By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"Ironic, isn't it?" asks Jans. "Antonia always said that she should have been born a man, that a woman musician had to be ten times better than a man to get any recognition. She said she was born fifty years too early."
Today a woman named Marin Alsop conducts the Colorado Symphony, and nobody makes a fuss. According to figures compiled by the American Symphony Orchestra League, 174 women now have upper-level conducting positions with more than 850 orchestras nationwide--a situation due in no small part to the struggles and sacrifices of Brico and a handful of other trailblazers.
Yet there was a great deal more to Brico's quarrel with fate--and with Denver--than her gender. What's missing from the documentary's portrait of her is the in-between and the aftermath, the story behind her sharp rise, her fall from grace and her long struggle against oblivion. Six years after her death, that story is only now coming to light, through the revelations found in a staggering collection of letters, scrapbooks, audio recordings and other items from Brico's estate that were donated to the Colorado Historical Society.
The Brico who emerges from the state archives--and in the reminiscences of her longtime friends--is a far more complex, flawed and ultimately more tragic figure than her public image as a feminist role model. Obsessed with the need to conduct, Brico took the international music world by storm and failed abysmally in the cowtown capital of the West. Then she transformed the wreckage of her career into her greatest triumph.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American lives. He never met Antonia Brico.
In all the years she worked for Brico, Elizabeth Jans never actually had an argument with the woman. Brico didn't like to confront people, Jans says; if she had a disagreement with someone, she would write a long letter to the offender expressing her displeasure. Then she would dispatch some emissary--usually Elizabeth Jans--to patch things up.
Jans herself received several of Brico's "how you hurt me" letters. She always threw them away, much to Brico's dismay. "Those letters are going to be worth money some day," Brico said.
But Jans remembers the letters well enough. "They all started and ended the same way, reminding you about her terrible childhood and her high blood pressure," she says. "If she couldn't get her way, she always came back to this sad story about her childhood."
Brico's childhood was more than sad; despite her harping on it, even her closest Denver friends had only inklings of how bizarre and miserable it must have been. Yet it was typical of Brico that she used the tale, not as an excuse for failure, but as leverage. She built a legend around herself, the legend of a loveless child who found salvation through music.
The facts were strange enough. Antonia Louisa Brico was born in Rotterdam in 1902, the illegitimate child of a Dutch Catholic teenager and an Italian pianist. Abandoned by her lover and ostracized by her family, Brico's mother put the baby in the care of foster parents. When she tried to get the child back a few months later, the foster parents fled to California. Until she was almost an adult, Antonia was known as Wilhelmina Wolthius.
Wilhelmina was a clumsy, nervous girl, a condition made worse by her foster mother's frequent beatings and scoldings. A doctor suggested piano lessons to cure her habitual nail-biting, and before long she was playing at seances and theosophy meetings in the Oakland area. (The Wolthiuses had a strong spiritualist bent.) Although she learned quickly and was found to have absolute pitch--rare even among conductors--her foster mother opposed her desire to pursue a career in music. After numerous confrontations, Mrs. Wolthius informed thirteen-year-old Wilhelmina that she wasn't her daughter anyway.
"Then relations really got worse," Brico recalled in an unpublished interview in 1971. "It was open warfare between us all the time."
At seventeen she was cast out of the Wolthius house for good; her crime, she later said, was enrolling in college. Over the next few years she stayed with friends, worked in shops, taught piano and played jazz in clubs to eke out a living while earning a degree in music at the University of California. She also pieced together her own past--her parents, she learned, were both dead--and reclaimed the name Antonia Brico.
She had no money to finance her career, but she had something better: a talent for acquiring mentors. At the university, she made the connections necessary to secure a scholarship to study with pianist Sigismund Stojowski in New York. From Stojowski she extracted a letter of introduction to Karl Muck, one of the foremost conductors of his time and director of Germany's renowned Wagner Festival. Several people tried to dissuade her from a conducting career, but Muck was sufficiently impressed with her intensity and grasp of the great composers to accept her as his sole pupil for almost five years. She graduated from the Berlin State Academy of Music's master school of conducting--the first woman and the first American ever to have been admitted--and moved into the role of an assistant to Muck and Siegfried Wagner, son of the composer.