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A Hugely Influential and Very Talented Brighton Musician

Friday 8th March is International Women’s Day and Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra have some special plans to help celebrate. Their women led orchestra will be performing at the Brighton Dome Concert Hall, a programme set to showcase music by female composers entitled The Mighty River: Celebrating Women.   As far as I know, no-one is suggesting that the audience or, indeed, the players will be obliged to wear purple, the official colour of International Women’s Day, but celebrating women and their achievements in a field traditionally dominated by men is seen as important.

Recognising those who helped pave the way for all the women in the world of classical music today is also important. And top of the list of those deserving acknowledgement is, in the opinion of many, a Brighton woman - Mary (Molly) Attfield Draper, née Paley - a female conductor and violinist who not only made a meaningful contribution to the musical life of Brighton, but also advanced the place of women musicians on the international stage.  

Molly Paley was born in Hove in April 1893. From 1901 to 1904, she attended Brighton Girls School as a junior pupil. She began her musical career at the age of eight learning to play the violin and having lessons from the George Menges (The Menges family had a strong musical heritage, were powerful advocates of regional professional orchestras and influence in the world of classical music). Some years later Molly went to Paris and continued her violin lessons with a well-known teacher called Scippioni Guidi, who later became the Leader of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Molly first came to prominence playing solo violin in concerts in Brighton and the wider Sussex area. In the early 1920s, she was variously described in local newspapers as “a remarkably skilful violinist” and “exquisite performer of Bach”.

Such talent made Molly a perfect candidate for the Sussex Women’s Musicians’ Club when it formed in 1923. Very briefly known as the Ladies Musical Society, the club had its inaugural meeting on the 10th March 1923 and in November of that same year Molly is recorded in The Sussex Daily News (3rd November 1923) as arranging a “very interesting programme” for one of the club’s fortnightly programmes.

Two years later the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra was formed by the Menges family with Herbert Menges being its first conductor and Molly its first leader. At the beginning this small orchestra was called the Symphonic String Players and sometimes the Sussex Symphonic. What made it stand out as one of the most progressive orchestras in the country was that, compared to many of the London based orchestras, who predominantly used male musicians, 75% of its 35-40 regular players were women.

In 1927, Molly became the Secretary of the Brighton Philharmonic Society and for the next twenty years she devoted much of her time and musical ability to this orchestra which developed and grew into a full-sized symphony orchestra. She led the orchestra under such eminent conductors as Sir Adrian Boult and shared the concert platform with world renowned soloists. With what seems like boundless energy, Molly continued to perform as a solo violinist and conducted many chamber orchestras and other smaller orchestras around Sussex. She not only gave private tuition to young string players but was a professor of music and conductor of the orchestra at Brighton School of Music in Marlborough Place. Molly was a strong advocate of music education; supporting young musicians and imparting to them what it meant to become a real musician. She was also passionate about taking classical music to a wider audience, something that she did through her outreach programmes, visiting schools and music societies to give talks and demonstrations.

Molly remained the leader of Brighton Philharmonic right through World War Two (1939-45). As an A.R.P. Warden she used time during her daytime duty to deal with orchestra correspondence, problems with posters or programme details for the regular concerts that were given throughout the war years. She was also very occupied with taking care of her Guadagmini violin which she had named “Frederick”. This she hid in its case in a stout box, in a cupboard under the stairs of her flat whenever there was any likelihood of an air-raid!

Such wartime worries were happily put aside on the 2nd June 1944 when Molly married Ernest Ivor Draper (1905–1983) in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Hove. Soon after she moved to live with Ernest in a house named “Yondover” on the outskirts of Burgess Hill.

Married life, a beautiful house and what has been described as a “charming garden” did not distract Molly from her musical commitments. She continued to lead Brighton Philharmonic well into the 1950s; was also a committee member and vice president of the Brighton Philharmonic Society Limited giving many hours of service to something she, so obviously, loved.

Molly died in Hassocks on the 15th April 1974, aged 81. An obituary written in a programme from the Brighton Philharmonic Society 49th Season (1973) says, “Molly was one of the principal architects of its growth from a strong orchestra in 1925 with a number of keen supporters into a fully professional orchestra backed by a society numbering 1,000 members.”

Local musicians, composers, conductors, and audiences clearly have much to thank Molly for. Her talent, determination, and long years of dedication unquestionably influenced Brighton’s music scene, making her worthy of the Argus and Sussex Life Magazine title: “unsung local heroine”. Brighton and Hove Women’s History Group believe, however, that Molly deserves more recognition and they, supported by members of Brighton Philharmonic, are proposing a Blue Plaque be erected in her name.

What should not be up for debate is the need to celebrate Molly’s groundbreaking achievements which helped lay the foundations for other women in the world of classical music; women like those who will play a part in Brighton Philharmonic’s International Women’s Day concert. www.brightonphil.org.uk 

She was Leader of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra and its forerunner from 1925-45; Honorary Secretary of the Society from 1927-47; member of the Management Committee from 1947-65; Vice President of the Society from 1966. Image courtesy of Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Posted in History on Mar 01, 2024