Hattie Bennett: Leading the way for women in music

Musician and founder of Music in Felixstowe, Hattie Bennett. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Musician and founder of Music in Felixstowe, Hattie Bennett - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

For Suffolk musician Hattie Bennett making music has always been about forging connections with the local community and introducing audiences to a wide variety of work from different ages and genres. 

The Felixstowe-based cellist believes there is no such thing as ‘new music’ or ‘old fashioned music’. There is only good music and not so good music – and you can find both types in every era and every genre. 

Speaking directly to audiences remains at the heart of everything she does. She is currently preparing for a day of free concerts on Bank Holiday Monday, August 29, as part of Felixstowe’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations 

The concert staged by the professional Festival Orchestra, which has been put together by Hattie for the occasion, will take place in the Spa Gardens on Felixstowe seafront. The 2pm performance marks the 10th anniversary of the Felixstowe Community Choir while the 7pm show revisits some of the most loved and distinctive movie and TV music from the past 70 years.  

Hattie Bennett

Hattie Bennett - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The performance is an extension of the work that Hattie does for Music in Felixstowe – staging performances by professional musicians in and around Felixstowe. For this work Hattie was awarded the BEM in 2016. 

Hattie was born in Manchester into a musical family. Her mother and father, Susan Watmough and Paul Ward, were musicians and played in the Halle Orchestra and her brother Nick Ward followed in their footsteps playing violin and becoming leader of The City of London Sinfonia. 

The family’s musical genes go back several generations – her grandfather was an organist and her grandmother an actress. 

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“My mum and dad both played in the Halle Orchestra before going freelance. When I was in my teens my dad inherited some money and they decided to set up their own orchestra. My mum ran the orchestra, sorted out the admin, publicity and kept the mailing list up-to-date, which is, of course, what I am now doing. Talk about following in your mum’s footsteps.” 

Hattie tells the story of her mum’s life as a professional musician, along with dozens of other professional women players, in a new book ‘Musical Journeys. Extraordinary Women in conversation with Hattie Bennett’. 

She says the trigger for the book was the death of her father and the effect it had on her mother. “After my dad died, my mum found all these diaries that contained all these meticulous lists of everything he had ever done. She started to write it all up and I thought that she should tell her own story and what she had done. So, I started talking to her about her life and as I talked to her, the stories started flooding out of her. I thought that these women, of a certain age, were just so interesting. 

Hattie Bennett

Hattie Bennett - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“The funny thing was that my mum was a very strong, capable women. She held her own as a professional musician in a very male dominated world – women weren’t supposed to play in professional orchestras – but when confronted with my tape recorder she got very nervous and unsure of herself. She kept popping up and walking around while she was talking. She was quite agitated which I had never seen before. She really didn’t like talking about herself and would have much preferred talking about my dad. 

“But, I was determined to get her to talk about herself because not only was she a rare female performer in a leading orchestra but she was also a mother looking after some very young children and keeping a home together.” 

Hattie said that the conversation proved revealing and she discovered things that she didn’t know about her mother. She was a professional double bass player but had originally started her training as a pianist. 

“She went to London during the war to do her training but because all the men had been called up, there were lots of double bass gigs going. She had played double bass in her school orchestra and was very good at it, so she found herself becoming a double bass player rather than a pianist.” 

Hattie’s mother Susan played a lot with the BBC Concert Orchestra which was fine when they were doing a broadcast from a radio studio because she couldn’t be seen, the same was true when they played at the Royal Opera House or Sadler’s Wells because they were under the stage out of sight but they wouldn’t let her on the concert platform because in those days you weren’t supposed to have women in orchestras.” 

As a result of the wonderful work that female musicians had done during the war years, the ‘male only’ attitude was swiftly relaxed as the 40s became the 1950s. 

Having captured her mother’s memories of her working life, Hattie then started tracking other professional female musicians from her mother’s era to capture their experiences for what has become a much-valued book. 

Hattie Bennett

Hattie Bennett - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

But, as Hattie discovered when she followed her parents into the world of professional music-making, there were still plenty of hurdles for female musicians to leap over that their male colleagues didn’t have to contend with. 

“I married my husband Bob when I was still in college and upon graduating we decided to apply to join the Halle Orchestra because of the link with my parents but I was told that they didn’t accept married women. They were happy to have Bob but not me. They never explained why but I can guess. I suspect it may have been the possibility of pregnancy thing.” 

