One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra

Harpist in the Lions’ Den

“ ‘Today girls’ eyes glaze over when they hear about my being the first woman in the Philadelphia Orchestra, but they wouldn’t be so blasé if they knew what it was really like,’ Edna Phillips said with a wry laugh in 1990, when she asked me to work with her on the writing of her memoir.” So writes Mary Sue Welsh in her preface to One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra (University of Illinois Press, 241 pp., $35.)

One Woman in a Hundred tells the story of Edna Phillips, a pioneering orchestral musician whose appointment by Leopold Stokowski as principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930 made her not only the first woman in that orchestra, but also the first to hold a principal chair in any major American orchestra. In One Woman in a Hundred, Welsh has produced a richly detailed biography that captures the insider’s knowledge and unique voice of her subject. Aside from illuminating Phillips’s career, her personal life, and her perspective on one of the world’s great orchestras and its titanic maestro, the book documents the important role she played in fostering the careers of other orchestral harpists. These included Alice Chalifoux, whom she recommended to Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Nicolai Sokoloff in 1931, and Ann Hobson Pilot, who would go on to an illustrious career at the National, Pittsburgh, and Boston symphony orchestras after attending the Cleveland Institute of Music on a scholarship that Phillips had arranged through the Philadelphia Foundation.

One Woman in a Hundred is Welsh’s first book, and a thoroughly engaging one. Her friendship with Edna Phillips had grown out of their mutual affiliation with the Bach Festival of Philadelphia, where Welsh was executive director and Phillips board chair. As Welsh explains in the preface, the book had originally been conceived as a memoir, one that she herself would craft from her countless hours of recorded conversation with Phillips. “Then, sadly, before I finished writing the memoir she envisioned,” Phillips writes, “Edna had several strokes and was not able to continue work on the project. At that point, I put it aside, thinking I should not write her memoir without her active oversight. But her stories kept tugging at me. They were too important not to be told. Finally, I decided to take up the project again, this time as biographer, instead of cowriter. Using the information Edna had given me in our interviews as the core of this book, I did extensive research into the world Edna had laid out for me. My research confirmed what I had known all along: Not only was Edna a gifted musician with a spirit strong enough to overcome great challenges, she was also a perceptive and accurate chronicler of an important era in the history of orchestral music.”

Phillips in 1941, five years before her retirement from the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo by Richard T. Donner. Family collection

Of special interest to scholars of harp music is the book’s appendix on the Edna Phillips Harp Commissions—works commissioned by Phillips and her husband, Samuel R. Rosenbaum, most of them concertos for harp and orchestra and including the one by Alberto Ginastera, arguably the most important harp concerto of the 20th century. One significant addition to that list—a work that Welsh told SymphonyNOW had inadvertently been omitted from her appendix—is Jose Serebrier’s Colores Magicos, Variations for Harp and Chamber Orchestra, which has seen numerous performances since its premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra in 1971 and was choreographed and toured by the Joffrey Ballet as “Orpheus x Light.”

When Phillips began her Philadelphia Orchestra tenure in 1930, Welsh writes, she was “a novice in a key position among giants,” having been plucked from the Curtis Institute of Music before completing her studies with the great harpist Carlos Salzedo. From her very first day on the job she would have another challenge to deal with as well: navigating an orchestral career in a world dominated almost exclusively by men. Welsh sets the scene in the opening pages of her book, excerpted below.


Leopold Stokowski wasted no time on idle words in his rehearsals with the Philadelphia Orchestra. By the fall of 1930, he was forty-eight years old. He had taken over the orchestra in 1912, when he was thirty, and within a few years transformed what had been a stiff, undistinguished ensemble into one that enraptured audiences in Philadelphia and beyond with its striking virtuosity and rich, vibrant sound. Tall and slender and very much in command, he engineered this transformation with remarkable vision and determination.

Knowing exactly what he wanted to accomplish in rehearsals, he drove his players forward with relentless intensity to achieve it. He spoke little. Instead, he communicated his wishes to his players with his riveting blue eyes and expressive hands so masterfully that they were able to respond to the nuances of his direction instantly, almost as if they could read his mind. He expected total concentration, and he got it.

