The Horn-Playing Family of Toronto
Mary Robb Barrow
Reginald Herbert Barrow
Benjamin Herbert Barrow

Mary Dallas Robb (1918 - 2017) was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on September 28, 1918 to Frank Steven Robb (ca.1888-1971) and Jeannie Robb. Frank was a blacksmith in Edinburgh and served as a sergeant in the army engineering corps during World War I. Emigrating with his family to Canada in 1920, he continued working as a blacksmith and was Toronto city assessor retiring in 1952.

It was an oboe player who wished to form a quintet of girls but lacked a horn player who induced Mary to study the horn. "It was mighty hard for I was teaching school at the time, and the French horn takes a good deal of constant practice to master. I don't know just how long it took me to learn to play, but it was a long time." She studied the horn with Herbert and Reginald Barrow and attended Oakwood Collegiate Institute. In 1935, at the age of seventeen, she was selected to be a member of the Symphony Orchestra of Ontario Secondary School Students, to perform at the Ontario Educational Association convention, April 24. On that occasion she also played "Evening Star" from Tannhauser as a solo "with delightful legato and excellent tone". (See photo top right, Mary in 1935 with her Horner model Kruspe.)

On February 3, 1936, Mary played a Mozart concerto on the first concert of 1936 by the Toronto Conservatory (now Royal Conservatory) Orchestra. Reviewer Augustus Bridle had this to say about her performance"
Most interesting of all was the Mozart Horn Concerto by Mary Robb, who with a lovely silver-plated lady-size French horn was a real painting, even without the music. So refreshing to see a lady artist with long sleeves again, after so many bare-armed pianists and violinists. To blow a French horn standing is also an art in poising the horn - after the manner of a South Sea Islander blowing a seashell. Miss Robb played for purity of tone and exact scale-intonation. Her legato Romanza was exceptionally good and both Allegros, one with a very delicate trill, were deftly done without any over-dramatic foozling such as French horn players sometimes display in orchestras.
The following year she was a soloist with the Harmony Symphony Orchestra on the "most brilliantly varigated program ever played by a Canadian amateur orchestra", once again with a Mozart horn concerto.

Turning professional in 1938, she became the principal horn for the Promenade Symphony Concerts, as well as being hired for the orchestra of Armand Bagarozy's Columbia Opera Company for its run of eight concerts in Toronto. Despite severe financial difficulties both the Toronto Symphony and Promenade Orchestra, the latter was contracted for twenty-four summer concerts broadcast on both the CBS and NBC radio networks in the U.S. and CBC in Canada. The most important event of 1938 for Mary was her marriage to Reginald Barrow. Her engagement was announced on August 26, less than a month before the wedding ceremony on September 19, 1938. At their wedding, TSO conductor, Ernest MacMillan, was the organist, and as a surprize, played his own improvized medley of orchestral horn solos, from Strauss to Mozart to Brahms.

The Toronto Daily Star, September 20, 1938
The following year, Mary joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as principal horn, replacing her husband, Reg, who moved to second horn. She remained with the TSO until 1951, holding the principal chair until 1945. At the start of the 1939 season she and Reg were featured in a Toronto Daily Star article as the first known couple working together in a professional symphony orchestra. In Mary's second season in the T.S.O., visiting conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was "completely amazed at the facile virtuosity of Mary Robb-Barrow on the French horn".

In 1945, Mary performed the North American premier of Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings by Benjamin Britten. On September 30, 1946 the she and Reg were interviewed by popular CBC radio host Elwood Glover on opening day of "Symphony Week" at Simpson's department store. After leaving the Toronto Symphony, Mary and Reg joined the new CBC Symphony Orchestra (Toronto, 1952 to 1964), directed by Geoffrey Waddington. The orchestra was known for its sight-reading ability and also established a reputation for its performances of contemporary works, including numerous CBC commissions of Canadian composers.

