In Memoriam Ruth Schonthal

News has come of the passing of the composer and teacher Ruth Schonthal. She was born in Hamburg in 1924 of Viennese parents, began composing at five and became the youngest student ever accepted at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin where she received piano and theory lessons. In 1935, as a Jew, she was banished from the Conservatory. The persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime in Germany led the family into exile, and they settled in Stockholm. Because of her exceptional talent she was accepted at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, in spite of not meeting the standard regulations for admission, a fact the Swedish press noted and duly protested. In 1940 her first Piano Sonatina was published. At the Academy Ruth Schonthal studied piano with Olaf Wibergh and composition with Ingemar Liljefors.

In 1941 the political situation became too dangerous again, and the family was forced to flee a second time, this time to settle in Mexico City. There Ruth Schonthal continued her studies of composition with Manuel Ponce. When she was nineteen years old she was the soloist at the world premiere of her own Piano Concerto in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1946 she met Paul Hindemith, who was on a concert tour in Mexico City. She accepted his offer to study with him at the Yale University on a scholarship that Hindemith procured for her. She graduated in 1948, one of the few who graduated with honors.

Ruth Schonthal never followed the prevalent contemporary aesthetic fashions. At a time when Anton Webern and John Cage were the American role models, she followed her own musical path, never denying her own classic-romantic heritage. The extraordinarily varied impressions she absorbed in the course of her life in the different parts of the world provided the foundation of her musical style. Through the exposure to diverse influences and methods in Germany, Sweden, Mexico and the USA, Ruth Schonthal was able to extrapolate from these experiences an unusually rich mixture of compositional techniques. She used these to form a comprehensive stylistic synthesis. For the latter part of her career Ruth Schonthal was on the composition faculty of New York University.

* Follow this link for Ruth Schonthal's website

* Ruth Schonthal's music is published by Furore-Verlag

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BBC Proms 2006 lacks the eternal feminine


Garth Trinkl said…
Thank you, Pliable, for your wonderful tribute to this underrecognized composer whose life, training, and career took her to several countries. Thank you also for the set of links.

I am fascinated, at first glance of her site, that she donated her life's creative archives not to the New York University, the New York Public Library, or the Music Division of the Library of Congress, but to the Music Archives of the Akademie der Künste, in Berlin (after beginning to have all of her work published in Kassel, Germany beginning in 1996]. I hope that this disposition will lead to her works being played by leading musical organizations in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Dresden, and other German cities --as well as in Sweden, Mexico, and the United States.

And, yes, it would have been progessive for one of many international musicians associated with this summer's London 2006 Proms Concerts to have studied her catalogue and included a work -- orchestral or orchestral-choral -- by her, along with some works of other woman composers.


I will note that I think you do, however, oversimplify things in your comment: "At a time when Anton Webern and John Cage were the American role models, she followed her own musical path, never denying her own classic-romantic heritage."

In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s and part of the 1960s, there was, along with the Varese, Cage, and Carter influenced New York School of Modern Music -- and academic atonalism and serialism on both coasts, based upon the presence in the U.S. of Schoenberg, Krenek, Stravinsky, and others -- a (non-jazz) third stream which continued, in America, the "classic-romantic heritage". Bloch, Hindemith, and Toch were three strong foreign-born advocates of this tradition, in America, and there were numerous native American composers in this tradition, including Copland, Harris, Sessions, Barber, Hanson, Diamond, Harrison, Piston, Schuman, Bernstein, Schuller, Mennin, and several others (some of whom wrote at least partially 12-tone music). Many of these composers "classic-romantic" works now are increasingly available on labels such as Naxos (and before it, New World Records and CRI -- both not for profit labels).

Do American orchestras regularly program from this distinguished, powerful, and highly moving repertoire? Of course not. Does America need a Summer Proms concept to replace the long outdated Mostly Mozart concept? Of course.
Pliable said…
Garth, as ever your words are wise.

But sadly this year's Proms seems to have turned in to Mainly Mozart rather than the other way round.

There are no less than fifty-six works by Mozart being performed, and it is not just new music that is suffering. JS Bach gets six works performed (and two of those in Mozart arrangements!), quite unbelievably Beethoven has just three works, and Palestrina, Dowland, Tallis and Byrd all fail to get a single performance.

Where is the 'broad spectrum' the BBC talk about in their Annual Report?

