The Legacy Series: Virginia Klassen, Harpist (1913 – 2011) “The Music Was My Passion”

by Alex Walsh

At 95, Virgina Klassen is as feisty as ever. Over her long career, she performed locally and internationally. She played with both the San Francisco Opera and Symphony in the 1930s and 40s. She also performed in the theaters, including a short run with Spike Jones and His City Slickers.

Virginia was born in 1913. In the 1800s, her grandfather made a fortune in the leather business in the Bay Area, so she did not have to worry about money. Her father, Robert Klassen, was an engineer who went on to become the chief engineer for San Mateo County. His most visible work is the permanent “South San Francisco, The Industrial City” sign on the hill above the city.

Virginia’s mother played parlor piano. “Every young lady should have a musical accomplishment,” she said. Virginia tried the piano, but her hands were too small. So she switched to the harp, a popular option at the time. In 1922, her mother took her for lessons with Kayatin Attl, the principal harpist in the SF Symphony and Opera Orchestra. She studied with him into her twenties until he eventually recommended her to the San Francisco Opera.

“At the height of the depression in 1933, the San Francisco Symphony consisted of a string quartet,” recalled Virginia. ”The rich were still rich, but they weren’t as rich as they had been. So they were being frugal. When the WPA came in, it was nothing but money. Spend, spend, spend–avoid revolution!”

Thanks to the WPA, many cities of all sizes were able to keep full time orchestras employed. “And they all had podiums just waiting for conductors,” she said. “Everybody that had even heard music wanted to be the conductor. They didn’t want to play–they wanted to be the boss.”

According to Virginia, they signed in for 8 hours a day. The afternoons were mainly devoted to strings while the brass and woodwind players did something else to earn their keep. They would rehearse all week—either in San Francisco or Oakland, and then play a concert Friday night in San Francisco. Saturday they would repeat it in Oakland, then Sunday at Stern Grove. She said principal players got $94 a month, and everyone else got $85.

Before the Bay Bridge was built, the musicians would take the ferry. “I loved riding the ferry in the fog,” she recalled. “Each captain had his own ‘‘toot’’. They would talk to each other and feel their way along. We’d be late, but half the orchestra was late so they couldn’t say anything.”

In 1937, on the opening night of the San Francisco Opera’s Aida, the newly hired 2nd harpist (“A graduate of Juilliard,” said Virginia incredulously) missed her cue and created a train wreck on stage. She was immediately fired, and Virginia took her spot the next night.

During WWII Virginia worked constantly. “My busiest couple of weeks was when I was playing with Spike Jones. We did four shows a day. The stage rose up, and we’d do the show. Then, as the stage went down, the credits would run for the movie that was being played.”

“They were all wonderful musicians, but they did crazy stuff. Spike would play the xylophone, and it would break apart on the stage. He had 16 bars to get it back together again. I had to play the worst cadenza that was ever written for a harp. It was Ravel. What the hell did he know about the harp? I never studied anything so hard. It was impossible. It’s a good thing the audience couldn’t hear it because they were so busy laughing!”

Virginia never wanted to be a solo harpist. She only liked to take a solo within the context of a program. She said, as far as making a living playing the harp, she wasn’t that ambitious. “The work was available, so I did it.”

After the war, Virginia met Paul Strauss, the love of her life. He was conducting the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, which toured throughout the world. “I chased him like mad,” she says. He became famous in Europe and ended up in Vienna. She made 22 crossings of the Atlantic to visit him, mostly by ship. They never married, but when he retired, he lived with her half time.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s she played for six years with the Istanbul Symphony (being a woman, she was not eligible for many jobs in Europe). She also played in the Florida Symphony, based in Orlando, during the winter season.

She continued to play with the San Francisco Opera and Symphony. She said that she used to hate playing Stern Grove because of the foggy morning rehearsals. “In the old days, with the gut strings (now they have nylon), if you’d get one little hair, they’d start unwinding. I lost a whole set of strings out there playing Hansel & Gretel. In those days they cost about $45, which was a lot of money.”

She remembers when Gaetano Merola, the founder of the San Francisco Opera, died on the podium in 1953. “He was a marvelous musician. He died of a heart attack at Stern Grove as he finished the last bar of a performance. He just went right on down, quite dramatic for the orchestra—and the audience.”

During this time, she played all the musicals at the Curran Theatre. “I felt like I was slumming because I wasn’t playing grand opera. Now I can see that I was playing the great American invention (musicals). At the time, it was just a job. Now I can appreciate it.”

Her last job was a production of My Fair Lady for the opening of the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos in1964. Since retiring she has continued to live in Redwood City and maintains her membership in Local 6.