At the time of her death in 1973, Elaine Shaffer was considered among the top three or four flutists in the world and was the only major female concert flutist of her time. Arguably, she was still flourishing in her career and might well have achieved superstar status. Indeed, she regularly made recordings and her schedule of 60 or so concert dates a year included both recitals and appearances with major orchestras, often led by her husband Efrem Kurtz. Shaffer also performed chamber concerts with many prominent musicians, including the Menuhins, violinist Yehudi and pianist Hephzibah. Despite all this success, Shaffer is largely forgotten today and her sizable discography has withered to a handful of discs available on EMI and Sony, mostly in Baroque music. Yet her repertory was broad, taking in not only works by J.S. Bach, Telemann, and other Baroque icons, but music by Mozart, Schubert, Prokofiev, Copland, Ernest Bloch, and many more.
Elaine Shaffer was born in Altoona, PA, in 1925. She was a timpanist in her high school orchestra, but taught herself to play the flute and later auditioned for flute virtuoso and Curtis Institute faculty member William Kincaid, who would become her main teacher during her studies at Curtis.
In the 1947-1948 season Shaffer served as second flute in the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra, under Kurtz. Kurtz oversaw reorganization of the Houston Symphony in 1948 and persuaded Shaffer to become the ensemble's principal flute. She served in the post until 1953. In 1955, when she and Kurtz married, Shaffer was already a successful concert and chamber artist. Ernest Bloch composed his 1956 Suite modale, for flute and strings, for Shaffer, which she premiered. Shaffer scored great critical success in 1959 with her EMI recording of the Mozart Concerto No. 1, K. 313.
In 1967 the dying William Kincaid gave his platinum flute to Shaffer, which she regularly used in performance thereafter, including for the 1971 premiere of Copland's Duo for flute and piano, which was dedicated to Kincaid's memory. In the latter years of her career, Shaffer lived in Gstaad, Switzerland, with Kurtz. A January 1973 Time Magazine article lavished praise on her for her extraordinary talent, and the following month Shaffer, at the height of her career, died of cancer. Her last recording was made just two months before her death, the Copland Duo, with the composer at the piano, reissued by Sony in 2000.