By Adam Bernstein Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Sylvia Meyer, 97, a revered Washington harpist who in 1933 became the first female member of the National
Symphony Orchestra and decades later was forced to retire, died March 26 at Suburban Hospital. She had
Ms. Meyer owed her career to her mother, a compulsive antiques buyer who once dragged home a rusting $2.50 harp
missing its base and pedals.
When it came time for Ms. Meyer, then 7, to learn an instrument, she later recalled, the family consensus was, if the
harp was ever to be used, I represented the last opportunity for rescuing it from its silence.
Growing up in Washington, she began studying formally at a local conservatory and was a graduate of the Peabody
Institute of Johns Hopkins University. After a series of early concerts, she proved herself one of the promising young
classical musicians about town.
Sylvia Meyer became the National Symphony Orchestra's first female member in 1933. She learned to play on a rusty
She studied with the pioneering harpist and composer Carlos Salzedo at his summer school in Camden, Maine -- the
summer harp capital of America, as it was known -- and credited him with introducing her to a style of aggressive playing
rife with dissonance and percussive effects.
Previously, the modern view of the harp was one of ridicule among comics, too refined for its own good or useful only for
saccharine accompaniment to love scenes. She had a visceral dislike of such caricatures and said she was made
miserable when a vaudeville act she once saw got laughs from the audience for the improbable stretching and snapping
of elastic harp strings.
On Salzedo's recommendation to NSO conductor Hans Kindler, she joined the fledgling orchestra in 1933. She
described her adjustment to the orchestra as smooth, with some minor ribbing by male colleagues who called her
instrument the uke or praised her for her excellent work in passages that did not call for the harp.
The world of classical music, ordinarily emphasizing precision, required her to improvise on occasion. One night on tour,
in a rush to dress and facing the prospect of changing in front of 79 men, she stepped into her harp case and, moments
later, reappeared ready.
Treated partly as a celebrity, partly as an anomaly, she was typically described in print as lovely, statuesque, limber --
any number of adjectives to convey her physical charms.
Her musical talent was abundant, and she shined on harp-heavy ballet pieces that dispelled the pretty face tone of the
feature stories written about her. She considered one of her performing highlights tackling Alberto Ginastera's complex,
flashy Harp Concerto in January 1968.
She played with total command of the harp's widest dynamic range, wrote Washington Post music critic Paul Hume.
Less than two years earlier, she had lost a fingertip to pruning shears in a gardening accident and, through plastic
surgery, was able to regain use of the injured finger.
Extended medical leave left her vulnerable to replacement, and in 1968 Ann Hobson-Pilot took her harp seat. Pilot
became the orchestra's first black member and later was principal harpist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
My 'retirement' was totally involuntary, Ms. Meyer said in a prepared statement at the time. She cited clashes with the
symphony's managing director, M. Robert Rogers, and a disappointing silence from conductor Howard Mitchell.
Ms. Meyer was born in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 23, 1907, and moved to the Washington area as a child, after her father
became an interstate commerce commissioner.
She took a decade of musical lessons at the Academy of the Holy Cross and was a 1924 graduate of Western High
School. A prize-winning athlete in school -- she set records in the high jump -- she later said her physical strength
helped her career. The instrument weighed 85 pounds and required great dexterity on fast pedal changes.
She was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Wisconsin. She majored in geology, explaining, It seemed a
good idea to go to a university and take something.
She added that being the only girl in many of her classes helped her adapt to the orchestra world, where she weathered
unexpected slights and misadventures, sometimes literally at the hands of men.
After one NSO concert for youngsters, a boy of 6 walked up to her harp and plucked it vigorously. She told him to stop,
that the instrument required tenderness. He then punched her in the nose.
Ms. Meyer, a Bethesda resident, was viewed as a pioneer among local harpists and once said her chosen instrument
was more frequently played by women because they have the patience for the stupid, repetitive work in tuning and
upkeep that a harp requires.
The NSO now has 36 women among its 100 members, among them its harpist.
Her husband of 56 years, Oliver Gasch, a former judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, died in
Survivors include a son, Michael Gasch of Bethesda.