Barbara Holmquest (1921–2010)

July 30, 2010



It is good to keep in mind that not all significant — even great — figures in the musical art become household words. This notice has arrived today on the e-mail list of the American Musicological Society:

BARBARA HOLMQUEST, PIANIST
DIES AT 88

BEGAN MUSIC THERAPY FOR WWII SOLDIERS AND FORGED LINKS WITH MAJOR 20th-CENTURY COMPOSERS

Barbara Holmquest, a pianist who was born and trained in America and exemplified the highest ideals of music-making from her training with the legendary Carl Friedberg, friend and pupil of Brahms and Clara Schumann, died on July 24 in Winthrop University Hospital, Mineola, NY. She had fallen ten days earlier at her home in Amityville, Long Island.

Holmquest, whose repertory and interests were often decades before others, initiated or co-initiated several areas of endeavor that blossomed into valued and substantial studies over the last fifty years in the worldwide music scene.

Born in Brooklyn in 1921, Barbara Holmquest at the age of seven entered the Institute of Musical Art in New York City (which later became the Juilliard School) and soon distinguished herself. When the Institute’s director Frank Damrosch, challenged the students to compose a song for which he would give a prize, Barbara submitted thirty songs and naturally captured the award. Her success there continued and, upon graduation from the Juilliard Graduate School, she was given the Morris Loeb Memorial Prize for the most outstanding and gifted student in the School. Later she taught at the Juilliard Summer School as well as holding appointments at the University of Michigan, University of Surrey (UK), Montclair State University (NJ) and Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Maine.

Her career being interrupted during the Second World War, Holmquest joined Frances Paperte to administer musical therapy, a then-undeveloped concept to aid shell-shocked and wounded soldiers at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. Today the field of Music Therapy is a formal discipline studied and practiced throughout the world. She also gave many USO and Victory concerts during the war years.

Barbara Holmquest sought out living composers, particularly American but also European, and played many of their works in premieres or regional first performances. She performed the Seventh Sonata of Prokofieff two weeks after it was available in the United States in 1944. With Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata (1950), she accomplished an even more arresting feat: a couple weeks before the formal premiere by Vladimir Horowitz, for whom it was written, Holmquest obtained the brand new score, learned it in a week and gave its first performance on the University of Michigan Radio Station, WUOM. At WUOM, over the twenty years she lived in Ann Arbor, she logged nearly 400 hours of performances and commentary covering the entire range of keyboard literature.

She played other works of Barber and was in touch with the composer when he shared with her that he found it impossible to complete his new Piano Concerto, which was scheduled for its first performance with John Browning and the New York Philharmonic. Having a case of writer’s block, the composer desperately needed to find a suitable haven to isolate himself and work. Holmquest introduced Barber to the eminent Swedish composer Dag Wiren whose Piano Concerto she had recently given the first performance of in Detroit. Wiren had a beautiful island retreat in Sweden and offered it to Barber, where he happily and successfully finished his Concerto.

Barbara Holmquest’s lifelong fascination with pianos led to her performance at New York’s Town Hall on a new type of instrument which could be “tuned” to a hall’s acoustics. The piano, created by Georg Bolin of Stockholm, had a striking Scandinavian modern design and was featured at the New York 1964 World’s Fair. While the piano was in New York, jazz great Bill Evans was performing on it at the Village Vangard until Holmquest’s October recital. When the day came to move it to Town Hall, Evans refused to let it go, so Holmquest and her agent had to get a Court Order to get possession of the now cigarette-burned instrument for her evening performance. The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune responded to the new piano most positively but noted that “No one should think that because of the new piano, attention was drawn from Miss Holmquest. On the contrary, she is so intelligent and accomplished a player that her recital was a pleasure throughout.”

Holmquest began broadcasting performances on her 1817 Broadwood Grand Piano from her studio in Ann Arbor through the University in the early 1960s, after which Paul Badura-Skoda urged her to join him in his efforts to record on the Colt Clavier Collection in Kent, England. Her recordings for Oryx on authentic period pianos were among the first and paved the way for the now thriving field of period instrument performance. Her performances of Beethoven’s Opus 109 and 110 Sonatas were commissioned for the Beethoven Bi-centennial celebrations in Tokyo and were highly praised.

Barbara Holmquest is survived by her son, Thomas A. Gotz of Amityville, and son David M. Gotz, his wife Vickie and their children Alex and Catherine of Tiburon, California. She was predeceased by her son Alexander Holmquest Gotz in 1973. Her marriage to Dr. Alexander Gotz of Ann Arbor, Michigan ended in divorce in 1967.

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