Muse behind Britten's Ceremony of Carols is revealed

Still trying to talk prestigious composers - "they needed to be important so the works would get attention" - into writing for the harp [Edna] Phillips next targeted Benjamin Britten. He agreed to meet her in New York, where she spent a pleasant afternoon playing for him and discussing the technical requirements of the harp, but when she asked him to write a work for her, he declined. At the time, he was preparing to return to England to stand with his countrymen against the German bombardment. He was too distracted to think of accepting a commission, he told her.

She lost the chance, but she always wondered whether she had prompted Britten to think about the harp. "He composed the Ceremony of Carols on the ship taking him back to England and used the harp in such an original and wonderful way in it," she said. "It really doesn't matter that he didn't accept our commission. That is a great work for the harp."
That new perspective on the genesis of the Ceremony of Carols appears in One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra by Mary Sue Welsh, and as the meeting between Benjamin Britten and Edna Phillips - who is seen above - is not reported in Humphrey Carpenter's definitive biography of the composer I am highlighting it here.

Doriot Anthony Dwyer, who became principal flautist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1952, is usually credited as being the first woman principal in a major American orchestra, but, in fact, Edna Phillips was appointed principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930. However this ground breaking appointment by Leopold Stokowski - the first front seat for a woman in an American orchestra - is often overlooked as the first harp does not lead a conventional orchestral section. In the same year and just eight months after Edna Phillips made her debut in Philadelphia, Sidione Goosens was appointed principal harp in the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra by Adrian Boult, a milestone for women musicians that the book does not mention.

This very welcome biography of Edna Phillips, which was published in 2013 by the University of Illinois Press, has been inexplicably overlooked in a year when there has, quite rightly, been much focus on gender inequality in classical music. Not only is this new book, which is based in part on interviews with Edna Phillips before her death in 2003, an important account of a brave and talented woman breaking the glass ceiling in a major American orchestra, but it also gives valuable first hand accounts of working with Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter, with Phillips describing how the latter's verbose rehearsals "dragged on like Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks" and "bored me to death".

Mary Sue West paints a vivid picture of how women players were harassed in 1930s orchestras, yet manages to avoid the "Catholic school choir director is charged with pimping" style of revelation much favoured by certain cultural commentators. The following passage gives the flavour both of the book's admirably understated style and of how some male musicians mark their score:

"Harp, please come here."

That was it. Now [Edna Phillips] would have to talk to talk to him face to face. Knowing what she did about Stoki's reputation as a ladies' man, the last thing she wanted to do was find herself alone with him after the rest of the orchestra had left the stage. Not with those sparks. So she grabbed her music and moved to the podium as fast as she could. The men were still filing out, gathering up their instruments and chatting with each other, and the associate conductor was standing on the other side of the podium. With that many people around, Phillip felt somewhat protected as Stoki smiled at her and took her proffered music.

"I want you to play an arpeggio here," he said, turning to the correct page and proceeding to write on it, which appeared to be perfectly legitimate.

Handing back her music, he asked, "Do you think that will work there? Do you understand it?"

Looking down at her music, Phillips was dismayed to discover more than the expected notation at the bottom of the page. The maestro had also written, "Will you take lunch with me today? Answer Yes of No."

What could she do? if she said no, she might lose her job. If she said yes, she might lose it in the end anyway. The possibilities swirled before her. What to do? She needed time to think, but she had to answer right away.
Stokowski did not score on that occasion, but Edna Phillips' biographer is more ambiguous as to whether of not she "took lunch" with Eugene Ormandy. But back to Britten, and as Edna Phillips says, the Ceremony of Carols is a great work for the harp. Britten also wrote a number of late works for the harp and voice duo of Osian Ellis and Peter Pears, including Canticle V, Op. 89 (1974), The Death of St Narcissus (T.S.Eliot), A Birthday Hansel, Op. 92 (1975) - composed at the Queen's request for her mother's birthday - and the 1976 folksong settings captured on the LP seen below. One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra gives a fresh insight into the genesis of the Ceremony of Carols and there is much else to relish in this overlooked yet fascinating biography. And, staying with gender balance, other paths lead to Britten's female muse at Aldeburgh and to discussion of the feminine roles in his operas.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra was borrowed from the admirable 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, Norwich. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


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