Composer Alberto Ginastera, Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Eugene Ormandy, harpists Edna Phillips and Nicanor Zabaleta in 1965. On February 18 of that year Zabaleta and the orchestra premiered Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, a work commissioned in 1956 by Edna Phillips and Samuel Rosenbaum. Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives

Nothing interrupted the progress of a rehearsal—no unnecessary pleasantries from the maestro, no comments from the players, no excuses, nothing—except for the rare occasions when Stokowski chose to break the rigorous routine he had established with a comment that might stray somewhat from the serious music making at hand. Those interruptions were much appreciated by the musicians. They usually introduced a bit of humor into the proceedings and lightened the intensity of a session for the moment, even though the humor could, and frequently did, come at the expense of one or the other of them. That’s what happened during a rehearsal early in the orchestra’s 1930–31 season when
Stokowski said something that might have amused the orchestra as a whole but that caused sharp discomfort for a particular player, who remembered the incident vividly and told it to me sixty years later.

It began when Stokowski signaled a halt to the playing during a rehearsal one morning in mid-October. “Violas,” he said in the immediate silence that followed, “you make me think of the Parable in the Bible about the Foolish Virgins.” Then he stopped and glanced to his right, where a new member of his orchestra, a young woman of twenty-three, sat in accordance with his seating plan, which called for the harps to be placed in front of the orchestra, parallel with and not far to the right of the podium. Smiling a sly smile, he looked back at the men of the orchestra seated before him on the stage of Philadelphia’s Academy of Music with a question.

“But then, aren’t all virgins foolish?”

After allowing a few seconds for the import of his comment to sink in, he appeared to catch himself and turned to face the young woman full on, clasping his hands to his chest in an extravagant show of remorse. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” he said, hanging his head in mock contrition as all eyes turned toward her.

The mortified young woman, grasping for a way to hide her dismay, kept her head close to her harp’s soundboard and pretended to be intent on adjusting the tuning, which was something she had to do often, sitting as she did at the front of the stage where strong drafts from the wings swept across the instrument and played havoc with its tuning. If ever she needed a moment to think, now was the time. The last thing she wanted was to let the maestro and the men of the orchestra see how embarrassed and vulnerable she felt, but what was she to do?

“Some instinct told me to deflate that balloon as quickly as possible,” she would later say, and an idea came to her. Following its dictates, she focused on her harp’s strings, pretending to be busy tuning them for as long as she dared. Then she raised her eyes to meet Stokowski’s with an inquiring look, as if she wondered why he seemed to be beseeching her so plaintively. After all, she had been concentrating on her tuning while he dealt with the viola players and hadn’t been listening to what he said. At least that’s what she hoped he would think.

Stokowski held his contrite pose a moment longer, waiting for the blushing, girlish reaction he expected. Then, realizing that the young woman wasn’t going to fall into his trap, he drew up to his full height once again and snapped back into his usual role of fiercely focused leader, returning the full force of his attention to the viola section. When the problem there was resolved—if there ever was one—he drove the rehearsal forward at his usual rigorous pace with no further mention of foolish virgins, and the young woman breathed a long sigh of relief.


Edna Phillips was the player Stokowski put on the spot that day. Just two weeks earlier, she had entered the Philadelphia Orchestra as its only woman. She was young and very much alone among her male colleagues, but that didn’t mean she was without resources. As a member of the Roxy Theatre  Orchestra three years before, she had learned what troubles could stalk her if she let down her guard, and this time she was prepared to be vigilant. If she could help it, there would be no missteps on her part that might send the wrong signals to the men who surrounded her. The last thing she needed was to have any of them think of her as an object of interest. What she desperately wanted at that point was to be allowed to find her way in the strange new world of a major orchestra with as little notice as possible. She knew that her position as a newcomer in such a prestigious organization was precarious enough without the added pressure of undue attention being focused on her because she was a woman.

Phillips with her children, David Hugh and Joan Rosenbaum, and composer Harl McDonald, whose “From Childhood” suite for harp and orchestra was written for Phillips. Photo by Robert M. Lewis. Family collection

But avoiding attention had been difficult from the day the Philadelphia Orchestra announced her appointment. At a time when orchestras all across the country barred their doors to women, the news that such an august ensemble had hired one intrigued the press, and a rash of stories soon broke out, turning a spotlight on her that added greatly to her anxiety. An article in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin topped the lot. “Miss Phillips,” it said, “looks more like an illustration on a magazine cover than a member of an orchestra. She might be the typical American girl with plenty of light, golden curly hair, shining brown eyes, the peaches and cream complexion of sixteen, and full red lips.”

