NIU and DeKalb were the home to one of the most influential artists of her time, and an exhibit in the Founders Memorial Library explores the music collection and impact of cellist Raya Garbousova.
The exhibit, which runs through July 31, and will be available to be viewed upon request after it’s run is complete, was curated by Sarah Holmes, Assistant Professor and Catalog Librarian and Interim Music Librarian. Holmes said that her interest was piqued when the curator of Rare Books and Special Collections mentioned that the NIU Music Library housed a large collection of sheet music that once belonged to a world-famous musician.
“What better way to explore and celebrate a person who was vital to our music program, and music in general?”
Garbousova was one of the first women to play the cello, and the first female cello soloist. She was an accomplished artist who performed throughout Europe and United States and other parts of the world. Samuel Barber wrote his cello concerto for her.
She was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1909 when it was part of the Russian Empire. She made her performance debut at 14 in 1923 and left Moscow in 1925. She lived in Europe for several years before emigrating to the United States in 1939. In 1948 she met cardiologist Kurt Biss when he attended a performance she gave in DeKalb, and he asked her to join him for dinner afterwards. They married six months later. Garbousova taught for many years at the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Conn. and gave master classes at many prominent music institutions. She taught in the NIU School of Music from 1979 to 1991.
Holmes said the majority of the collection is focused on Garbousova’s extensive sheet music collection, which includes pieces written specifically for her. “It also includes ephemera from when she was honored as president of the National Cello Congress,” Holmes said. “We have pictures, a copy of the speech that she gave and a program from that event, which was highlighted by a performance conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.”
Rostropovich, like Garbousova, was an internationally accomplished Russian cellist.
The collection includes honors she received, including her 1978 award as Most Distinguished String Teacher from the American String Teachers Association for her role in development of pedagogy of the instrument.
Holmes said that because the collection was curated for the main library she geared it towards non-musicians. It focuses on the pieces written specifically for Garbousova, and describes the markings she made and cadenzas written for the music. Cadenzas are virtuoso solo passages inserted into a movement in a concerto or other work.
In July, the library hosted a special visit by Garbousova’s grandson, State Senator Daniel Biss and his family, including his wife, Karin Steinbrueck, their children Elliot and Theodore and his parents, violinists Miriam Fried and Paul Biss (Garbousova’s son).
The Biss family were given a special tour of the smaller, permanent exhibit to Garbousova in the Music Library, and of the larger collection in the Founders Memorial Library. Holmes said they also viewed the large amount of Garbousova’s materials in special collections, which is available to be viewed by anyone upon request. The university archives contain a 1981 oral history interview of Garbousova, that the family was able to listen to, and were given CDs of as a special gift.
“She led an incredible life,” Holmes said of Garbousova. “She travelled the world as a performer, and she was friends with famous people, including Albert Einstein. She helped build the music program here at NIU even before she became a faculty member. Her talent and experience were vital to the program, and she held a special interest in children’s theater. She was well loved in this community.”
Holmes said after the exhibition run ends in the Founders Memorial Library interested persons can arrange to view the materials by contacting her at (815) 753-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.