Hannes Richter

Elsa Hilger (1904 - 2005)

Hannes Richter

Elsa Hilger was born in 1904 in Trauenau in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and grew up as the youngest of eighteen children, of which only four survived.

After her father's death in WW I, her mother took the three daughters - Maria who played violin, Greta the pianist, and the cellist Elsa - to Vienna where all three girls won scholarships to the prestigious Vienna Conservatory. Elsa became the youngest member of the Conservatory Orchestra. At the age of twelve, she made her premiere performance playing Tchaikovsky s Rococo Variations with the Vienna Philharmonic. Years later she recalled:  I was hungry; it was the war years. They put wood blocks beneath my feet because I was so short my feet would not reach the floor. The next year, in recognition of her talent, she was presented a Guarnerius cello, which she played for the remainder of her career.

In 1920, the family left for America. The Hilger Trio, as the three sisters came to be known, began touring North and South America. They lived out of a suitcase and travelled across the United States by Buick during the Depression with Elsa at the wheel:  two hundred miles on unpaved roads and a concert at night. During  winter season of 1934-35, the three sisters presented more than thirty-seven solo and ensemble concerts.

During those years, Elsa was invited to play for Pablo Casals, who called her  a genius on the cello. Several times she and her sisters played quartets with Albert Einstein. That was very interesting. We were surprised because we never heard that he was also a musician. He was wonderful! We played several Beethoven quartets with him and had such a good time.

In 1935, Elsa became the first woman to be hired as a full-time member of a major symphony orchestra. She was invited to join the Philadelphia Orchestra by conductor Leopold Stokowski. One day Stokowski asked to hear her play. The audition was held in secret. After auditioning before a panel from the musicians union, she was required to play solo pieces and sight-read on the stage for two hours, convincing the sceptics that she was worthy of being hired.

Stokowski offered her the fourth chair.  You would have had the first chair, Ormandy once told her.  But your pants were not long enough. Elsa was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra for thirty-five years and missed only once a concert - the day she gave birth to her son. She died this year at age 101.