Thursday, July 20, 2006
I Remember Ruth
I was saddened to hear of the passing of Ruth Schonthal, and several friends alerted me to read Judith Lang Zaimont’s eloquent blog on the subject and to contribute remarks of my own. This, as it turns out, is not an easy matter for me. While I met Ms. Schontal once or twice at the abodes of mutual friends (the exceptional cellist, Maxine Neuman, and Max Schubel, the inveterate “Mr. Opus One records”), I do have a skeleton in the closet about her professionally, and I have always promised not to speak ill of my colleagues. (I was amused when some Sequenza readers got on MY case when I got on Mozart’s case not long ago, as if that had violated my oath.)
I read Prof. Zaimont’s piece and the various “blogules” that followed and I noted behavior that strangely betrays the human condition of us pathetic composers. Walter Simmons was correct when he remarked that the big problem is not so much gender but an extreme imbalance of supply/demand for what little classical audience remains. But tell that to the women! Schumann stopped Clara from composing, and she never wrote again, outliving him by 41 years and when Mahler did the same to Alma, the difference was 45 years. There is a problem here that will take generation upon generation to work out, but, in the end, every composer’s music should be judged on its quality and not the gender of its creator. It will take a long time to sort this and I just shrug, write my tunes and eschew the gender-change surgery.
But all those blogules had another character for me. To start with, nobody seemed to say word #1 about what Ruth Schonthal's music actually SOUNDS like. I had years ago heard a vocal piece and went the modern route of listening to 30-second bytes at the on-line record store sites before writing this letter, and confirmed my recollection that this was a “soft atonalist”, one who could use rows, who was in the lineage of the second Viennese condition, but who could also use Hebraic modes as appropriate in the 2nd movement of the “In Memoriam Holocaust” 3rd String Quartet, and Mexican modes as appropriate elsewhere. While she had studied with Hindemith (see her website), her music seemed closer to Berg, to one ear, anyway.
Anyway, on reading the blogules, let us be frightfully honest: everybody who is made of flesh fears mortality, but composers feel it twice, aware that the body will pass, and not fully confident that the music will not pass also. So much of the Sequenza writing in praise of Ms. Schonthal, and the rather dark writing praising her less than others, bespeaks the same thing: “Please, if there is a God, let MY compositions live”. Or “There,- at least for the brief moment, for the grace of God go I”. Along the way, one finds blogule comparisons, not entirely fair, with other women who write music, and so forth.
Now, Ruth Schonthal taught at NYU for many years. Concurrently, still in good health and activity, my friend Dinu Ghezzo was her colleague. A blogule from him would give us some depth here. What kind of teacher was she? Did she expect students to follow her style (as Schonberg did apparently) or did she guide them in whatever was their style (as Ravel did in working with Gershwin, Vaughan Williams, et al). As Dinu’s wife Marta Ghezzo taught for many years at Kingsborough Community (my home school) all concerned got together, students. performers and faculty and graduate composers alike, for one event or another from year to year. Where was Ms. Schonthal? Not present at these events, I must objectively report.
One can say what one likes, but we have lost a colleague, by any analysis a person of artistic commitment, devotion not only to music but to human sufferings and feelings, clearly of considerable talent, whether one is always stylistically sympathetic or not. And from almost all events, we appear to be speaking about a person of gentleness and sensitivity to her colleagues and students, and partners in this pathetic human passageway.
But I must tell the complete story,- and this is not conjecture but cold, quotable, broadcast fact. Once upon a time there was a series called First Hearing, produced at WQXR New York but heard continent-wide. George Jellinek selected the new releases and chose the critics,- and while he both well, the relationship between the two sets of choices was a little “soft”. WQXR avoided anything complex to listen to, but chose to show respect to atonal or progressive composers by using them as judges, which, of course, led to a lot of roasting of conservative works. Well,- it happened to hit my birthday in the early 90s, but the program included my “Responses, Hosanna and Fugue”, from a CD on Harmonia Mundi, now re-released on Kleos. Mr. Jellinek chose to play my piece, not the companion works of Norman Dello Joio or Alan Hovhaness. The commentator after the playing said something like: “Well, Ruth Schonthal, how would you evaluate this rather conservative piece”? Her words, which I can never forget were “Conservative? You mean conservative-Neanderthal!”
Now, not long ago David Diamond died and bloggers took turns either quoting his obnoxia, or making light of it. Maybe not nice to say about the recently deceased, but nobody counted his or her words. I would rather not COUNT my words either, I would rather understand and forgive Ruth Schonthal's words, now that she is not here to defend herself after a very noble career. Amongst atonalists, SHE was a conservative, allowing the modes to creep in, going in and out of style, trying to be expressive rather than exploratory, sensitive more than innovative. The pain and isolation of this is considerable, and rather than accepting me, on the spur of the moment, as a kindred spirit on the non-atonal side,- I think she can be forgiven for having a rare chance to say what she really meant: “You think I’M conservative?,- well, listen to THIS stuff”!If she listened again, maybe she would take her comments back, and I wish her music only what I wish my own, let it be remembered! If there is a heaven, and a section of it for composers, I will have a drink and a hug with her about all this.