Remembering the first woman to conduct in the Festival Hall

A CBC story on the new all-women Allegra Chamber Orchestra describes it quite rightly as one of the few all-female orchestras in the world. That story provides a convenient reason for me to turn the spotlight on a forgotten woman musician who formed one of the first all-female orchestra back in the 1930s, and who later became the first woman to conduct in London's Royal Festival Hall. Kathleen Riddick was born in 1907 and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and the Salzburg Mozarteum. In the 1930s she formed the London Women's String Orchestra which later became the multi-gender Riddick String Orchestra. The BBC onlinearchive gives details of a 1939 broadcast by the London Women's String Orchestra of arrangements of Rameau, while the Riddick String Orchestra was active until shortly before its founder died in 1973. The Riddick String Orchestra was held in high esteem, and in 1951 Kathleen Riddick conducted it with Dennis Brain as soloist in the premiere of Gordon Jacob's Horn Concerto in the Wigmore Hall.

During the war years travel restrictions meant foreign maestros were in short supply, so Kathleen Riddick had the opportunity to conduct the BBC Symphony, BBC Scottish and BBC Northern (now Philharmonic) and London Symphony orchestras. She lived in Ashtead, Surrey for much of her life and in 1932 founded the multi-gender Surrey String Players, which in 1945 expanded to become the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra. The photo shows her in 1949 conducting the Surrey Philharmonic with Elisabeth Schumann as soloist in the since demolished Epsom Baths Hall*; the number of women in that orchestra would be remarkable even in 2016, particularly in Vienna. Over the years guest conductors of the Surrey Phil included Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Arthur Bliss, and soloists have included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jacqueline du Pré, Paul Tortelier, Steven Isserlis, Nigel Kennedy and Evelyn Glennie. In 1951 the Surrey Philharmonic played in the newly opened Royal Festival Hall, and Kathleen Riddick became the first woman to conduct an orchestra there. Today such an event would trigger a media feeding frenzy of epic proportions, but things were very different in the past. As Kathleen Riddick's entry in A Historical Dictionary of British Women reminds us:

Her colleagues and players regarded her as a thoroughly professional music director, and she is remembered not so much as Britain's first successful woman conductor, but simply as a good conductor.
* I grew up in Surrey and the very first classical concert I attended was in Epsom Baths Hall in the 1950s when the Surrey Philharmonic played Holst's The Planets. Header photo taken is from the orchestra's archives. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Unknown said…
-reference the description of Epsom Baths Hall as having been demolished. The buiding remains but is not converted during the winter as it once was. There is a swimming pool which was covered by a maple floor originally for concerts, boxing and events
Bill Swanson said…
Kathleen Riddick ran musical appreciation classes at my prep school in the 1950s. This was Woolpit School, now known as The Duke of Kent School, between Peaslake and Ewhurst in Surrey. I was the only boy in the school who was learning the violin. I used to borrow the Housemaster's (Tony Mason) record player to listen to classical music while my fellow pupils were listening to some new chap called Elvis Presley. Before any readers write me off as toffee-nosed snob, let me assure you that my musical tastes cover Pop, New Orleans Jazz and Classical. I am writing this, however, because Kathleen Riddick took me to Leatherhead Theatre to watch Benno Moisievich play Grieg's Piano Concerto. It was an experience I've never forgotten and I remain eternally grateful to her for that wonderful privilege. She was a very kind and thoughtful lady and it wasn't until many years later that it occurred to me to try to contact any family. I got so far once, but got overtaken by other concerns and, I regret to say, the quest lapsed. If any family Riddick happens to light upon this 'comment', do please get in touch. I am Bill Swanson at: Thank you. She was a terrific inspiration.
John Abbott said…
Great post (sorry it's taken me so long to find it!). Just wanted to point out that the claim that Kathleen Riddick was the first woman to conduct at the Royal Festival Hall doesn't quite hold up. It was first made (so far as I can see) in The Times obituary (10 February 1973, p 18). But on 3 March 1933 (p 16) The Times ran a correction, after Marjorie Jaco wrote in to say that she had conducted the choir of the Church of the Holy Cross, Crediton in the finals of the National Music Festival on June 22, 1951.

Also that Riddick now has a Wikipedia page:

John Abbott
Bill Swanson said…
Thank you so much for this post and the link to her own Wikipedia page.

Looking back at my original post, Tony Mason also lived in Ashtead ['Sagamore', The Marld) which probably explains how she came to be involved with my school; they must have been neighbours.

Bill Swanson


Recent popular posts

A street cat named Aleppo

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Storm clouds gather over Aldeburgh

The act of killing from 20,000 feet

In the shadow of Chopin

How classical music slipped a disc

Benjamin Brittten's relationship with children

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Critical Mass