by Lou Mancinelli
In the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when women were demeaned as performers in the world of orchestras, Elaine Shaffer was one of the most prominent flutists in the world.
“I can’t hire you because you are a woman,” she was once told by world-renowned conductor of opera and orchestral music, Fritz Reiner, after an audition.
“Angel in Black: A Musical Life In Letters, 1925-1973” (2011, Trafford Publishing) is a new book by former 16-year Chestnut Hill resident, Beverly Shaffer Gast, the sister of Elaine Shaffer, who was raised in central Pennsylvania.
The book follows Shaffer’s life as a student on scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in the 1940s, where she studied under William Kincaid, principle flutist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Through the presentation of letters and Gast’s own commentary, the book travels with Shaffer through Russia, Israel, South Africa, Europe, Japan, etc. The letters reveal the isolation and struggle Shaffer faced as a young women breaking into an art form dominated by males. The tales include names of friends and those she performed with, some of the most respected classical musicians and conductors of the 20th century, like Yehudi Menuhin, Nicora Zabaleta and Aaron Copland.
“I felt like going and jumping off a bridge,” Shaffer once wrote to her mother. Shaffer suffered from a sexist climate where conductors acknowledged that she was the best they had ever heard, but confessed the fact that she was a woman kept them from bestowing upon her the honor of first chair, designated for the best player of each instrument, the pedigree that her playing warranted.
Gast wrote the outline for the book six years ago after friends and others tried to persuade her for years that her sister’s life would make a compelling and heart-rending story. Gast owned several hundred letters and other material from her sister’s life and career. She stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Frisco, Colorado, about an hour away from her son’s home, to work on the outline.
“I needed time to go away and consider this project,” said Gast.
Around that same time an unexpected comment made by a fellow member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill generated another convincing reason for Gast to write the book. She was having a conversation with Olive Young when Young remarked that she had once, in Saanen, Switzerland, heard a flutist who played “as if it was coming from heaven.”
More conversation revealed that it was Gast’s sister whom the woman was speaking about. As Young aged into her 90s, she continued to urge Gast to write the book. Gast finished the book last September. She published it through Trafford Publishing, an online independent self-publishing press.
After earning her first job with the Kansas City Philharmonic in the late 1940s, and a summer with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, who then also conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, Shaffer performed as the principal flutist with the Houston Symphony from 1948 to 1953. Two years later she married Efrem Kurtz, the symphony’s director, who also directed Shaffer in Kansas City.
Next, Shaffer decided to offer her sound to the world as a concert flutist. She debuted in London in 1953. The press did not know what to make of her. It reported what she wore and commented on her physical beauty. According to Gast, one reviewer wrote “I heard a princess of angels play the flute. Her dress was black and had a swath of white down the side.”
The Associated Press ran the headline “Angel in Black.” Her career was launched. Two decades later, tragedy struck and the woman who was friends with Herman Hesse, the woman who relaxed at Marc Chagall’s beach cabana in the French Riveria, where her flute playing is rumored to have brought the painter to tears, was robbed of life.
“I wanted to write it because I knew it was an amazing story,” said Gast. “Every time I would relate bits and pieces of it, people told me they had a sense that this had to be told. There was so much substance to it.”
Gast, 84, moved to Philadelphia in 1954 with her husband, a Presbyterian minister (she is no longer married), after teaching elementary school in Scotland. Before that, she earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1949. She has lived in numerous locales around the Philadelphia suburban area, including Chestnut Hill from 1984 through 2000.
In the late 70s, Gast started The Schoolhouse in Flourtown. She began the nursery school with five students, and within seven years the school had expanded to a size where its enrollment included a waiting list of applicants. She had earned a master’s degree in early childhood education from Arcadia (then Beaver College) University. The model of her school was based on a paper she wrote during her master’s studies, which she says she undertook for therapeutic reasons, about the need for a school where teachers knew they were dealing with students whose mothers were often not home and therefore needed a specific type of care. She later was appointed executive director at the Jenkintown Day Nursery School, where she remained for nine years before retiring.
These days, Gast, a mother of three and grandmother of seven, lives at The Hill at Whitemarsh, a retirement community. While she did not ever play musical instruments, her sister always urged her to learn so the two could play music together.
“Angel in Black: A Musical Life In Letters, 1925-1973,” is available online through Amazon and other outlets. Gast will host a presentation that will feature some of Elaine Shaffer’s recordings as well as readings from the book, on Sunday, March 11, 5 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave. For more information, call St. Paul’s at 215-242-2055.