Garbousova, Raya (1909–1997)

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Garbousova, Raya (1909–1997)

Georgian-born American cellist, renowned for the lyrical quality of her playing, who inspired major composers including Samuel Barber to write works for her. Born in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia, on September 25, 1909 (some sources cite October 10, 1905 or 1907); died in De Kalb, Illinois, on January 28, 1997; married Kurt Biss; children: Gregory, Paul.

One of the great cellists of the 20th century, Raya Garbousova was born in 1909 in Tiflis, Georgia, then a part of the Russian Empire. Her father, who was the principal trumpeter in the local symphony orchestra, was also a professor at the Tiflis Conservatory. By age four, Raya was a musical prodigy on the piano, until she heard a family friend, double bass player Serge Koussevitzky, perform. She then longed to study a stringed instrument like the cello. Initially her father resisted her pleas, noting that women simply did not play the cello. A determined Raya deliberately stalled further progress in her piano technique until her father changed his mind. In time, he relented, and on her sixth birthday she became the proud owner of a child-sized cello.

After a brief period of lessons at the Tiflis Conservatory, Garbousova made her local debut, with critics praising her for being much more than the typical "drilled prodigy." Although she spent countless hours practicing, she had many other intellectual interests both in her youth and throughout her life. As a child, her enthusiasm for great literature was encouraged by a tailor who lived in the same house, while a shoemaker who lived in the basement kindled a love of philosophy. Her view of life would remain all-encompassing, based on wide reading and eager traveling. At the time of her 80th-birthday celebrations, she would assert: "To this day I actually need the other arts. I object to any notion of the artist being isolated in his own discipline; we have to be citizens of the world of arts and thought."

The years in which Garbousova mastered the cello were difficult for her family and Russia (to be called the Soviet Union after December 1922). Civil war and chaos marked public life, and in her own home music was plentiful but food was often scarce. In 1924, Garbousova gave a triumphant Moscow debut. Critics compared her talent with another brilliant young virtuoso of the day, Emanuel Feuermann, suggesting that Garbousova had already left Feuermann behind in the emotional depths she could draw from her instrument. Despite war, revolution, and social upheaval, Muscovites had retained their enthusiasm for great music and the gifted young woman was acclaimed for her solo performances and invited to participate in chamber music recitals with other young stars like the violinist Nathan Milstein and the pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Deciding that she had exhausted her learning opportunities in Soviet Russia, Garbousova decided in 1925 to continue her studies in Western Europe, where she perfected her technique with teachers Diran Alexanian, Hugo Becker, Julius Klengel, and Felix Salmond.

After her Berlin debut in 1926, Garbousova rapidly became an international musical personality. In Berlin, she met Albert Einstein, an amateur violinist whose passion for performing chamber music sometimes exceeded his technical skills. Garbousova, who played chamber works with Einstein, later recalled not only the great physicist's profound love for music but also the fact that his fiddling was always a little bit out of tune and that he produced a "very odd" vibrato. Einstein became one of her most enthusiastic fans; when he faithfully attended her concerts in Berlin, he would always place a box of chocolates on the stage instead of the customary flowers.

In October 1926, Garbousova made a highly successful London debut. The Times critic praised her playing for its "pure and copious" tone, and for phrasing that revealed "a natural musical instinct." He predicted a great future for her, because it was clear that she would soon

mature into "a complete artist of unusual power." After an equally triumphant debut in Paris in 1927, Garbousova met Pablo Casals, who admired her abilities and allowed her to become one of his students. Casals, who in later years spoke of Garbousova as "the best cellist I have ever heard," invited her to perform as a soloist with his own orchestra in Barcelona.

Although she performed in Boston and Detroit in the late 1920s and made her New York debut recital in 1934, she made her home in Paris during this period. In December 1934, Garbousova's New York debut turned her into a major artist overnight. Olin Downes, the influential music critic of The New York Times, wrote a long and enthusiastic review in which he stated that in "a very few minutes she proved her exceptional talent, sensibility and knowledge of her business." Commending her for her rare ability to end a musical phrase as effectively as she had begun it, Downes described the young cellist as "a figure to reckon with in the concert world."

Garbousova settled in the United States in 1939 as the clouds of war hung over Europe, becoming a citizen in 1946. A stunning woman with the charisma of a movie star, she was respected by colleagues and friends for her kind, gentle and considerate nature. She also had a delightful sense of humor. On one occasion, she bet five dollars that she would be able to kiss the renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was sitting at the next table. Rather than being offended, Toscanini was delighted to be kissed by the beautiful young musician and offered her his other cheek as well. Encouraged by his enthusiasm, she kissed him on both cheeks, excusing herself by noting she could now collect not five but ten dollars on her bet.

Impressed by the passionate lyricism of her playing, several of the leading composers of her era composed major works for her. Perhaps the best-known was the Cello Concerto by Samuel Barber, a neo-Romantic work which was given its world premiere by Garbousova in Boston on April 5, 1946. Her recording of the Barber work remains the touchstone for all other performances of this modern classic. Other contemporary composers who composed for her included Karol Rathaus, Vittorio Rieti, and Gunther Schuller. Schuller composed a cello Fantasy for her in 1951, and then in 1990 composed a work in her honor entitled "Hommage a Rayechka." She gave many U.S. as well as world-premiere performances, among which were the cello sonata of Sergei Prokofiev (which she also recorded) and the third sonata for that instrument by Bohuslav Martinu. Soon after settling in the United States, Garbousova became interested in compositions by contemporary American composers including not only Samuel Barber, but Randall Thompson (she recorded Thompson's cello sonata in the early 1950s).

An inspirational teacher, Garbousova taught cello at the Hartt College at the University of Hartford from 1970 through 1979, and then at Northern Illinois University from 1979 until 1991. To her friends and students, she seemed to be virtually immortal. Appearing to be at least two decades younger than her actual age, and continuing to draw upon apparently unlimited reserves of energy, she enthusiastically taught master classes until the end of her life. Raya Garbousova died in De Kalb, Illinois, on January 28, 1997, leaving a void in the lives of family and friends. "The sadness can only be mitigated by gratitude for having had the chance to know this glorious woman," writes Steven Isserlis.


Campbell, Margaret. The Great Cellists. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1989.

——. "Raya Garbousova," in The Independent [London]. February 1, 1997, p. 18.

——. "Raya Garbousova," in The Strad. Vol. 100, no. 1193. September 1989, pp. 762–765 and 768.

"Concerts: Miss Raya Garbousova," in The Times [London]. October 23, 1926, p. 10.

Downes, Olin. "Raya Garbousova, 'Cellist, in Debut,'" in The New York Times. December 4, 1934, p. 22.

Inglis, Anne, and Steven Isserlis. "Raya Garbousova: Life Force at the Cello," in The Guardian [London]. February 8, 1997, p. 17.

Kozinn, Allan. "Raya Garbousova, 87, Cellist; Celebrated the New," in The New York Times Biographical Service. January 1997, p. 176.

"Loss Of Garbousova, cellist with joie de vivre," in The Strad. Vol. 108, no. 1284. April 1997, p. 361.


Georges Miquelle Papers, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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