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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Miriam Gideon

Miriam Gideon

The music of Miriam Gideon has had a fairly small but highly enthusiastic following for many years. Her name has been much more widely known and admired by way of her teaching career and her passionate, unstinting support of contemporary music and musicians. Many of her friends and colleagues will be paying tribute to her in 1986 in honor of her 80th birthday (October 23), a calendar mark which has stirred up widespread disbelief in the musical community owing to Miriam Gideon's unchanged energy, youthfulness, and candid warmth.

Her father, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati — "he was an ordained rabbi who never rabbi'd," — had taken a position as professor of philosophy and modern languages at the Colorado State Teachers College, forerunner to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and it was there that she was born in 1906. ("My father actually delivered me. There was a heavy snow storm and the doctor couldn't get there. I was told that I was put on the radiator, but I turned out all right. My father, as you can see, was an intrepid man.") The family lived in Colorado until Miriam was about six or seven, and then moved as Prof. Gideon accepted other appointments in Wyoming, California, Chicago, and finally New York. There had been no music to speak of in her immediate family, but she and her sister loved to sing the songs they heard in school, and it wasn't until they got to Chicago that she began piano lessons with a music teacher/cousin. She proved to be a rapid learner.

She was of high school age when her family settled in New York and her parents promptly enrolled her in the Music Conservatory of Yonkers where she took up her studies with Hans Barth, the Leipzig-born pianist and composer who had been a student of Reinecke and Busoni.

Summers were spent in Boston under the tutelage of her uncle, Henry Gideon, the music director of Temple Emanu-El. ("He was a very highly developed musician with many distinctions, and had graduated from Harvard having specialized in Gregorian chant, which wasn't nice for a Jewish boy, but he did.") In fact, her last two high school years were spent in Boston and led quite naturally to her enrollment at Boston University. ("I had fantasies of 'that day in Carnegie Hall' which eventually gave way to my agonies of anxiety at playing in public. By that time, of course, I had been composing for many years already. I had started in New York, when I was ten or so, to write little pieces. But terrible things! I wish I had saved them so that I can be embarrassed. My sister told me only recently that she had thought I'd copied them. I was so flattered.")

She was only 18 when she graduated from college and moved back to New York. Composing steadily, she found that she was particularly drawn to musical setting of words and around then wrote what she now regards as her first piece "which was truly me." Her heritage — a humanistic father whose field was language and a mother who read poetry to her two girls and instilled a permanent love for this art form — began to make itself felt, and she set out to develop connecting links between words, ideas, emotions, and music which have been the hallmark of her creativity ever since.

Her college degree did not signal the end, but rather the beginning, of Miriam Gideon's education. She continued her studies at New York University and privately while earning her living, first as secretary to a neurologist and soon as a teacher in the now legendary Henry Street Settlement School. One of her teachers in the early thirties was Lazare Saminsky, the Russian-American composer, conductor, and writer on music who had studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov and, on coming to America, was one of the co-founders of the League of Composers and music director of New York's Temple Emanu-El. It was Saminsky who first interested Gideon in music based on scriptural texts, not only for the Hebrew service, but for concert performance. It was also Saminsky who told her of two composers in whom he really believed who were about to come to New York to teach: Arnold Schoenberg and Roger Sessions. Gideon chose to work with Sessions whom she found to be enormously supportive and encouraging ("he left it to me to be self-critical").

The Sessions classes took place at the Dalcroze School and were attended by such composers as Hugo Weisgall, Vivian Fine, David Diamond, and even Alfredo Casella who sometimes sat in. Later on, Milton Babbitt and Edward T. Cone joined the group. "In fact, this very room was once used by Sessions as a studio before it became my apartment, and we had a constant parade of students."

The apartment is a joy to behold and vividly reflects the values and life style of its occupants. High up in one of the grand old apartment buildings on New York's west side, it overlooks Central Park; Gideon's own tiny studio, containing her piano, music, desk, and work things, faces the south. "There's hardly any dust up here, and we have plenty of light. The atmosphere is constantly changing, and it's beautiful at any hour or season." Next door, in a twin ministudio, is her husband's booklined work room. He is Frederic Ewen, the author-linguist-scholar whom she met when she was teaching at Brooklyn College and married in 1949. His most recent book, Heroic Imagination (Citadel Press, 1984), a study of European literature, has joined his previous volumes on the shelves, books on Schiller, Heine, and Brecht. No one who visits this couple can fail to perceive the pride and joy they take in each other's work and energies. It is a touching example of strength through independence and togetherness.

While she was teaching harmony, counterpoint, composition, and even music history at Brooklyn and City Colleges — "that's when I began to really learn, when I started teaching"she decided to go back to school herself. She enrolled at Columbia and took her master's degree in musicology under the supervision of Paul Henry Lang. Her dissertation was on the Mozart string quintets, even though she is not much of a string player herself ("I said I wasn't going to boast, but I am the world's most ungifted cellist"). Teaching has been an enormously positive and generative dimension for her, and she in turn has influenced the musical outlook of generations of young people. Her relationship to what is now known as the City University of New York has had its share of ups and downs. Originally called "a floating bottom," i.e., one of the faculty assigned to shuttle back and forth between Brooklyn and City College, she ended her professorial career as a "distinguished fellow" and the very school which purged her during the paranoid McCarthy era of the 50's conferrred an honorary doctorate on her in the 70's. Between 1955 and 1971, she taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, returning to City College from 1971 to 1976.

The music of Miriam Gideon shows a striking balance between construction and communicativeness, with both elements being immediately perceived by the attentive listener. While she would not be considered a prolific composer, she has over 50 titles to her credit, fairly evenly divided in the earlier years among instrumental, orchestral, and vocal music. As early as 1957, she had already established herself as a serious voice among serious musicians, as evidenced by an article of George Perle's in which he wrote: "To her the inherent ambiguity of pitch-functions in the contemporary tone-material means that one must be more careful than ever, and this sense of the significance of every note pervades her work. A melodic or harmonic idea will recur with one or more individual elements inflected by a semitone, a shade of difference that may or may not have a large structural meaning but that imbues her music with a kind of personal, reflective quality, almost as though the composer's search for the ideal formulation of her thought had become part of the composition itself."

In later years, her attraction to text settings has come to the fore and she has been particularly drawn to composing for voice with small instrumental ensembles. In this category are The Condemned Playground (1963; with words by Horace, Milton, Spokes, Akiya, Baudelaire, Millay), Questions of Nature (1964; Adelard of Bath), Spiritual Madrigals (1965; Ewen, Suezkint von Trimperg, Heine), Rhymes from the Hill (1968; Morgenstern), Nocturnes (1976; Shelley, Untermeyer, Sherman), Songs of Youth and Madness (1977; Hoelderlin), and The Resounding Lyre (1979; a reworking of the Spiritual Madrigals). She will often opt for "dual settings," i.e., first composing music for an English text and then setting the words in a different language (as in Milton's translation of Horace's Latin). In composing music for a long passage from Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, only a one-line refrain appears in French, the rest being in English to make more immediately understandable "the magical interaction of the sinister and the beautiful." Or, as in the whimsical verses of Christian Morgenstern, the words are left entirely in the original language. And yet again, as in a poem about Hiroshima, she had the original English poetry translated into Japanese. "It's just the fascination of getting the same idea in two different languages and finding the right clothing to drape on the same skeleton, at the same time resolving this diversity into an integrated whole."

In 1975, Miriam Gideon became the second woman composer elected to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters — the first having been Louise Talma who, oddly enough, has for years lived in the same Central Park West apartment house and also celebrates her 80th birthday in October of next year. Moreover, Gideon has been one of the most recorded of contemporary American composers. At the time of this interview, she was in the midst of composing a piece on commission from the Jubal Trio. "I decided not to be so dead serious this time and picked some very artful poems by Nancy Cardozo about little animals called Creature to Creature. It will be done next year."

Inevitably, the question arose: what did it mean to be a woman composer? "I never thought about being a woman composer. I knew I was a woman and was never aware of anything hindering my being a composer. It seemed quite natural. It was the thing I did and wanted to go on doing. I think that it was only in the 60's, with the women's movement, that I began to realize that there must have been some discrimination. Until that time, there really were very few women who were professional composers. There are many more now, which must make me think that it has become more accepted. But I don't care for isolating musical activity by gender and would caution against it."

What did Miriam Gideon think about the durability of 20th century American music? Would any of it be a safe bet for the concert repertory of the 21st century? "Gershwin and Copland, for sure. Carter and Cage are best-known in Europe, but I have no idea how either of those will come to be regarded in the next century. I would say that Cage may be better remembered than Carter. I think that contemporary music itself has drifted downhill more and more towards the so-called 'minimalism.' I think it's a terrible rip-off, creatively. And yet audiences seem to want it. When I look at some of the students of some big music schools I won't mention, what are their courses? They are exposed to the most tangential and irresponsible kind of composition, often by very 'prominent composers,' and that's what they're brought up on. Their own musical tastes are not yet formed. They are absolutely without criteria. And they think that what they are hearing is music."

We wondered whether ultimate judgments on music and art were made not by musicians and artists, but rather by lay audiences. If so, shouldn't we be trying to make them as literate as we can? "Well, I certainly would say yes. Some of it has to do with education, starting in Grade 1. Where I come from, back in Colorado, we were taught the movable do in public school. We learned to read notes as well as words. Everybody. By the time we got to high school, we had college literacy and ear-training skills. It's been suggested to some of our schools today. It would be so easy. But that's where you begin."

It sounded as if Miriam Gideon was drawing a fine line between the professional and the amateur, between the artist and a receptive world. Did art (we asked) — all art — not have to be an integral component of society itself, rather than an isolated phenomenon? "I cannot answer the obvious except to say the obvious: absolutely."

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