“If a woman is able to play an instrument better than a man, we want that woman in our orchestra,” José Iturbi once said.
Nevertheless, it is said that her debut in Barcelona, 1914, was impressive: the great composer Granados was in the audience, and he declared her to be “the finest interpreter” of his music.
| Perhaps he had his sister Amparo in mind when he said it.
Amparo was José’s baby sister, the last of the Iturbi siblings. Born in March of 1898 in Valencia, Spain, she never had José’s good fortune with conservatory scholarships, but she shared his talent, dexterity, and passion for music. She also had had two good mentors in piano teacher Maria Jordan and Professor Eduardo Lopez-Chavarri Marco who had championed her brother before. In a 1937 interview, Amparo described her own musical education as “a little savage.”
Many times, my father told me you were the only interpreter of his music and the only one who had his true tradition.... I remember that he played for you two of his dances and almost in its entirely the then unpublished "Goyescas" asking you for your reaction and opinion...not only you were his and our friend but with all of us considering you like one of the family. Thanks again.
Fraternally, I embrace you.
Amparo joined her brother in Paris in the 1920’s where she enjoyed her own lasting success, both at playing piano duos with José and playing on her own in tours throughout Europe. She married Enrique Ballester in Paris, in early 1930, but neither her marriage nor the birth of her daughter a year later deterred her from following her career.
With World War II looming on the horizon in 1937, and Spain embroiled in a bitter civil war, Amparo, bringing her daughter and mother along, sailed for New York. Within a couple of months she had debuted in Detroit and on radio, where the press raved about her “full-spirited vitality.”
In July of 1937 she made her New York City debut with her brother and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium, where they performed Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat to even more glowing reviews. “12,000 Cheer Two Iturbis,” read the New York Times.
All over America, Amparo met with stunning reviews. In Chicago the Tribune declared “She turns a phrase in the most lovely manner…”
“She is a welcome relief from the ‘would-be’ professionals,” declared the Appleton, Ohio Post-Crescent. “She is going places.”
And she did! Amparo went on to great success in her own right in the United States and Canada, and in tours in Central and South America as well. Amparo toured the country extensively both with and without Jose. During World War II, she took an active role in entertaining the troops and raising money for the USO. Her tours, including places as far-flung as Alaska and North Africa, would have exhausted any normal person. She never received the press Jose did, but her schedule was just as packed. Somehow she even found time to appear in some of Jose’s movies.
In a 1947 Saturday Evening Post interview, Jose described Amparo as “one of the top three pianists in the world.”
He also called himself Amparo’s worst enemy because his career always seemed to overshadow hers, and he resented critics who insisted on comparing them because he was certain their talents were equal. In fact, in his later years, he confessed that she might have been better than he was!
Throughout her life Amparo Iturbi would play both as a soloist and together with Jose, in concerts, on recordings, on radio and later, television. Her repertoire was immense, including such dissimilar composers as Soler, Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn; Chabrier, Ravel, and Gershwin; Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, and Turina; Rodrigo, Cuesta, Palau and Lopez-Chavarri. In 1956 she became an honorary Texas citizen; she received an honor even grander two years later when she became a Dame of the Cross of Isabel la Católica in 1958, in Spain.
Amparo still found time to share her musical skills with others as a teacher. “She was very strict and demanded total concentration. I think the most important thing she taught me was to be totally focused on the music,” recalled one former student, Fred Sanchez. “She had two grand pianos in her house, and when she wasn’t sitting with me at one, she was playing together with me at the other, or singing the lesson as I played.”
Not all her students were successful at this, as she lamented in a letter to her friend and mentor Eduardo Lopez-Chavarri Marco in 1965, “I can’t come to Spain because I have some pupils here…God did not give them musical talent and yet they insist on making noise.”
She also made recordings. Some were joint efforts with José, such as Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat; others were solo recordings pulled from such eclectic sources as Shostakovich and Chabrier. Her emotions on recording, however, were mixed—in one interview she claimed, “Recording is the great torture of the 20th century.”
However, to her student Bruce Sutherland, she confided, “Recording is the best teacher available to advanced musicians.”
She continued touring and teaching, recording and playing, until November, 1968. She was supposed to have been head of the piano department at Loyola the following year, but in December of 1968 she became ill. Bedridden from then on, she died in April, 1969, of a brain tumor. At Loyola, a music scholarship was established in her name.
Relatively few of Amparo’s recordings have survived to the digital age, but her “vinyls” can still be found by those who know where to look. Her recording of Granados’ Goyescas is memorable for her style and finesse, as is her rendition of “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” composed by Manuel de Falla and conducted by José.
Amparo Iturbi remains a memorable historical figure as well as a great musician. In an age where females were still kept very much under subjugation, she was an independent career woman who was devoted both to her music and to her family. Her public concertizing lasted over 50 years, during which she paved the way for later women musicians everywhere.