By Ally Fedorka
When first presented with the opportunity to read a non-fiction book about the first female harpist in the Philadelphia orchestra, I was skeptical. This initially did not seem like a fun or interesting topic to read about on top of the reading for my classes. Once I discovered that the book was written by an alumna, however, I was a little more interested in it, and I am glad that I decided to give it a shot.
Mary Sue Welsh, who received a master of arts in English from the University in 1975 after completing her undergraduate studies at Northwestern University, began writing “One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra” in 1990, and it was published at the beginning of this year.
The book is a memoir of the orchestral life of Edna Phillips, the first female harpist in the esteemed Philadelphia Orchestra. Welsh met Phillips while working as the coordinator for the Bach Festival and decided soon after that her story was definitely worth telling.
“Edna Phillips was a delightful person,” Welsh said. “She was smart and strong and often funny.”
Phillips was literally one woman among 100 men, the first woman to enter this exclusively male preserve, and this was only one year after the Philadelphia Orchestra was named “the finest orchestra the world has ever heard.” The obstacles she faced should have intimidated Phillips, but she let nothing stand in her way.
“Her courage and determination, plus her wonderful sense of humor, can serve as example to all young people facing challenges as they begin their careers,” Welsh said.
In the preface, Welsh acknowledges the supposedly dry nature of the topic of her book and promises that readers will not be disappointed if they continue reading. As she does countless times in the book, she quotes Phillips—“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” (xiii).
Through such quotes and very well-organized and graceful writing, Welsh helps readers understand how Phillips felt through every stage of her musical career. She somehow manages to give a great overview of Phillips’s whole life as a harpist while also detailing very specific moments in her life that were particularly memorable as either glorious or devastating.
“My greatest personal memory of her was the feeling of fear she conveyed to me when she spoke of her early days in the Philadelphia Orchestra,” Welsh said. “She was only 22 and still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music when she was talked into auditioning for the Orchestra by her teacher, Carlos Salzedo. Both teacher and student thought she would be auditioning for the second harp position, but the great maestro Leopold Stokowski put her in the principal position instead… The fear she felt was still apparent when she told me about it 60 years later.”
In reading “One Woman in a Hundred,” I learned a lot about a topic which I never thought I’d find myself exploring.
The book was not only informative about both the personal and professional lives of Edna Phillips, but also about the inner workings of the Philadelphia Orchestra, an institution with much more drama and excitement than most would think.
Welsh did not focus solely on the harp section, but instead discussed how the Orchestra functioned as a cohesive whole with a master conductor.
I really enjoyed the passages about the Orchestra’s beloved maestro Leopold Stokowski, or “Stoki” as his adoring fans and loyal players referred to him.
According to the Welsh’s book, Stoki “worked harder with his players to train them and help them improve their tone than any other conductor … He was a ‘magnificent molder and builder of talent.’ He was a masterful teacher … and he produced some of the finest virtuosos in the orchestral world, but if he decided that a player was inflexible, unwilling, or unable to learn from his suggestions, God help that player” (87).
“My fondest memories of my time at Villanova all revolve around the classes I took, especially Modern American Fiction and Modern British Fiction,” Welsh said. “I was a graduate student with two young children when I attended, so I didn’t have time to get involved with campus life, which I always regretted. Still, I enjoyed my classes in the English department very much, and I think you can say they helped inspire me to want to want to stay involved with writing by exposing me to great literature.”
Welsh’s best advice for aspiring authors is “to not be intimidated by criticism. Learn from it (if it’s constructive), and keep on going. I also believe in writing as simply and honestly as you can. Try to get to the truth of what you want to say. Don’t write around it.”
I did fully enjoy “One Woman in a Hundred” despite my preconceived notions. I would definitely recommend it to other students. It was a quick read about a topic that proved to be very interesting and inspiring.