2011. április 16., szombat

Interview with Barbara von Wurtzler Polish-American Harpist

Barbara von Wurtzler is one of the best known harpists in the world. She is the widow of Aristid von Wurtzler. She played several times in the White House; for Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. She even had an invitation to the Vatican to play for the Pope. She had been teaching music at some famous universities; and also she was a founding member of the New York Harp Ensemble, together with her husband.

Barbara von Würtzler harpist,
member of the
New York Harp Ensemble
Harp and Harpist: How did you become a harpist?

Barbara: I started piano when I was six and hated it. But eventually I went to music high school and ended up next to the harp room. I switched to harp and nobody could take me away from it. Later on I graduated from the Warsaw Academy of Music, cum laude.

Harp and Harpist: Where were you born and raised? Were your parents harpists or other musicians?

Barbara: I was born and raised in Poland; my father was a violist, one of the best in Poland in his time. He played with the Warsaw Philharmonic, the Warsaw Opera, and the Polish Radio Orchestra and had a string quarter (Polish Radio Quartet). All at the same time. He was hardly seen at the rehearsals, but it did not matter because he could read the music how we read newspapers. He was also a mathematician, chemist and scientist and was helping me at school with all subjects imaginable. He died at 58 for perforation of duodenum. He had an ulcer because he had not time to eat.

Harp and Harpist: Why did you leave Poland? Was it easy for you?

Barbara: My Father died in April and practically the day he died I was asked by the Polish Ministry of Culture to participate at the Harp Contest in Geneva. I had only a few months to practice so my chances of winning were very slim, particularly that harpists from communist countries were not allowed to take their harps with them, so there was no chance to practice in Geneva. However, I was probably good enough to get an invitation to study at the Hartt College of Music at the University of Hartford, from Prof. Aristid von Wurtzler. I graduated from Hartford (again cum laude) and became an assistant teacher.

Harp and Harpist: Who were your disciples? Do you keep in touch with any of them?

Barbara: We had many students at the Hartford University, about 28. Then we were teaching at the Bridgeport University, the Hofstra University and Aristid was also teaching at the New York University and Queens College of Music. Some of my students became professional harpists, but we do not keep in touch too much. No time. Some of Aristid students became members of the New York Harp Ensemble (NYHE). All our teaching came to an end when we started traveling too extensively all over the world and the States. You cannot teach when you are not at home two or three months at the time.

Harp and Harpist: Who is your favorite composer? Why him/her?

Barbara: I have too many favorite composers to list here.

Harp and Harpist: What performances have you done that you remember the most fondly?

Barbara: Same answer as above. We performed in 56 countries and in many of them repeatedly, and in some of them in just in too many cities to remember. I must dig in calendars which Aristid kept someplace. In the States we only did not play in Alaska. And in Canada, from Vancouver to Montreal, traveling by car of course, in winter! When I mentioned Canada, it was Winnipeg, first stop - nonstop, and then all over to Vancouver with stops for concerts, I have to check where, then to Monterey, California - all the way down, and then back to Canada until Montreal.

Harp and Harpist: Have you ever had an audience that you found unpleasant?

Barbara: Yes, once. We played in some place in Colombia, outdoors, with no protection for the harps, the air was damp as if it was raining and we sounded, as somebody in the audience put it, as Wanda Landowska* under the water. We had a good laugh at it, because our sound was always or almost always very powerful. (Or Aristid would kill us...)

With His Holiness John Paul II at the Vatican

Harp and Harpist: Did Aristid protect you from the daily worries?

Barbara: Aristid hardly ever protected me from any worries. He caused them. From the day we got married till the day he died...

I forgot to mention that when Aristid arranged the harp competition in Hartford, we had contestants from 22 countries. Unfortunately, I could not be one of them, because I was too preoccupied with helping to arrange everything, acted as secretary and did whatever I could to be of help. What a job it was! Then, before the contest, Aristid had harp Master Classes with all honorable harpists from everywhere and lots of participants, and then, I am not bragging, I helped a lot. Probably that is why I became the MRS. Later on, when he created the harp ensemble, he was composing during the day and I was copying the parts at night.

Harp and Harpist: How often did you have to replace your musical instruments? What is your favorite brand of harp?

Barbara: We had to replace our harps approx every 10 years. We traveled too much and they were used too much. We only used Lyon & Healy Concert Grand harps. At first, when you had to wait for the harps we had to take whatever was sent to us, but later on we would go to Chicago and I would choose what I wanted. Sometimes it took a day until I made my decision, because I am picky. Aristid always trusted my ear to decide (that is why I was always responsible for tuning all four harps). Probably I was considered a great nuisance at the factory. I have now three Lyon & Healy. Aristid's harp was left in Budapest after he died.

Harp and Harpist: Which of your recordings are you most proud of?

Barbara: We did 26 long plays (LPs) and 6 compact discs (CDs), or more. Naturally I like the best where I am a soloist in Vivaldi concerto. (ha ha!) Even better the Vivaldi I have on an LP, but who can play them now? Actually, to be serious, the best is probably when each of the four harpists had a solo to play, that got us more ambitious and happy.

Harp and Harpist: How did you meet Pope John Paul II? And what did you talk about?

Barbara: We had an invitation to play for the Pope. We went to Rome right after our tour in Egypt and played in front of the Cathedral for the audience of about 10.000 people. After the concert the Pope came to us to offer His blessing and congratulations and was shocked to find out that two of the harpists were Polish (we greeted Him in Polish).

Performing for President George H. Bush and his wife
at the White House

Harp and Harpist: Do you associate with Polish harpists? Are you affiliated with any professional organizations?

Barbara: I have a few harpist friends in Poland, but I do not keep in touch with them that often. I used to belong to the Musicians’ Union, but no more, because they only charge membership fee and do not bring any jobs.

Harp and Harpist: Is there a goal you have not yet achieved in your life?

Barbara: I am much too sick to have many goals in my life. Just get better, live through 20 inches of snow until spring or as long as possible.

Harp and Harpist:
How do you spend your days now?

Barbara: My previous answer is probably enough. However, I always manage to keep myself busier than I should. Aristid always said that I must have a propeller build in my body.

Harp and Harpist: The harp is such an expensive instrument and the Central and Eastern European countries are poor. Does someone like you have a chance of achieving success here today?

Barbara: Talking about achieving success nowadays I do not understand if you mean US or Europe. I know that there are tons of fabulous harpists both here and in Europe. How successful they are: it probably depends on their luck, stamina, will power, diligence and sometimes a good sponsor. Also you have to be inventive. I have a friend in Poland who used to be our member. She went back to Poland for personal reasons. One of them was her problem with Aristid. At first she struggled, but now she is a professor of harp, has Master classes, and gives concerts all over Poland.

Harp and Harpist:
Thank you for the interview.

(Georgina Ammann)

* Wanda Landowska (Warsaw, July 5, 1879 – Lakeville, August 16, 1959) was a Polish born world-famous harpsichordist, whose performances, teaching, recordings and writings played a large role in reviving the popularity of the harpsichord in the early 20th century.