ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
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
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
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
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
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."