787: One Woman in a Hundred by Mary Sue Welsh

by Gerard


787.95092: Welsh, Mary Sue. One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 210 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-03736-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 780: Music
  • 787: Regular and bowed string instruments (Chordophones)
  • 787.9: Harps and musical bows
  • 787.95: Frame harps
  • +092: Biography

January 7, 1930 was a cold but momentous day in the world of orchestral music. Leopold Stokowski, a giant of the music scene and conductor of the now world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, came by the apartment his old friend Carlos Salzedo to hear one of his students give an audition. Salzedo, a virtuoso at the harp, had cultivated a group of promising musicians at his studio. While there was nothing tremendously groundbreaking about auditions with Stokowski, this one was different. This was a first. Seated at the harp was Edna Phillips, soon to be the first woman to be a principal player in a major U.S. orchestra. Mary Sue Walsh’s One Woman in a Hundred gives us all the details.

Edna Phillips had only been playing the harp since she was eighteen, but she had had piano lessons before then. Her mother, sensing a good deal of potential in her daughter, sent her to the best harp teacher of the day. Salzedo immediately saw she had a unique sense of the music and an promising future ahead of her. After a few years bouncing between different companies, Salzedo heard of an opening at the famed Philadelphia Orchestra and did not hesitate to set up the audition. Phillips thought she was auditioning for the second harpist, but Stokowski had other plans.

Once she got the appointment, she was greeted with tension from both sides of the gender barrier. The all-men club of the orchestra had to adjust their behavior and the orchestra’s Women’s Committee gave her grief as a potential rabble-rouser. But she persevered and learned to play for quite possibly one of the best conductors in American music history. Stokowski was always pushing the boundaries of musical possibilities. He brought in pieces from living modernist composers (much to the chagrin to the stodgy public) and even pioneered methods for electronic recordings of the orchestra. Anybody who owns a copy of Disney’s Fantasia can hear Edna on the harp there.

Welsh’s narrative is exciting, funny, and delightful. As I was reading, each piece of classical music I had ever heard was brought to mind. I’m a big fan of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, so I was able to follow along competently well. Edna’s story is refreshing to hear. While she had some difficulties adjusting to the spotlight, she handled it with grace and tact. Her adventures with the orchestra through the heyday of American symphony building was a very entertaining tale. A must read for classical music buffs and lovers of the arts.