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Catching Up With Barbara Mahlmann-Bauer '72

Earlier this month, music alum Barbara Mahlmann-Bauer visited our campus for the first time in several decades. Barbara, a retired professor who originally hails from Germany and currently resides in Switzerland, spent a snowy Saturday morning exploring her old haunts and catching up on new campus additions. We took the opportunity to chat with her about her experience as one of Walnut Hill's first official musicians, as well as what she's been up to since 1972.


How did you first hear about Walnut Hill, and how did you make the decision to attend the School?

During my eleventh year at high school, two of my teachers recommended me to apply for a scholarship in the United States that was partly sponsored by Hassia (one of the states in the German Federal Republic) and by a private preparatory school with a special program in the fine arts and music. The candidates who applied had to pass an English exam and were then interviewed by an American pedagogue from the ASSIST program. I received a scholarship for a year at Walnut Hill School. I was looking forward to attending a school with a special program in music and the performing arts, since I considered taking music as my major subject and studying the violin after finishing high school. Before enrolling at Walnut Hill, I had the opportunity to live with the McMullen family in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Dianne McMullen was my age; she played the piano and began to take organ lessons. She is now teaching musicology and organ at Union College in upstate New York. When I visited her recently, it was a fantastic experience to see her teaching two classes in music history. Dianne drove with me all the way from Albany to Massachusetts, in order to visit her mother and see Walnut Hill again.

Walnut Hill offered me a unique opportunity to receive more intellectual and artistic stimuli, and it proved to be in many instances the opposite of my home school in Frankfurt. As an ambitious student, I had never needed to work hard at school. Homework was easy stuff, even in math. In contrast, Walnut Hill was a school founded in 1893 by women who were fighting for more rights and were striving to offer a good education for girls who wanted to become independent. The School remained proud of this tradition, with teachers well trained in detecting hidden talents. To aspire to achieve, to work hard, and to strive for excellence in a performing art (or back then in the field of sports)—these were the properties that distinguished and still distinguish Walnut Hill students from regular high school kids.

Walnut Hill then started a cooperation with New England Conservatory that turned out to be a success story. I was therefore able to enroll as a violin student taking lessons with Lucy Parker (d. 2013). Belinda Magee, who played the cello, and I were the first music students at Walnut Hill School. Every Saturday, our music teacher Gerald Moore drove us to Boston to the rehearsals of the NEC youth orchestra. The conductor was Tibor Józef Pusztai, and we performed Corelli, Haydn, and Mozart—it was a challenging program.

 

What were some of the challenges or surprises you experienced as a German exchange student in the United States?

Before classes started in August 1971, I received a reading list from my Walnut Hill English teachers. I was due to read six novels and to hand in book reports. I figured that as a German student I was certainly not required to fulfill these demands. But Miss Clark was not willing to give in or to reduce my workload after I had enrolled in her class. I had to buy the novels and write a book report on each of them, and if it was not well done, I would find a comment on my paper: "Rewrite!"

I attended classes in English, French, U.S. history, math and psychology, and was a member of the Glee Club conducted by Mr. Moore. We were given much homework in each of my subjects. Usually we had to write essays from one day to the other. This was kind of unusual for me, as I was used to having a couple of days to think about what to write. I spent many hours in the library, usually until midnight, reading everything about U.S. history or classical American writers. Mrs. Blaisdell gave me useful advice. It took me hours and many cups of coffee to write down the results of my research, while my roommate Madeline Parker, a math genius with a talent for sports, got up at 5:00 in the morning and merrily jotted down a few ideas for her English or history class, sitting on her bed. The first short stories of my life were written in English; one of them was published in the Walnut Hill journal. Miss Clark stimulated me to participate in a short-story competition, and she was an uncompromising critic reprimanding hackneyed expressions or some German-sounding phrases.

 

What are some of your favorite memories or lessons from your time at Walnut Hill?

During Spring Break, we were free to choose a special studies program. For two weeks I went to Wellesley College and was accepted as a guest student in a class on 20th-century music history. Only a month ago, I discovered—among a couple of exercise books and preparatory courses for the SATs from my year at Walnut Hill—a file with a paper that I had typed, 27 pages long, about Arnold Schönberg and the emergence of his 12-tone technique. It was amusing to read this paper from 1972 again.

My violin teacher Lucy Parker encouraged me to attend a music history class at NEC taught by Rudolf Kolisch, an Austrian refugee who was then 75 and spoke English with a charming Austrian accent. He played first violin for the Kolisch String Quartet and used to show us autographs by Schönberg that he revered like sacred relics. I was deeply impressed. Kolisch played with utmost tenderness and intensity, an unforgettable, everlasting memory.

Our French teacher at Walnut Hill introduced us to art history. We had to describe paintings by Delacroix, Ingres, and the French impressionists. It was overwhelming for me to study the most famous paintings by the greatest impressionists in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Two weeks ago, I spent almost two days in this museum gazing at these paintings again, as well as admiring American paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries.

My roommate Madeline was a riot as an experimentalist. Once, she produced an entirely black cake and ink-blue cheese for breakfast in our dormitory. She also made experiments with organic substances used for dyeing food without changing its flavor.

 

Where did you go after graduating from Walnut Hill, and where did it lead you? Describe your current career.

Coming back home, I decided not to start a career with my violin. My parents were surprised. Poetry, fiction and the analysis of literature from a comparative viewpoint, ancient Greek-Roman culture and philosophy—these were my fields. The year at Walnut Hill and individual promotion by marvelous teachers in English, U.S. history, and French helped me to detect, explore, and enhance my talents and to let my fancy float swiftly wherever it would lead me to. I learned that one of the prerequisites to become an expert in an academic field or an outstanding performing artist is an intimate knowledge of how to cope with never-ending demands. Swimming with the stream, instead of standing out—this was my mother's recipe for her daughters, which I certainly never wanted to adopt. She wanted for her daughters what she herself could not achieve. I believe teenagers ought to have enough leisure to adopt different roles, to test identities, and to admit that they are different.

After studying philosophy, German literature, and classical philology at the universities in Göttingen and Munich, I received my doctor's degree in 1980 and finished my habilitation thesis in 1989. I was nominated as a professor for German literature at the Philipps-Universität Marburg in 1992. Since I enjoy mountain hiking and gorgeous panoramas from the top of the Alps, I was pleased to get a position in Switzerland and moved to Bern, where I have taught German literature from 2001 until a year ago. I retired at that point, wishing to have more time for writing books and playing the violin. Being able to write in English and appreciate different cultures and heritages turned out to be an enormous advantage in my career. Although I tried hard and now live in a trilingual country, I have never reached the same level in French.  

My best and dearest friends are good musicians—most of them devoted amateurs, some professionals. Playing chamber music with them is one of the most intimate ways of communicating. It was a privilege that I had the chance to play chamber music as a university student and as a young professor. I am grateful to my parents who paid for my violin lessons and trusted me while, like many youngsters, being away from parental supervision, I was exposed to a bunch of risks and dangers. The teachers and classmates at Walnut Hill enhanced my self-fashioning as a teenager. I recommend for my students what I myself experienced for the first time at the Hill: to test their physical strength and intellectual persuasiveness, not to allow themselves to be intimidated by mediocrity; to be willing to cross borders all the time; to trust in profound, inexhaustible resources of fancy and creativity—but also to be aware that there are wonderful projects that can only be tackled by a group of reliable, hardworking friends.

It was great to visit the campus, main buildings, classrooms, and my old dormitory at Walnut Hill again. Nowadays, a new generation of teachers will surely encourage ambitious, highly motivated young students to find their way in life, to be sociable, and to accept responsibility as citizens.