Famous Orchestral Players of Yesteryear: Marie Wilson

Probably not many people have heard of Marie Wilson, violinist, who was a leader in all senses of the word.

She was an original member of the BBC Symphony orchestra that was founded in 1930 and which had a large proportion of women in it. A formidable player she often led when the BBC Symphony was divided into sections A,B,C, or D. and on occasion led the whole orchestra.

To realize what a remarkable thing this was for a woman to get that job in those days, you have to set your mind way back, even to the end of WW 1. At that time there was a woman, Dame Ethel Smythe, who championed the women’s movement. She was a composer and among her works was “The Wreckers” an opera, which I saw and also a piece written for the Suffragettes. She championed women composers and musicians and there was even a Women’s Symphony Orchestra but it was a hard struggle because of the prejudice against women at that time. There were other women whom I knew, Doris Greenish, a bassist, Nadia Boulanger and Kathleen Riddick both conductors whom I played for and who also advanced the cause.

Chief amongst the opponents to women musicians, in England at any rate, was Sir Thomas Beecham who vowed never to employ women “because if they were pretty they would distract him and if they were ugly that would distract him too”. Some of the remarks he made to women were particularly offensive. He was once engaged to conduct an orchestra that employed a young woman ‘cellist, and he said to her “My dear, you have that beautiful thing between your legs and all you can do is to scratch it”.

George Szell said after an auditioning a woman I know, a fine violinist, “Go home my dear and have babies”. That must have been fifty years ago.

When I joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra over sixty years ago, the only woman in the orchestra was the harpist. Likewise the London Symphony Orchestra, but when Marie Goossens, the harpist retired she was replaced by a man, Ossian Ellis, but gradually women were being engaged more and more. One event occurred when Leon Goossens made (or was alleged to have made) what was deemed to be an offensive remark. (see my blog, Leon Goossens) and this led to a minor protest and afterwards windows were installed on all the studios of that institution.. It wasn’t the catalyst but it was one small step towards women entering into the profession. They were finally being listened to.

WWll was the event which led to women coming into their own. It wasn’t done by burning bras but the simple fact that many of the men were away fighting in the front line. I came through Dunkirk and was discharged back into civilian life, so I was able to play occasionally with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. I was surprised to see the number of women. Sir Adrian Boult, a previous conductor of the CBO also helped this trend. Some of the women were fine players. I remember particularly well Lucy Vincent, a magnificent oboist who also trained many orchestra principals.

Later on when I was playing in the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra there were several women playing in it, including Marie Wilson who had left the BBC.

One bone of contention that the Philharmonia men had was that although the women received equal pay, some of them also expected to be treated with preference. I remember crossing the English Channel on the ferry to France. There weren’t enough sleeping berths for everyone in the orchestra but some women said “But of course the berths should be for the women”. I think things have changed since fifty years, but what does all this have to do with Marie Wilson? This: She was the only woman at that time who was allowed to demonstrate for all to hear that she was as capable or better than many men to lead a famous orchestra, and that was some feat.

I often used to chat with her, she was a charming lady and a good conversationalist. She retired when she was quite a good age and went to spend the rest of her days on the South Coast of England. Salut to Marie!


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  1. […] Famous Orchestral Players of Yesteryear: Marie Wilson […]

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