Music in the Margins: Blog

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Edna Phillips: The First Female Harpist for a Major Orchestra

by Tim Sestrick on 2023-03-06T12:31:00-05:00 in Music | 0 Comments

By Liz Wegeman, Presser Music Library Intern

Philadelphia Orchestra’s Edna Phillips (1907-2003) was not just the first female harpist for TPO but the first female principal player in any major U.S. orchestra. Joining the orchestra in 1930, she broke barriers through her career, actively supporting and leading the way for female orchestral players after her.

Her harp instructor, Carlos Salzedo (of Curtis Institute), encouraged the reluctant Phillips to apply for TPO’s second harpist position after just five years of experience. Yet, the interview process was no ordinary one, and not just because the second harpist had not been informed that he was getting the boot. As a woman interviewing for an unprecedented position into an all-male territory, the interview was conducted privately – and in secret – in Salzedo’s apartment. Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, seems to have been wildly impressed by Phillips abilities and offered her not the second harpist position, but the first chair held by Vincent Fanelli.

Phillips was at first hesitant to take on the position, yet her instructor Carlos Salzedo rebutted:

“Don’t you know how musical you are? If we cut your wrists, you would bleed music, not blood. You must not let a chance like this one slip away.”

Ousting the well-known Fanelli and breaching an all-male domain brought with it acute scrutiny from her colleagues. The twenty-three-year-old Phillips had to navigate an intensely difficult position under the hostility of her co-workers and the demands of the tyrant conductor Stokowski (who could fire anyone on a whim!). Phillips navigated this environment by showing cool distance to her fellow musicians, turning down many – even the advances of the pestering conductor – with excuses of lessons and prior arrangements, keeping their retaliation in check. 

Yet, all this is not to say that Phillips did not enjoy her role as principal harpist. She came to see the harp, and herself, as an integral role in the art of music making in the orchestra.

Click here to listen to Edna Phillips perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Phillips went on to make a substantial contribution to modern harp repertory through her commission of solo works from composers such as Alberto Ginastera, Ernst Krenek, and Ernst von Dohnanhyi. Many of these works remain among the most popular of harp repertory.

Phillips retired from the orchestra after sixteen years but continued teaching at the Philadelphia Conservatory as well as chairing the Bach Festival of Philadelphia. She supported young performers and women through Young Audiences and Settlement Music School, now the largest community school of the arts in the nation.

For more information on Edna Phillips and her journey as the first woman to hold a principal position in a major U.S. orchestra, check out Mary Sue Welsh’s biographical work: One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Works Cited

Cohen, Steve. “Edna Phillips, the Pioneering Female Orchestral Musician.” The Cultural Critic.

Thai, Claire. “Edna Phillips Cracks the Glass Ceiling at the Philadelphia Orchestra.”, 2021.


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