Remembering Mary Bartlett (1915–2019)

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Harpist, arranger, composer, pedagogue, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother

—by Jacquelyn Bartlett

At nearly 104 years old, Mary Bartlett practiced her harp daily. Her final goals were to be “the oldest working harpist” and to “find a younger man with older money.” She actually stopped performing at age 96, but the practicing and arranging continued. I often told her that finding a younger man was not a problem, but the older money might be a problem.

Mary was born to Ukrainian immigrant parents in Vancouver, B.C., who then immigrated to Detroit, Mich., where they lived in a large Ukrainian community. She was introduced to the piano and the mandolin at an early age and performed regularly in a mandolin orchestra, accompanied the choir on the piano (often improvising until she learned how to read music), and sang in the choir at the Ukrainian Community Hall. When Mary attended Cass Technical High School, she took harp lessons with Velma Froude and participated in the school’s well-known Harp and Vocal Ensemble. From there she attended Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), where she majored in music and minored in English. After meeting Carlos Salzedo at a National Harp Gathering at Ball State Teacher’s College, she went on to study with Mr. Salzedo in Camden, Maine., as well having periodic lessons with him in Philadelphia.

Having grown up during the Depression, Mary remembered walking the streets barefoot as a child (because her family could not afford shoes), looking for pieces of wood to burn at home for heat. She worked her way through school by playing piano at silent movies, copying music by hand with a quill pen and a jar of ink in the library, serving food in the cafeteria, playing in a band at a beer garden, and babysitting. At college she could only afford to rent a living space on someone’s porch, sleeping in mittens, hat, and coat in the winter.

Mary was a well-known harpist in the Detroit music scene, serving as harpist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra until the birth of her first child in 1948 with husband, Paul Bartlett, who was chair of the Edsel B. Ford Institute for Molecular Bio-Chemistry. She continued to be active throughout her life as a harpist with the Toledo Symphony, the Highland Park Symphony, the Pontiac Symphony, the Southfield Symphony and was an avid chamber music performer as a member of the local music clubs. For many years, she was the harpist for all the Fisher Theater Musicals and the Ford Motor Company Car Shows. She can also be heard on many Motown recordings with the Supremes and other groups.

An important pedagogue in the harp world, Mary’s students’ lives were profoundly impacted by her passionate, creative, inspiring, and loving approach to teaching. She served on the faculty at the Oakland University’s School of Music and taught privately for 80 years. She was in the process of writing a method book for the harp when she passed away. Former students remembered her at a recent birthday:

“She taught with passion and toughness, but also tremendous caring. She couldn’t resist sharing her wisdom and philosophy of the world.” —Andrea Stern

“Thank you for your example of how to love what you do and to do it with integrity.” —Janice Richardson

“Thank you for the gift of music, which has shaped my whole life and filled it with joy.” —Eliza Morrison

“I remember going to your house in my cheerleading uniform and playing my big pieces like Pierne’s Impromptu Caprice and Faure’s Impromptu. You taught me the value and necessity of memorization.” —Elizabeth Hainen

Mary is survived by her children: Robert Bartlett, owner and wine maker at Bartlett Maine estate Winery; Barry Bartlett, artist faculty at Bennington College in Vermont; and Jacquelyn Bartlett, harpist and artist faculty at University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Mary’s important advice to all: “The most important thing in life is to find something you love to do, especially if it enhances or touches another life. Everything else will fall into place.”

 

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