Since Karl published Allan Kozinn's NYT obituary of Ruth Schonthal, I
thought you might like to see my slightly more detailed one, published
here in the UK in _The Independent_. This is the original text; the
published version was cut from para beginning "The record-producer"
Ruth Schonthal's life mirrors those of so many other musicians
whose careers - some incipient, others long-established - were
thrown into disarray by the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies.
Child-prodigy executant musicians are rare enough, but Schonthal
was a child-prodigy composer, too, writing music from the age
of six. She was still composing 76 years later: her last work,
Variations for Double-Bass on a German Folksong, was completed
Schonthal's earliest career promised a glittering future: at
five she was the youngest student ever accepted into the prestigious
Stern Conservatory in Berlin, where she attracted considerable
attention as a Wunderkind. But in 1935, as a Jew, she was expelled
from the institution and had to continue her piano and composition
lessons with private teachers.
In 1938 her parents saw the writing on the wall and fled to
Stockholm where, although their daughter didn't fulfil the
standard criteria, her extraordinary abilities gained her a place
in the Royal Academy of Music - in the teeth of protests in the
press, since there were restrictions on Jewish refugees. Her
principal teacher there was Ingemar Liljefors, whose mild,
folk-influenced modernism was prophetic of Schonthal's own style.
Her first published work, a sonatina for piano, appeared in 1940.
In 1941 Sweden had begun to appear an insecure haven, and so
Schonthal's parents continued their flight, settling in Mexico
City (via the Soviet Union). There she again resumed her interrupted
education, studying composition with Manuel Ponce and Rodolfo
Halffter and piano with Pablo Castellanos. She soon made her
mark here, too, appearing in a concert in the Palacio de Bellas
Artes as soloist in her own first piano concerto, the Concierto
It was in Mexico City that she met the composer Paul Hindemith,
a Hitlerfluchtling like herself, but by then one of the most
respected teachers in the USA. Deeply impressed when he heard
Schonthal performing her own works, he helped her find a bursary
which in 1946 allowed her to join his composition class at Yale
- at which point, like many other immigrant composers whose names
had diacriticals, she dropped the umlaut which had initially
graced the 'o' of Schonthal. With marriage to the painter Paul
Seckel in 1950 and a house in Atlantic City, New Jersey, her
wanderings were at last at an end.
But no one now knew her as a composer, of course, and so Schonthal
had to establish herself all over again. She helped feed her
growing family by writing music for TV commercials and playing
the piano in bars; private teaching in New York also contributed
to her modest income. Professional security eventually came with
a post teaching composition at New York University, from 1976,
and another at the State University New York at Purchase. And
she doggedly continued composing, turning her turbulent past to
good effect in her music which, toughly argued but approachable
in manner, fused elements of her European past with Mexican folk
influences and American modernism.
Ruth Schonthal's output includes over one hundred compositions,
among them three operas, all focussed on female figures: The
Courtship of Camilla (1979-80), Princess Maleen (1988) and Jocasta
(1996-97), a feminist recasting of the Oedipus legend where both
the main characters are represented by an actor, a singer and
a dancer. She paid homage to her second adoptive homeland with
Fiestas y Danzas (1961) for piano, based on Mariachi tunes, and
her third with a Whitman song-cycle, By the Roadside (1975).
A number of works address her Jewish heritage, among them a set
of Variations on a Jewish Liturgical Theme (1994) for, unusually,
electric guitar, and the Third String Quartet (1997) which bears
the title Holocaust in Memoriam. She similarly considered
contemporary events in her music, writing an anti-war cantata
The Young Dead Soldiers in 1986 and Bells of Sarajevo for clarinet
and prepared piano in 1997.
Gradually the world rediscovered Ruth Schonthal. In 1980 she
made her first trip back to Germany in 42 years when she undertook
a concert and lecture tour. Performances of her music became
more frequent. In 1994 the city of Heidelberg awarded her a medal
and celebrated her life with an exhibition. In that same year
Martina Helmig's Ruth Schonthal: ein kompositorischer Werdegang
im Exil appeared in print (an English translation, Ruth Schonthal
- A Composer's Musical Development in Exile, is scheduled from
The Edwin Mellen Press this coming December). In 1997 Furore
Verlag in Kassel signed an exclusive contract to publish her
music. In 1999 she presented her archive to the Academy of the
Arts in Berlin, which marked the event - and her 75th birthday
- with a gala opening, a concert and the release of a CD of her
piano music, played by Adina Mornell.
The record-producer Michael Haas, whose pioneering Decca CD
series 'Entartete Musik' ('Degenerate Music', as the Nazis branded
the output of Jewish and other undesirable composers) did much
to re-establish interest in the forgotten figures of that era,
found Schonthal a self-contained personality:
She was modest and utterly without any outward sign of being
aware of her significance. She was keen to be taken seriously
as a composer, though inevitably she became a galleon figure for
those in search of female composers with strong individual voices.
They hardly came more individual than hers. It wasn't always
'easy listening' but it was always engaging.
As Music Curator of the Jewish Museum of Vienna, Haas presented
a concert of her piano music, performed again by Adina Mornell,
who interviewed Schonthal onstage. Haas found her presence and
her explanations ... so enlightening, absent of all bitterness
and fundamentally so positive, that she created an energy that
any nationality would have been proud to have called their own.
But there was no self-interested lobbying, no special pleading:
at no time did she press me for performances or ask me to suggest
her works to anyone. She seemed to have the confidence of her
own voice and was aware that good musicians would always find
her if they kept looking.
Ruth Schonthal (Schonthal), composer and pianist; born Hamburg,
27 June 1924; married 1950 Paul Seckel, 3 sons; died Scarsdale,
New York, 10/11 July 2006.