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The Cleveland Orchestra’s Alice Chalifoux: “Godmother to the Harp World”

April 15, 2016

For forty-three seasons, The Cleveland Orchestra was fortunate to number the “Godmother to the Harp World,” Alice Chalifoux, as one of its members. Alice Chalifoux served as Principal Harp from 1931 to 1974 and performed under five music directors (Nikolai Sokoloff, Artur Rodzinski, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, and Lorin Maazel). Her tenure of forty-three seasons is one of the longest in the Orchestra’s history.

Left: Photograph of Alice Chalifoux at the harp near the beginning of her tenure with the Orchestra
Right: Cartoon of Ms. Chalifoux in her last season (1973-74); Roy Hearn, The Plain Dealer, August 11, 1974

Alice Chalifoux (1908-2008) was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents were both musically trained, and Alice quickly followed in their footsteps, beginning to learn the harp at age eleven. Her skill was such that she was admitted on a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at age eighteen. At Curtis, she was taught by Carlos Salzedo, one of the greatest harpists of the twentieth century. In 1931, shortly after her graduation, she joined The Cleveland Orchestra. You can listen to her recounting the story of how she joined the Orchestra here:  

Although for much of its history The Cleveland Orchestra has been progressive in matters of gender, the tenure of its second music director, Artur Rodzinski, was marked by the near absence of women in the Orchestra.  Alice Chalifoux was the only female member of the Orchestra for most of Rodzinski’s ten-year tenure (1933-1943). She adapted well to this role and gave as good as she got with the often raucous fellow Orchestra members, earning their respect. She made friends easily, and showed a fiery and mischievous side, as she recalled in her 1991 archives interview:

AC:  Oh!  We played a terrible trick on Leinsdorf once. 
DHH:  Did you?
CJ:  Tell us!
AC:  He was playing the “1812” Overture. When the cannons go off, [we] had a lot of feathers come down from up above.
DHH:  This was a rehearsal?
AC:  No, at a concert.

Of course, there also were some difficulties that arose because of her status. While the Orchestra as a whole was very welcoming to her, there were logistical complications when the Orchestra toured. Charles McBride, a cellist in the Orchestra (1926-1944), humorously recalled, in a 1992 interview with Carol Jacobs, Alice Chalifoux’s unusual dressing room:

“Yeah, during that time she had quite a trip.  First, she'd go to dress and undress and so forth.  They moved the instruments into the hall.  Open the harp case.  Take the harp out.  Alice steps in and shuts the door, and there's her dressing gown – the whole business right there.”

Left: The Cleveland Press, December 31, 1934
Right: Alice Chalifoux with her harp case that doubled as her dressing room

Alice Chalifoux was a world-class harp virtuoso, capable of playing some of the most difficult harp repertoire (such as Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music”from Die Walküre) from memory. One of the Orchestra’s recordings that featured her prominently, a 1969 Columbia LP of Boulez conducting Debussy, won the 1969 Grammy Award (Best Classical Performance, Orchestral). You can hear an excerpt of her performing the harp solo in Debussy’s Danse sacrée et Danse profane (Sacred and Secular Dances) from the 1969 recording here:

As previously alluded to by the moniker “godmother to the harp world,” Alice Chalifoux was one of the great harp pedagogues of the twentieth century. She taught in various capacities at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Baldwin-Wallace College for sixty-six years (1932-1998), and ran the world-famous summer Salzedo Harp Colony in Camden, Maine. The profound influence she had was described by famed choral conductor Robert Shaw: “for a while, it seemed you couldn’t hold an orchestra [harp] job or even audition for one if you hadn’t studied with Alice.” Shaw’s comment seems less hyperbolic when you consider that the 1998 concert honoring her retirement from teaching at age 90 saw sixty-four harpists travel from all over the United States and as far away as Australia and Thailand to perform in a special “Alice Chalifoux Tribute Harp Ensemble” for the occasion.

You can hear one of Alice Chalifoux’s students, Yolanda Kondonassis, perform the Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp with Joshua Smith on Flute and The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Jane Glover, on April 14, 15, and 16. And, just as she was wont to when she was alive, Alice Chalifoux gets to have the last word:
“I’m Lucky — I like what I do … it would be ghastly to have some crappy job.”

—Alex Lawler
Alex Lawler is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.
He is a PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University.


All photographs and audio clips courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

Want to know more?

The TONIGHT SHOW starring JOHNNY CARSON (October 19, 1988) – Alice Chalifoux and several of her students are musical guests of Johnny Carson.

http://www.harpspectrum.org/– Website of the non-profit Harp Spectrum; provides many short informative articles about the harp.

Robert Finn, The Plain Dealer, October 26, 1986.

Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, May 4, 1997.

Frazier Moore, People, August 29, 1988.