Elsa Hilger (13 April 1904 – 17 May 2005) is less of a household name than some solo cellists, but she is no less distinguished. Not only was she a prodigy, but she was also the first full-time, non-harpist female musician in a major American orchestra.
Hilger’s story began in Trautenau, Austria (modern-day Trutnov, Bohemia, Czech Republic). The youngest child in her family, Elsa watched her sister Maria’s violin lessons with the renowned violin pedagogue Otakar Ševčík (22 March 1852 – 18 January 1934). Noticing the keen attention of the young eight- or nine-year-old Elsa, Ševčík began to teach her as well, not on violin, but on a mail-order cello. As he said, “she has a cellist’s hands.”1
Hilger progressed quickly, moving to Vienna with her family around 1915 to study with Paul Grümmer (26 February 1879 – 30 October 1965) at the Vienna Conservatory where she and her two sisters, violinist Maria, and pianist Greta, attended on scholarship. At the school, Elsa Hilger earned the distinction of being the youngest member of the conservatory orchestra.
Her family recounted a humorous anecdote about her audition. At the time, she knew only one scale, so when the faculty asked to hear a scale, “she just pretended they said the one she knew” and played it.2
At the age of 12, Hilger made her orchestral debut with the Vienna Philharmonic performing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. The following year, Grümmer gave Hilger the Guarnerius cello that she used for most of her career.
In 1920, following her studies in Vienna, Hilger’s family left Europe for America. Her grandson, Alex Ezerman (also a cellist), remembers her recounting how she and her sisters smuggled their instruments “across fields and over fences” in order to get their instruments with them on the ship to the new world.
In America, Hilger studied for a time with Felix Salmond (19 November 1888 – 20 February 1952) at Juilliard. For much of the 1920s and early 1930s, the three sisters traveled together around the United States and South America as the Hilger Trio, performing solo and ensemble recitals. The trio even performed with orchestras, having Beethoven’s triple concerto in their repertoire.
The First Woman Cellist in a Major American Orchestra
Hilger’s talent became well known to many musicians, including the legendary conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski (18 April 1882 – 13 September 1977). In 1934, at the request of the American pianist, music critic, and teacher, Olga Samaroff (8 August 1880 – 17 May 1948), Stokowski auditioned Hilger privately. Although Stokowski was convinced of her talent and wanted to hire her, she still had to go before a musician’s union committee for a formal audition.
At the second audition, in addition to the solo works she had prepared, Hilger sight-read orchestral excerpts for two hours. Her skill won over the skeptics, and she secured a position in the orchestra in 1935. She made history as the first full-time female cellist in a major American symphony orchestra.
“Other than an occasional harpist”
When Elsa Hilger joined as a cellist, the only other woman who performed full-time with the Philadelphia Orchestra was harpist Edna Phillips who had been with the orchestra since 1930.
Although one might think the two would find camaraderie in being the only two women in such a prestigious orchestra, Phillips did not take kindly to descriptions of Hilger as the first woman in a major American orchestra, nor did she appreciate Hilger’s referring herself in interviews as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s
“first woman other than an occasional harpist.”3
Three Decades with the Philadelphia Orchestra
Technicalities aside, Elsa Hilger was without a doubt the first female section player in a major American orchestra. She performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra until her union-imposed retirement at age 65.
During her 35-year tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra, much of which she sat on the first desk, she missed only one concert – on the day her son was born. Her seat was left empty during that performance.
Listen to her solo in this recording of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (starting at 26:07):
Albert Einstein Poem
Throughout her career, Hilger met many prominent figures who spoke with great regard for her playing. One of these was the amateur musician Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955). The famed scientist played chamber music with the Hilger sisters and even wrote a poem about them.
Originally in German, the poem is roughly translated:
On Sunday next I’ll cock my ear
To radio’s Three Graces hear;
Due honor to Beethoven lend –
Besides, he can’t himself defend.
Prominent Musical Connections
“You would have had the first chair, but your pants were not long enough.”4
Hilger did finally reach the principal seat, but only for short periods of time.
Pablo Casals (29 December 1876 – 22 October 1973) referred to her as a “genius of the cello.” After her final solo appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (29 December 1876 – 22 October 1973) himself brought flowers to her backstage. In the following PBS special on Hilger, she points to a photo of Rostropovich presenting her the flowers, saying,
“He likes me; I like him. He likes my playing; I like his playing, so we are really friends.”5
The PBS special caught the attention of artist Monica Acee who contacted Hilger requesting to paint her portrait. Hilger agreed and performed a private concert for Acee, during which the artist took mental notes while her husband photographed Hilger. The result was the watercolor reproduced below.
In the midst of Hilger’s high-flying career came a tragedy. In 1934, someone stole the Guarnerius cello given to her by Grümmer, her teacher in Vienna. Then, almost two years later, another cellist in the orchestra came across the instrument in a violin maker’s shop. Not knowing it was Hilger’s stolen cello, he brought it to try out in a concert.