Mary Robb, The Toronto Daily Star, March 25, 1935, with her Kruspe

The Toronto Daily Star, September 2, 1938

Above, Mary in October, 1950. The horn she is holding is a Lehmann-Chemnitzer patent compensating model, probably by Josef Lidl, Brno. The caption is:
"An early and colorful event of the fall social season was the opening concert in Massey Hall last night of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. [The] charming French horn player is Mary Barrow."
The Toronto Daily Star, October 25, 1950

Toronto Symphony Orchestra horn section 1951-52. Left to right: Reg Barrow, Leonard Hale, Sir Ernest MacMillan (conductor), Clifford Spearing, Ken Godwin and (seated) Mary Barrow

Reginald Herbert Barrow (1907 - 1973 ) was born born in London on April 12, 1907, a son of Benjamin Herbert and Maude Barrow. He studied horn with his father in Toronto, and in England with Aubrey Brain. In 1922 at the age of fifteen he joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, playing with his father, whom he succeeded as principal horn in 1932. He continued with the TSO until 1958. In February, 1932 he was a founding member of the Toronto Chamber Music Society, directed by Albert D. Jordan. On August 16, 1938 he was selected to perform in a radio broadcast for the benefit of the Toronto Daily Star Fresh Air Fund. Geoffrey Waddington was the musical director.

In 1938 Mr. Barrow married Mary Robb, a former student of his who would soon become a colleague in the Toronto Symphony section. In fact soon after she joined the section he moved to second horn and Mary became the new principal.

From 1944 to 1972 Mr. Barrow taught at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music). In 1949 he was a founding member of the Canadian Brass Sextet, with Ellis McLintock and Morris Isen trumpets, Harry Stevenson, trombone, Alfred Wood, euphonium, and Floyd Henderson, tuba. On August 24, 1951 the were featured performers at the Canadian National Exhibition. In addition to private instruction, Mr. Barrow joined the East York Board of Education in 1960 to give lessons in public schools. A couple of years before his death he donated his collection of unusual French horns and complete musical arrangements to the faculty of the University of Toronto.

Reginald Barrow died in Toronto, on December 10, 1973, and was survived by his wife, Mary.

The Toronto Daily Star, January 6, 1940

The Toronto Daily Star, December 12, 1973

Press release by Robert A. Rosevear
Courtesy of the University of Toronto Library
The Toronto Daily Star, September 8, 1951

Benjamin Herbert Barrow (1875 - 1955) was born September 22, 1875 in Clerkenwell, Middlesex, England, (now London borough of Islington) to Benjamin and Cecilia Barrow and baptized at Clerkenwell St. Phillip Parish on the following October 31. His father was a professor of music, composer and arranger with many titles to his credit.

Benjamin Herbert (or simply Herbert, as he was later known) studied horn and viola at the Guildhall School of Music, London, from 1895 to 1898, winning the prize for viola in 1898. His horn teacher at Guildhall was probably Henri-Louis Van der Meerschen. In 1901 he joined His Majestys Band of the Scots Guards performing as principal horn from 1901 to 1913. In the summer of 1912 the Scots Guards toured Canada for three weeks. Aparently finding it to his liking, Mr. Barrow emigrated to Canada the following year, arriving with his wife, Maud, and their young son, Reginald, on June 24, 1913. His destination was Toronto to play viola in the Royal Alexandra Theatre. He also served as bandmaster of The Queens Own Rifles, from 1914 to 1918, and played horn (with George Stimm) in Frank Welsman's Toronto Symphony Orchestra, until its demise in 1918. In 1922 he was assistant conductor to Herbert L. Clarke of the Anglo-Canadian Leather Company Band in Huntsville, Ontario. Later he joined the re-formed Toronto Symphony Orchestra where he served as principal horn from 1927 to 1932. In addition he owned and operated Barrow Music Supplies in Toronto, and among his horn students were his son, Reginald, and Mary Robb (see below).

Benjamin Herbert Barrow died in Toronto on December 31, 1955, at the age of eighty.

Radio station CFCA schedule, The Toronto Daily Star, February 12, 1927


Special thanks to John Humphries and Tony Catterick for their valuable contributions to this page. Thanks also to Mr. John Dunn, Archivist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.


Encyclopedia of Music in Canada

Census of England, 1881

Census of England, 1891

Census of England, 1901

Schabas, Ezra, Sir Ernest MacMillan: the importance of being Canadian, University of Toronto Press, 1994

Archives of the The Toronto Daily Star

Bridle, Augustus, "Conservatory Band Presents Concertos", The Toronto Daily Star, February 4, 1936, p. 5

"Seventy-Four Play in Amateur Program", The Toronto Daily Star, April 10, 1937, p. 18

"Husband and Wife Play in Symphony Orchestra", The Toronto Daily Star, October 28, 1939 , p. 23

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