A biography by writer Mary Sue Welsh reveals what it was like to be the first woman to enter the all-male sanctum of The Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1930s. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston discovered the powerful combination of talent and fear.
On September 14, 1930, the headline of The Philadelphia Public Ledger read: "Solo Harpist to Be First Girl in Philadelphia Orchestra." A young Edna Phillips entered the single-sex fortress of The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930 - a year after pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff called it "the finest orchestra the world has ever heard." She’d played the harp for only five years when she was hired as the first female member and principal harpist. Her "musicalité" may have been obvious to the pioneering Leopold Stokowski, but was she ready? What was it like to be the only woman among men at a time when gender equality and workplace mores were far different from what they are today?
Author Mary Sue Welsh worked with the observant, warm, and funny Phillips on her story during Phillips’ lifetime, completing it after the first harpist’s death in 2003. True to Phillips’ desire, it’s as much about the challenges and triumphs of her own life, as about how the Orchestra grew and responded to its conductors - particularly Leopold Stokowski.
Carolyn Nicosia studied with Edna Phillips in the early 1950s. [After hearing our feature on Edna Philips, Carolyn contacted Meridee and shared a personal remembrance and an inscribed photo. Thank you, Carolyn Nicosia!]
How I became a student of Edna Phillips:
My mother’s mother (Maria Quintile Riccardi) migrated to the U.S. from a village in Italy that had produced many harpists. Her brothers also came to the U.S. and took up their musical careers. Joseph Quintile was harpist for the St. Louis Symphony and later for film studios in Hollywood. Anthony Quintile was a bass player who played at various venues and also taught bass and solfeggio (he taught me when I was a child of 8 or 9).
My mother’s brothers almost all made their living as musicians, mostly bass players. Rex Riccardi worked with Petrillo to found the Musicians’ Union.
Of my cousins, several of the boys also became musicians, either piano or bass. One, Frank Caster, was a student at Curtis, who became a member of the Washington Symphony and then the San Francisco Symphony. Another became a restorer of violins in addition to playing bass.
When I was a child I started harp lessons at age 6 or 7. My teacher at that time was Joseph Leonardo. It was he who found a small-sized Lyon and Healy harp for me and made arrangements of music so that no key changes were required during playing because my feet could not reach the pedals.
Over the years I was on and off again with practicing. Then, during one of his family visits East, Uncle Joe Quintile told my mother that I should try again to take up the harp seriously, and it was he who contacted Edna Phillips and asked her to take me as a pupil. I was about 14 or 15 years old.
As a student of Edna Phillips:
Edna Phillips came to our house to see my harp and meet my family. She agreed to take me as a student. Since we had little money and even her “professional courtesy” charge per hour was beyond our means, Miss Phillips agreed to take me for a half hour at her house on Sundays.
I traveled by trolley and 2 buses to her home near what was formerly The Textile Institute. It seemed to me to be a very large and impressive house, but she was very kind to me when I went for lessons.
I remember Miss Phillips telling me stories about Carlos Salzedo of Curtis - his method of playing harp and his design of a new harp made by Lyon and Healy. Miss Phillips later had one of the Salzedo harps.
One aspect of the Salzedo method was the way the arms were to be held, to give more strength. Miss Phillips said that she was once playing for a great conductor (probably Stokowski) who felt that the new method wasn’t allowing her tone to be loud enough. So she fooled him, playing exactly the same way in two instances, but in one of them she threw up her hands after the passage, to the great approval of the conductor who said she had given him just what he wanted.
Once I was invited to stay for lunch and I met Mr. Rosenbaum and their two children. It was all new and grand to me. I remember the setting very well.
Another time the weather had become cold so Miss Phillips lent me a sweater to wear on my long journey back home. I had never felt anything so soft! I learned later that it was cashmere.
It wasn’t long before Miss Phillips realized that I wasn’t really a musician. Knowing our limited finances, she suggested to my mother that I transfer to one of the students of harp at Curtis, Nanette Norton. She told me wonderful stories about what they were learning from Salzedo.
However, as I mentioned above, I really didn’t have the talent. It seems that the musical ability in our family has passed from generation to generation only to the males. We females can sing well enough to join choirs or take music lessons on various instruments, but none of us are professional musicians. So I gave up my studies. I kept the harp for many years until finally I sold it.