But that notwithstanding I'll be there tomorrow for the First Night. And a piece of trivia. I bought a choir seat as I want to see Juri Belohlavek close-up. I have a fine choir seat, but the problem is there is also a choir, The BBC Chorus, singing in the Dvorak Te Deum. So anyone watching the live BBC2 relay tomorrow who spots an inappropriately dressed gentleman among the BBC Chorus, you know the story.
Anonymous said…
Ruth was an incredibly generous soul and an artist of integrity.

Whenever she was a member of the 'expert' panel on WQXR's former radio program "First Hearing" her remarks were right on, intelligent, and charming.

As a young pianist she played house piano in dives and cafes to keep herself afloat. As a mature composer -- and wife, and mother -- she did the
contemporary art/home juggle with aplomb, with forthrightness, for the most part with success, and (again and always) with charm.

The artistic universe she accepted as her own was vast in scope ( her own music ran the gamut from highest, flamboyant drama to very effective works for younger players; she was also Lowell Lieberman's teacher).

Music will miss her.

Judith Lang Zaimont
Anonymous said…
(Two comments above, I had meant to write "along with the Varese, Cage, FELDMAN, and Carter influenced New York School of 20th Century Music. ... Feldman has been widely performed (and recorded) in Germany starting in the 1960s, and continuing, strongly, through his powerful late works of the mid-1980s. I hope that Ruth Schonthal will receive deserved recognition, as well, even though, unlike Feldman, she may not have shared in his aspiration to be the 'greatest Jewish composer who ever lived'. ... Not that I have anything against Feldman's hopes; but I don't believe that Mozart, for example, aspired to be the greatest Catholic composer who ever lived.)

Anonymous said…
Ruth Schonthal was, indeed, a wonderful and important American composer, as well as an extraordinarily inspiring and caring teacher (I studied with her at the Westchester Conservatory of Music in New York from age 11 through 18). Her creative generosity and her brilliant criticism were so significant for so many of us over the past half-century (!). I am sure I am not the only former student of Ruth Schonthal who frequently thinks of her and of her incredible advice (always) and illuminating nature. She holds an extremely unique place in our lives and in our foundation as composers today. We mourn the loss of a constant source of guidance, intelligence, intuition, humor, encouragement and passion for music and its infinite possibilities for expression.
Pliable said…
I cannot give more specific information relating to the Schonthal family.

But Wikipedia says:

When Germany invaded Norway and Denmark on the 9th of April, 1940, demands were made stating that Sweden was to keep neutral and refrain from mobilizing to aid her neighbours. German communications were to continue uninterrupted through Swedish channels and the trade with iron ore was not to be disturbed. The Swedish government agreed, but secretly increased her armed forces during the following weeks, from 100,000 men to 320,000. More demands followed during the spring and summer, particularly for the transit of medical personnel, later stepped up to include ammunition and soldiers on leave. During the summer of 1941, the Swedish government was forced to accept the transit of a fully equipped German division headed to Finland, bound for the recently opened eastern front. In February, 1942, German presence in Norway was stepped up in preparation of an invasion of Sweden. Hitler was dissatisfied with Swedish cooperation and doubted its ability to defend against an allied attack through Norway, threatening ore resources. 300,000 Swedish soldiers were sent to the western border to train and prepare, but no invasion came and the crisis dissipated.

New research released on April 4, 2006 has shown that Sweden helped Germany to stop Germans from marrying Jews and suppressed criticism of Hitler and reports of atrocities. Stockholm University historian Klas Amark coordinated the research commissioned by Prime Minister Göran Persson in 2000 in connection with a Holocaust conference. The research showed that from 1937, Swedes wanting to marry Germans of so-called Aryan blood had to give written assurance that none of their grandparents belonged to the Jewish race or religion. This was a result of an order from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (Utrikesdepartementet), saying that a Hague Convention of 1902 required its signatories to enforce other countries' marriage laws on those countries' citizens. The order "lacked historic and democratic legitimacy and was also foreign to Swedish law", according to Professor Anders Jarlert, one of the researchers involved [3]. Some marriages between "Aryan" Germans and Jews were annulled by the courts. However, many priests married such couples in defiance of the order [4]. Newspapers gagged criticism of Hitler, of the occupation of Norway, and of the murder of millions of Jews in concentration camps, while cultural links between Germany and Sweden flourished.

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