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Elaine Shaffer was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and was the prize student of William Kincaid, the 'grandfather' of the majority of flutists in the United States. That he willed his platinum flute to her makes his regard for her talent evident. Kincaid was her only formal flute teacher; prior to that, she was entirely self-taught, according to an interview with her husband, Efrem Kurtz, published in the National Flute Association Newsletter in the 1980s.
Shaffer played for a season as second flute in the Kansas City Philharmonic (1947–48). Apparently she was not shy — she really did not want to accept the position, though she had been recommended by an oboist in the orchestra, Laila Storch — and she held out not only for more money, but to be allowed to fulfill another engagement prior to starting the job, and a concerto appearance with the orchestra. She surprised the critics, the audience and Kurtz not only with her playing, but her artistry as well. As this was the 1940s, women had just begun to get positions in orchestras, making Shaffer something of a trail-blazer. The music director at the time was Efrem Kurtz, which was how they first met, though they were not married until 1955, after she had left the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
After holding the principal flutist's chair in Houston for five years (1948–1953), she left to pursue a career as a soloist and chamber musician (another first for an American woman) winning praise for her debut recital in London. She performed at many festivals in Europe, and worked closely with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, pianist Hephzibah Menuhin, and harpsichordist George Malcolm. The composer Ernest Bloch dedicated two works to her: Suite Modale and Two Last Poems (Maybe); she gave the world premiere of the latter. She was also a friend of Marc Chagall (who did a drawing for her), Karl Barth and Hermann Hesse.
The death of William Kincaid, her principal teacher, in 1967 was very difficult for her because she had a special bond with him. John Solum, a flutist and pioneering baroque flutist, became the prime mover (along with a group of other students and admirers of Kincaid's) behind the commission of Aaron Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano, which was dedicated to Kincaid's memory. Solum, a close friend and colleague of Shaffer, invited her and Hephzibah Menuhin to perform the world premiere of that work in October 1971 at a benefit for the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. A short while later, Shaffer was diagnosed with lung cancer, though according to Albert Weatherly (a flute repair technician and dealer in New York) she had never smoked. She was able to complete two final projects that were important to her: a concert of J. S. Bach's sonatas for flute, and the first recording of the Copland. Two months after the recording was completed, Elaine Shaffer died in London on February 19, 1973.
Some of these recordings are now available on CD : Suite No. 2/Musical Offering/ Brandenburg V included in the Christmas Box 2001 - Bach Orchestral Suites / Brandenburgs / Violin Concertos - Yehudi Menuhin / Bath Festival Orchestra on EMI Classics 0724357443920.
She also performed the major standard flute repertoire of the 20th century, including sonatas by Hindemith, Prokofiev and Poulenc, and the flute concerti by Ibert and Nielsen . She gave the world premiere of Virgil Thomson's Flute Concerto, as well as five performances with Italian orchestras of a concerto by Franco Mannino for flute, trombone obbligato and orchestra.
"Elaine Shaffer, Flutist, 47, Dies; Toured World Capitals as Soloist". New York Times. 1973-02-19. Retrieved 2008-01-04.
"Queen of the Flute". New York Times. 1973-01-01. Retrieved 2008-06-15.