Laskine, Lily (1893–1988)

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Laskine, Lily (1893–1988)

French harpist who concertized and recorded widely in a career that spanned over eight decades. Born Lily Aimée Laskine in Paris, France, on August 31, 1893; died in Paris on January 4, 1988; daughter of a medical doctor and a mother who loved the arts and was an excellent pianist; had one brother; married Roland Charmy (a violinist, chamber musician and professor at the Paris Conservatoire), on August 30, 1938.

Won a first prize at the Paris Conservatoire (1906); joined the Paris Opéra as a harpist (1909), the first woman in the orchestra; awarded the Cross of the Légion d'Honneur (1936) and a Chevalier (1958) for her musical accomplishments.

Lily Laskine was born in Paris, France, in 1893. Her father was a medical doctor who had dreamed of becoming a musician and served as the house doctor of the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts. Her mother had studied with Chopin's last living pupil. Both of Lily's parents were of Russian descent, and both were interested in her musical career as well. Mme Laskine's approach was practical; aware that Lily was not taken with the piano, she asked if Lily would like to play the harp. From that moment, Lily was enthralled with the instrument. Mme Laskine then took her daughter to Alphonse Hasselmans, professor of harp, at the Paris Conservatoire, but he informed them that he never took beginners. Mme Laskine took Lily by the hand, turned on her heel, and said, "In that case, my daughter will not play the harp!" Hasselmans capitulated.

After three years of private instruction, 11-year-old Lily entered the Conservatoire in Hasselmans' class. At 6′3″, Hasselmans was an imposing figure who intimidated the little girl, though she loved and admired him. Her mother, however, was more intimidating than Hasselmans and never let her daughter attend lessons alone. Lily Laskine's entire musical education was brief—those three years of private instruction followed by two years at the Conservatoire. In 1906, at age 13, she won first prize at the Conservatoire for her playing. "You have your first prize," her mother concluded. "You know how to play the harp as well as Hasselmans. Now manage by yourself." Laskine never studied with anyone else.

Although Mme Laskine was her fierce advocate, Lily was closest to her father whom she adored. Music was their bond. At age 14, Lily began her career as a soloist carefully supervised by her parents, especially her mother. Her talent was immediately recognized and offers came from all sides. Mme Laskine, however, was cautious, protecting her daughter from being overwhelmed.

In 1909, Laskine applied to the Paris Opéra for the harp position and was named as a substitute, not because of her ability but because of her youth. She was the first woman ever hired by the Opéra orchestra and, at 16, the youngest performer. From that point forward, she played with many orchestras. The conductor Serge Koussevitzky wanted the young harpist to follow him to the United States, where he was engaged to lead several orchestras. Dr. Laskine objected, however, suspicious of Koussevitzky's reputation as a seducer. Instead, Laskine joined the Orchestre Straram, where she began to play classical as well as solo repertoire. She thoroughly enjoyed being part of the orchestra. "All of that completed my life," she once said. "I would never have known a similar pleasure if I had confined myself to the role of a soloist." In 1930, she performed in the première of Maurice Ravel's Boléro, which was conducted by the composer, and was amused by his stage fright. As solo harpist, she joined the Orchestre National de France which was founded in 1934. She played under the great conductors of the era—Richard Strauss, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Paul Paray, and Philippe Gaubert.

In 1938, Laskine married Roland Charmy, a violinist who also taught at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1948, she was appointed to a professorship while continuing to concertize and record. In addition to her activities as a classical musician, Laskine worked with such popular singers as Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, making recordings with them. She also worked on film scores with Delerue, Michel Legrand, and Francis Lai. For more than 30 years, she served as harpist for the Comédie Française. Laskine was interested in expanding the harp repertory, and her efforts were largely successful. Albert Roussel, Jacques Ibert, Henri Marelli, and Jean-Michel Damase were only some of the many composers who wrote compositions for her.

Lily Laskine played with many musicians, including her husband. Her most famous recordings, however, may be with the flutist Jean Pierre Rampal. Despite the fact that she played the works of every major composer as well as the works of popular artists, Laskine was probably best known for her interpretations of Mozart. At the Salzburg Music Festival in 1937, she gave a landmark performance of Mozart's concerto for flute and harp, a work she later recorded with Sir Thomas Beecham. She also performed works by lesser-known composers, expanding the repertoire. Laskine appeared on stage well into her 80s. Among her many honors were Officier de la Légion d'Honneur, Grand Officier de l'Ordre National du Mérite, Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and the Grand Prix du Film Musical. When the harpist died on January 4, 1988, age 94, Rampal gave perhaps her best epitaph when he described her as, "Music in the form of a woman!"


"Mlle Lily Laskine," in The Times [London]. January 6, 1988, p. 10.

Nordman, Marielle. "Lily Laskine" (translated by Jane Weidensaul), in American Harp Journal. Vol. 10, no. 2. Winter 1985, pp. 3–7.

Rensch, Roslyn. The Harp: Its History, Technique, and Repertoire. NY: Praeger Publishers, 1969.

——. Harps and Harpists. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia