Remembering Ruth Schonthal
I met Ruth Schonthal in 1992 at a musical retreat held by Goliard Concerts at rural Warwick, New York . She was guest composer on the series that Fall, and I was to appear in a similar capacity the following year.
In 1994, after listening to several of her pieces, we chose to program her wonderful solo piano work The Canticles of Hieronymus , as performed excellently by her frequent performer-collaborator Margaret Mills on the Composers Concordance concert series at the Kosciuszko Foundation. That piece was based upon the famous painting of Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and had all the colorful imaginings of the painting translated into a musical expression.
My wife and I had the good fortune to be invited to Ruth's beautiful home in New Rochelle for several summers of cook-outs during long Labor Day weekends. Other artists were present, including the inventive and amusing Alton S. Tobey, who was a noted artist and illustrator as well as raconteur. At such gatherings, Ruth showed her fascinating ability to create ersatz versions of classical works at the piano. She could mimic Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann with astonishing accuracy so that even pianists familiar with the literature sometimes believed she had stumbled upon some “long lost masterwork” when, essentially, they were hearing an improvisation of genius.
But, in her own work, Ruth was uncompromising and inventive. She would include Viennese waltzes in certain sections of her work, knowing full well that some scholars of “new music” would find them out of place. She was no stranger, though, to avant-garde techniques. Although she copied many of her pieces with computer calligraphy, she would also l! eave areas blank where she could draw more “aleatoric” effects and graphs that could not easily be notated by computer. She was also no stranger to the “prepared piano.” In several of her pieces, such as the Bells of Sarajevo, performed at a concert of the Composers Concordance on May 25, 2006, shortly before her death, she included small plastic and metal objects in the body of the grand piano to “rattle around” and create a “prepared” effect (See page 20). She was also a great believer in using small increments of time between other duties for composing. She didn't need or have the luxury of long, unoccupied hours.
One of the themes that interested Ruth was that of “destroyed beauty,” or anything beautiful that was experiencing decay or destruction. Perhaps this fascination related to her early years, where she escaped Nazi Germany and saw destruction and oppression first hand. Of late she was rather critical of the imperiousness of her adopted home, the U.S., citing what she perceived as arrogant “shock and awe” techniques of international persuasion.
Ruth Schonthal left a sizable footprint, particularly in reference works published in Germany where the Akademie der Künst in Berlin housed and purchased her complete archives in celebration of her 75th birthday. Her work also became readily available, with Furore Verlag in Kassel, Germany publishing it entire. Her recorded work can be found on the Leonard, Cambria, Capstone, Koch, Albany and Academy labels. In recent years, Ruth also took to the Internet as a means to promote her music, and even had score and recording purchasing capabilities on her website. Although she lived to the age of 82, it's little consolation, since we remember her vibrant enthusiasm for life and new plans for the coming year.