As her colleague played, Hilger recognized the sound of her instrument. Then, during an intermission, she asked to play the cello and knew for sure the lost had been found. The final proof that the cello was hers was her description of an improvised repair on the cello’s case. A nail had been used to replace a pin on one of the hinges.6 After her cello was returned, Hilger used the instrument for the rest of her life.
Right Hand Injury
Videos of Hilger playing the cello show her often placing her pinky behind the bow in a non-traditional bow hold. This habit was to compensate for an injury sustained when her thumb was broken as it was jammed in a car door. Though the injury never fully healed, Hilger was able to continue performing by modifying her technique to overcome this obstacle to her playing.
Not only was Hilger a prodigious performer, but she was also a gifted teacher, serving on the faculty of the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music Academy (now the University of the Arts). She also married Dr. Willem Ezerman, the son of one of the school’s directors, who would become a director in his own right.
Martha Brons, her student from 1963-1965, remembers that Hilger was referred to as “the Philadelphia Orchestra’s secret weapon.”7 Hilger did not always bring her cello to lessons but would demonstrate her desired outcome by singing. She also required her students to develop technical prowess through such exercises as playing slow scales with eight beats per note to develop bow control.
A Direct but Generous Teacher
She was described by several students as being “old school” or direct about a student’s strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, she took pride in her students, even if she did not always voice it. For example, Brons received a note from Hilger’s husband following a recital letting her know how pleased her teacher was with the performance.
Hilger was also known for her generosity and is credited with arranging a grant for her student Norman Johns to study with the Philadelphia Orchestra principal cellist William Stokking (6 April 1933 – 14 December 2014).8
She Made the Cello Sing
in 1986, János Starker (5 July 1924 – 28 April 2013) invited Hilger to participate in the 3rd American Cello Congress. At the event, she primarily coached cellists on orchestral excerpts while imparting lessons learned from her years of experience as a soloist and ensemble performer. She always encouraged a singing tone, saying:
“I made up my mind from the very beginning when I played the cello, it has to sing.”9
Her concept of playing and virtuosity resulted in the creation of a beautiful, singing sound from her instrument, which was the opposite of what many young people preferred at the time. The trend was playing music as fast and as loud as possible.10 Yet Hilger never lost her preference or ability to coax songs from her strings.
The many students she taught over the years became soloists, orchestral musicians, and teachers. A partial list of her students includes David Finckel, her grandson Alexander Ezerman, Martha Brons, Ted Nelson, Norman Johns, Nancy Stokking, Luis Bava, and Bonnie Thron.
Watch Hilger Perform
To see more of her performing, watch the following PBS Guest of House performance.
Do you have any memories of Elsa Hilger? If so, please share them in the comments below.
- Bartley, Margaret. “Elsa Hilger: Genius on the Cello.” Vermont Woman, Apr. 2004. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
- Ezerman, Alexander. Personal interview. 5 Mar. 2021.
- Mary Sue Welsh. One Woman in a Hundred : Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra. University of Illinois Press, 2013, p. 132.
- “Elsa Hilger (1904 – 2005).” New Austrian Information: Transatlantic Perspectives Since 1948, Austrian Press & Information Service in the United States Embassy of Austria, 2005. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
- “Elsa Hilger; BFA TV Station; A Two Penny Theater.” Hosted by Jerry S. Jones and Enzo de Mayo, Crossroads, Vermont PBS, 11 Feb. 1982.
- “Music: Cello Redeemed.” Time, 23 Dec. 1935. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
- Brons, Martha. Telephone interview. 2 Mar. 2021.
- Gelfand, Janelle. “Playing it forward: Norman Johns has inspired young minority musicians for decades.” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 4 Feb. 2016.
- Hilger, Elsa. Third American Cello Congress 6/5/86., Unpublished VHS Tape, 1986.
- “Across the Fence with Elsa Hilger.” Hosted by Lin Jarvis, U of Vermont Extension Service.
- Acee, Monica. “Re: Elsa Hilger painting.” Email received by the author, 1 Mar. 2021.
- Brusilow, Anshel, and Robin Underdahl. Shoot the Conductor : Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy. First edition, University of North Texas Press, 2015.
- “Elsa Hilger and Catherine Baird.” Guest of the House, Vermont PBS, 9 Nov. 2018. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
- “ELSA HILGER BETROTHED; Philadelphia Orchestra ‘Cellist to Be Bride of Dr. Willem Ezermann.” The New York Times, 11 Apr. 1937. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
- “Elsa Hilger, Pioneering Professional Cello Player.” Hosted by Alex Chadwick, Day to Day, NPR, 27 May 2005. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
- “In Memoriam.” American String Teacher, vol. 55, no. 3, 1 Aug. 2005, p. 9. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
- MacDonald, Sara Jean, and Eugene A. Bolt Jr. The University of the Arts. 1st ed., Arcadia Pub., 2006, p. 102. Google Books. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021
- “Passenger Record.” The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island, The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.