For thousands of years learning to play a musical instrument or to sing well was part of growing up to become a good wife and mother, who had to be entertaining, yet in control of herself. Much as with cooking, however, a woman musician was rarely able to turn those feminine skills into a career. Camilla Wicks, however, turned her talent into a legendary career that gave generations of female musicians a role model.
Wicks was born in California on August 9, 1928, to parents who were part of the musical scene. Her father, Ingwald, was a Norwegian violinist and instructor; her mother, Ruby, ran away to Germany to study piano with famous composer and pianist Franz Xaver Scharwenka.
Wicks recalls that she began learning the violin from her father when she was 3 or 4 years old. Clearly she was quite talented, because by the age of 7 she performed a solo at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. For the next two years she performed solo at the same venue. Her parents were supportive of her talent, and the family moved to New York City so Wicks could join the pre-college program at Juilliard when she was 10 years old.
In 1942, at the age of 13, Wicks debuted as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, and this began a decade of regular performances with orchestras around the world for the teenager. Wicks worked with some of the best maestros and orchestras in the world. Perhaps because of her heritage, she was most beloved in Scandinavia. Finnish composers such as Jean Sibelius and Bjarne Brustad dedicated a number of violin solo pieces to her. In turn she loved to perform lesser-known or unknown Scandinavian works. Wicks even dipped her toe into the movie industry – she was in the film She Gets Her Man in 1945 as one of the violinists in a scene – but music was her calling. In 1946, Wicks performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the work that would continue to be most strongly associated with her for the rest of her life.
Orchestras and classical music were still popular during WWII and grew in popularity in the 1950s. However, women were often looked down upon if they tried for the first-chair or soloist positions in orchestras, yet repeatedly Wicks proved herself the best one for the job. It may have annoyed conductors, but ultimately they wanted their companies to sound the best, so Wicks was allowed to sit first and play solos. Wicks not only went on tour but also had recording contracts with Capitol, HMV, Mercury, and Philips. Wicks became an international star as recordings brought her to the attention of people who had never seen her in concert.
Another of Wicks’ great performances was in 1953 while she was pregnant with her first child. She was the soloist for the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major (Op. 61) with the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York. Wicks continued to record and perform, usually while pregnant, for the next couple of years.
Somewhere during her touring and recording, she met her future husband, Robert Thomas, and the couple married in 1951. Clearly there was some conflict between the roles of wife, mother, and violinist. Wicks gave birth to 5 children over the course of 10 years, a period she recalled as a “lot of diapers.” This became evident in the mid-1950s when she gave up music and even sold her Stradivarius violin. Perhaps the family needed extra income, or perhaps Wicks needed music, but she was teaching before the birth of her 5th child. The marriage would not last, and by 1965, Wicks was divorced and raising her children on her own.
Returning to music seemed the most obvious course, but without her fine violin, teaching seemed to be all that was within her reach. Teaching, then as now, is not the best paying of careers. One of her friends, Ruggiero Ricci, a famous violinist and recording artist, came to visit Wicks and gave her a better violin than her teaching one. She taught at several universities, including Louisiana State University, the University of Michigan, the California State College at Fullerton, the San Francisco Conservatory, the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts, the University of Washington, the University of Southern California, and Rice University. Wicks performed in orchestras and chamber music during her revived musical career. She was still performing as late as 2000 at the age of 72.
Scandinavia never forgot Wicks, and in 1974 she became the head of the String Department at the Oslo Royal Academy, which granted her a lifetime professorship. In 1999, the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit knighted her. However, Wicks did not stay in Oslo full-time but continued to teach at other universities until she retired in 2005. Some of her recordings have been republished over the years so new generations can appreciate her talent.
In several interviews, Wicks says she does not regret leaving music for a while and even selling her Stradivarius. The balance between career and family, particular with small children, is very difficult. She found what worked for her in the 1950s and 60s but noted in a 2004 interview that times had changed, though not completely, for classical performers and mothers today. Wicks shows us that it is possible to be a great musician and a good mother.