Nevertheless, Hattie found plenty of work playing in West End, playing (out of sight) in pit orchestras helping to provide the power and lush backing to some of the world’s greatest musicals. “It was quite a blow at the time to be rejected so out-of-hand but looking back now it was a blessing in disguise because I have had such a varied career which I wouldn’t have had, had I been accepted into the Hallee. 

“I have friends who have been playing in orchestras for the last 40 years and they lead such a limited existence.” 

In the early 1970s, she and Bob moved to Suffolk, and started teaching as well as finding a creative outlet at the original Wolsey Theatre under Dick Tuckey, and also working in theatre-in-education. 

Hattie Bennett

Hattie Bennett - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“I got so much work through the Wolsey. I really enjoyed playing there and the music was great. I felt professionally I could hold my head up. I felt validated.” 

Creating connections with audiences is something which remains an important part of Hattie’s professional outlook on the world. She is passionate about bringing music to the people and performing on their doorstep. 

Hattie founded Music in Felixstowe 15 years ago with the express purpose of providing work for local professional musicians and giving audiences of all ages an opportunity to hear a wide variety of music that perhaps may not have encountered before. 

“I want to put on a wide range of music, that’s why we have everything from well-known classical works to more obscure pieces and jazz events. I hope our audiences continue to grow and also continue to trust us, so they will come for the well-known concerts and will trust us and come to something that perhaps they won’t be too familiar with. 

“They will know that they will be treated to music of a high quality, that they will be comfortable, they will see people they know and it’s being performed on their doorstep.” 

The Music in Felixstowe programme embraces everything from Handel and Mozart to Benjamin Britten, British folk music and the world of the music hall. 

The concerts started in a modest way at Felixstowe Ferry before spreading out across Felixstowe taking in venues like The Orwell Hotel, St Andrew’s Church, pubs like The Half Moon in Walton and schools.  

For Hattie the programming of the concerts walks a very fine line. “I insist on paying the musicians proper money because they are professionals and they are performing music that audiences would normally hear at the big city concert halls, so they deserve to receive proper payment for their work but at the same time I want to keep the ticket prices low so they are within everyone’s reach.  

“It’s quite a balancing act. It’s important that we are giving professional musicians in the area proper paid work but at the same time offering local audiences access to some of the best music ever written. 

“I remember the vicar of St Andrew’s, John Aston, stood up at the end of one Good Friday concert and quite spontaneously said ‘you would pay very good money to go to London to hear music of this excellence’, which was a wonderful validation and quite unexpected.” 

As far as programming is concerned, Hattie always takes a notebook with her when she travels and jots down names of pieces she encounters that strike a chord with her. “When I think ‘Oh, this would go down well with our audience’, it gets put in my book.” 

Receiving the BEM in the 2016 honours list, was a huge surprise and a great honour – something Hattie still can’t quite get her head around as in her eyes she is just trying to share some lovely some ‘gorgeous music performed by some wonderfully talented local musicians.’ 

“There is such a wealth of talent in Suffolk, that I can’t understand why the county is so often overlooked. These wonderful musicians play all over the country – all over the world – and yet are largely unknown in their home county.” 

However, Hattie was most flattered by the fact that her work with school children had been recognised. “Music is such an important part of my life and the life of the community, and I was very pleased that it was the work I had done in Felixstowe with young kids, working in schools, was noted on the citation. 

Hattie's book, Musical Journeys. Extraordinary Women in conversation with Hattie Bennett

Hattie's book, Musical Journeys. Extraordinary Women in conversation with Hattie Bennett - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“I am very committed in keeping young people interested in a wide range of music. You hear pop music everywhere and a lot of it is very good but there are so many different forms of music that are equally as good. My daughter Emily and I have set up a string group because there is no longer any string teaching in our part of the world and music is such a wonderful gift. You can take it through life and it stays with you forever.” 

For more details and booking information for Music in Felixstowe events, including the free Jubilee concert on August Bank Holiday Monday, visit the Music in Felixstowe website, or the company’s Facebook page.

Copies of Hattie’s book 'Musical Journeys. Extraordinary Women in conversation with Hattie Bennett' are available by contacting Hattie through the Music in Felixstowe website.