Elsa Hilger, Pioneering Professional Cello Player

Day to Day offers an appreciation of cello player Elsa Hilger, the first woman to perform full-time in a major symphony orchestra. In her 35-year career, she missed only one day of performing — to give birth to her son. She passed away last week at the age of 101.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

A remembrance now for Elsa Hilger, who died last week at the age of 101. You might not recognize that name, but she played and taught the cello for about 90 years, and along the way she achieved something truly extraordinary.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Women in symphony orchestras aren't rare these days, but in Philadelphia, in 1934, Elsa became the very first to play for a major symphony orchestra. In 1994, she spoke with NPR's Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of 1994 interview)

Ms. ELSA HILGER (Cellist): I had no idea what I was in for. And always they had a big article, usually in the front of the paper, about the first female in any major orchestra. So I think they got their money's worth out of that.

CHADWICK: In her 35 years with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Elsa missed just one performance, the day her son was born. One of her favorite stories involved a beloved cello that she owned, a Guarnerius. It was stolen. And then one night, before a concert at Carnegie Hall, she heard a musician tuning his instrument behind her.

(Soundbite of 1994 interview)

Ms. HILGER: He tuned it, and I looked around. I said, `Ooh, that sounds nice.' And then he played a few notes, and then I really turned around and looked at it and said, `My God, that's my Guarnerius!' He said, `How could you have known?' `Well,' I said, `this is the cello that I had from the age of 12. And it was stolen from me.' And I said in the intermission, `Please, don't get away. I want to--must play on the cello to make a hundred percent sure that it is mine.' So in the intermission I went to the artists' room, and he brought the cello, and I played on it all the cadenzas that I could think of--most difficult stuff. And all the cellists stood around and said, `It must be your cello. You couldn't possibly play like this on a instrument you don't know.' So that was it.

CHADWICK: Elsa Hilger continued performing until she was 98. She taught generations of students as well--among them, her grandson, a music professor who has inherited that cello. Elsa Hilger, dead now at the age of 101.

And there's more to come from DAY TO DAY.

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