilon—to make opportunities for advancement and achievement available to musicians for whom the playing field was not level but was, instead, a decidedly uphill battle. It was a distinctly forward-looking, and hopeful, vision of how broadening the bonds of music and friendship can increase harmony, and the rightness and wisdom of that vision have been demonstrated repeatedly in the ensuing 119 years. As we move toward our 120th anniversary, I encourage all of us in Mu Phi Epsilon to look around and ask ourselves, as our founders did, who else needs to be seen, heard and included in our journey forward?

Kurt-Alexander Zeller
International President