Thompson, Helen (1908–1974)

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Thompson, Helen (1908–1974)

American musician and orchestra manager. Born on June 1, 1908, in Greenville, Illinois; died of a heart attack on June 25, 1974, in Carmel, California; daughter of Jobe Herbert Mulford and Lena (Henry) Mulford; attended DePauw University, Indiana, 1926–27; graduated from University of Illinois, Phi Beta Kappa, 1932; married Carl Denison Thompson (a research chemist), on April 8, 1933; children: Charles Denison (b. 1940).

Played violin, Charleston Symphony (1940); earned affiliation with the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL, 1943–70); served as vice-president of ASOL (1963–70); was consultant to the Ford Foundation (1966); served as manager, New York Philharmonic (1970–73); authored various studies, including The Community Symphony Orchestra: How to Organize and Develop It (1952).

Violinist and orchestra manager Helen Mulford Thompson was born in 1908 in the small town of Greeneville, Illinois. She began studying the violin at age six with the encouragement of her father, a pharmacist and clarinet player. Thompson played in her high school orchestra and studied music for one year at DePauw University in Indiana. She left college to work for a time, then in 1929 entered the University of Illinois, earning a degree in sociology and psychology. Following her graduation in 1932 she married a chemist, Carl Thompson. As her husband's job was relocated during the 1930s, Thompson worked for family welfare agencies in Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York. In 1940, the couple moved to Charleston, West Virginia, just before the birth of their only child, Charles.

Thompson did not return to social work after that but instead joined the Charleston Symphony, first as a violinist, then as manager, working to increase publicity and attendance for the new orchestra. She joined the Chicago-based American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) in 1943, serving as editor of its newsletter from 1948. The League's mission was to support and guide civic orchestras in issues of publicity, funding, repertoire, and management. Thompson's single-minded dedication to the organization led an anonymous donor in 1950 to make a grant to the League on condition that Thompson become the salaried executive secretary of the organization, its only paid staffmember. From then on, the League operated out of her home.

Thompson's activism on behalf of small orchestras sometimes took her into public view. Arguing that civic orchestras were important cultural institutions, Thompson in 1951 appealed in person to Congress to repeal a surcharge on symphony tickets. Under her leadership the League grew steadily, and by 1970 encompassed over 1,400 member orchestras across the country. She established training programs for conductors and orchestra managers, and wrote several works outlining her management guidelines. Thompson was serving as executive vice-president at the time of her retirement from the League in 1970 to accept the position of manager for the New York Philharmonic orchestra. There she was able to use her experience to publicize the Philharmonic and increase audience attendance. She was obliged to retire in 1973, when she turned 65, and moved to Carmel, California. There she opened a private consulting firm for performing arts organizations which she ran until her death the following year.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Thompson, Helen (1908–1974)

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