That was not the kind of attention an untested player entering one of the world’s finest orchestras needed. Nor was it helpful to a woman stepping into an organization that in its entire history had never allowed a member of her sex to play in the orchestra in an official capacity. Ever since 1903, when the various U.S. musicians unions were incorporated into the American Federation of Musicians under the American Federation of Labor, qualified female as well as male instrumentalists who were members of the AFM were eligible to play in professional symphony orchestras, but that fact had little effect on orchestral hiring. “It would be like oil and water to put men and women in the same organization,” one irate music director complained at the time. “Women musicians alone might be alright, but they don’t belong with men.” That attitude had prevailed in the orchestral world for decades. Little had changed by 1930.

According to Christine Ammer in her book, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, the foremost reason for the exclusion of women from traditional orchestras was economic. Hiring women threatened the jobs of men, but there was more to it than that, Ammer explained. Women had been excluded from performing in public for centuries, and they were not encouraged, and often not allowed, to play instruments other than those considered suitable for the home, such as the piano or harp, until late in the nineteenth century. The idea of including women in symphony orchestras was anathema. Many musicians and much of the public thought women lacked the talent and musical training to hold their own in an orchestra, let alone not having the stamina, power, and reliability to do so.

A woman’s chances of being hired by a professional orchestra were slim, so slim that no woman other than Phillips held a principal position in any of the major U.S. orchestras in 1930.

With so many perceived problems, a woman’s chances of being hired by a professional orchestra were slim, so slim that no woman other than Phillips held a principal position in any of the major U.S. orchestras in 1930. Below the major orchestra level, which was then inhabited by the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, a scattering of less prominent orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony and the relatively new Cleveland Orchestra included a small number of women in their overwhelmingly male rosters, and surprisingly, the New York Philharmonic employed one woman, Stephanie Goldner, as second harpist, but those appointments were true rarities. In most cases, the best way for a woman to be hired by an orchestra on a professional basis was to join an all-female ensemble. “In the first half of the twentieth century, especially during the 1930s and early 1940s, women’s orchestras in the United States offered skilled female players and conductors experience and employment in the symphonic world. Women created their own opportunities because they could not obtain positions in all-male (‘standard’) orchestras,” J. Michele Edwards writes in Women and Music: A History.

Thus Phillips was a true novelty in the traditional orchestral world, especially at the major orchestra level. Having chosen the harp, an instrument that women played in drawing rooms in the Victorian era and one that was associated with ethereal, feminine attributes (wrongly, Phillips and her teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, the brilliant French-born harpist Carlos Salzedo, would insist), she was more easily accepted into an orchestra than a player of another instrument might have been, but that did not mean her colleagues or the orchestra’s audiences accepted and welcomed her arrival. As a woman invading a male bastion, she was just that, an invader, a pioneer in uncharted territory, and her arrival was met with curiosity at best and hostility at worst.

Phillips understood that her life in an all-male orchestra would be full of challenges, but that was not her primary concern when she entered the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her biggest fear was that she wouldn’t be able to hold her own as a musician among the orchestra’s superb players, not because she was a woman, but because her training had been cut short. In a move that shocked and surprised both Phillips and her teacher, Stokowski had appointed her to the first-chair position in his orchestra rather than choosing her for the second harp position she thought she was auditioning for. The added responsibilities and exposure that came with the first chair, or principal, position gave her no time to continue her studies with Carlos Salzedo at the Curtis Institute and forced her to go forward in the professional world as a novice in a key position among giants.

Edna Phillips at the harp. Photo by Emil Rhodes. Family collection

Whether or not she could survive in such a competitive arena was very much in question, and Stokowski hadn’t made her situation any easier with his sardonic comment about foolish virgins. But then, the maestro wasn’t much concerned about making things easier for his players, be they male or female.


From One Woman in a Hundred. Copyright 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.  Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. This material may not be reprinted, photocopied, posted online or distributed in any way without the written permission of the copyright holder.



Edna Phillips was a pioneering female orchestral musician. Have things gotten better for women musicians in orchestras today? On the podium? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.



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