This is the first full-length introduction to the life and works of significant American composer Marga Richter (born 1926), who has written more than one hundred works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, dance, opera, voice, chorus, piano, organ, and harpsichord. Still actively composing in her eighties, Richter is particularly known for her large-scale works performed by ensembles such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and for other pieces performed by prominent artists including pianist Menahem Pressler, conductor Izler Solomon, and violinist Daniel Heifetz.
Interspersing consideration of Richter's musical works with discussion of her life, her musical style, and the origins and performances of her works, Sharon Mirchandani documents a successful composer's professional and private life throughout the twentieth century. Covering Richter's formative years, her influences, and the phases of her career from the 1950s to the present, Mirchandani closely examines Richter's many interesting, attractive musical works that draw inspiration from distinctly American, Irish/English, and Asian sources. Drawing extensively on interviews with the composer, Mirchandani also provides detailed descriptions of Richter's scores and uses reviews and other secondary sources to provide contexts for her work, including their relationship to modern dance, to other musical styles, and to 1970s feminism.
About the Author
Sharon Mirchandani is a professor of music history and theory at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey.
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By Sharon Mirchandani
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Early Years 1926–1951
From the beginning I used all twelve tones of the chromatic scale as equals, although at times one tone might be more important than the others, and the music is essentially melodic. I recently looked at one of my early songs and was totally surprised to find that the piano part contains harmonic and melodic elements that I am still using—passages using only consecutive 7ths and 9ths, including a very dissonant passage in minor 9ths with a type of inner figuration which has remained as an element of my later style. This rather amazed me since at that time I had heard very little contemporary music (no Schoenberg, Stravinsky or Bartók for instance) and had played none.
Marga Richter, 1979, quoted in LePage, Women Composers
ON OCTOBER 21 , 1926, Florence Marga Richter was born in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, the heart of the American Midwest. The strong musical upbringing Marga Richter received, combined with the midwestern values of hard work and independence, was the foundation out of which she grew to compose a large, distinctive body of works over her lifetime. Her music is primarily in the style and genres of Western art music and at times draws inspiration from distinctly U.S., Irish/English, and Asian sources. Nearly all of her music, including her orchestral works, has received performances. It has been rare for women to compose large-scale orchestral compositions, so her accomplishment in this area is particularly impressive. This book's exploration of her life and works sheds light on Marga Richter's contributions to women's history and America's musical history.
Richter's mother, Inez Chandler Richter (née Davis) (1885–1956), was an American soprano whose operatic career was solely in Germany, just before, during, and after World War I. She married William Chandler by the time they were listed in the 1910 census in Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota. On March 1, 1913, they went to Germany, where Will served in the diplomatic corps, and Inez studied voice with the renowned Madame Schoen-René, who prepared her for her Berlin debut recital in 1916. Marga recounts that just before the concert Will Chandler became ill with pneumonia, worsened by the climate in northern Germany. His doctor recommended that the couple decamp to southern Germany, but he refused to uproot Inez before her big debut. Three days before the concert, he died. Madame Schoen-René assumed Inez would cancel. Inez refused to do so, saying, "This man gave up his life for me. I will honor him by dedicating this concert to him." Inez then returned, presumably with Chandler's body, to the United States and went to live with her parents in Reedsburg. In 1920 she returned to Germany to resume her operatic career.
Richter's father, Paul Richter, was a captain in the German army during World War I. According to Marga, upon returning home to Einbeck in 1921 from captivity in Persia, he ventured out to the local opera house specifically to see and hear Inez Chandler, the soprano he was told was too "snooty" to mingle with the local lads. He fell in love on the spot, went backstage to meet her, stayed four hours, and "sealed the deal." (He was a born salesman, making his career as an insurance agent, as an assessor, and running a local newspaper.) They were married in 1922 and immediately came to the United States and settled in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, where Marga and her older sister Rena were born. In 1927 the family moved to Minneapolis, where her brother Paul was born in 1929. In 1932 they moved once again, to Robbinsdale, a suburb of Minneapolis, where they stayed until 1943.
Marga's paternal grandfather, Richard Richter, was a composer, municipal orchestra conductor, and music teacher in Einbeck, Germany. Though she never met him, she did play one of his piano pieces, Unter den Linden. He refused to teach music to his own children, but Marga's father taught himself to play the piano and had a lifelong passion for music. Marga met her paternal grandmother just once when she visited the United States and stayed with Marga's mother and father for a time. Marga's maternal grandparents were farmers of Canadian-Welsh origin and eventually moved from Reedsburg into the Richter home in Robbinsdale.
Marga's mother, Inez, was extremely important as a role model for Marga, both personally and musically. While Inez raised her three children (who were born when she was thirty-eight, forty-one, and forty-four), she continued her professional career, giving a number of recitals, teaching voice, both at the University of Minnesota and privately, conducting a women's choral group for a time, and performing as soloist at the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, in Minneapolis. Marga recalls her mother being in demand for singing at funerals, because when she sang hymns she moved and comforted the listeners. Marga feels this may have been her mother's greatest gift to her ... the belief that music should reach the hearts of one's listeners, and that it must communicate. Inez Chandler's last high-profile engagement was as soloist in an all-Wagner program with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy on March 18, 1934, which Marga remembers attending. Marga reflected, "I do not remember the music ... I only have a visual memory of how she looked on the big stage, attired in a black velvet gown with a bodice encrusted with rhinestones, which I thought were diamonds."
Marga's father, Paul, also strongly influenced her musical and personal life. Although dissuaded from pursuing a career in music, he had enough skill as a musician to conduct a choir in Reedsburg. Marga recalls that he had a good enough tenor voice to participate in the impromptu musicales he and Inez hosted, where the two of them took turns as accompanist, as soloist, or in duets. He also often played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to help his children drift off to sleep. ("His tempos in the faster movements were closer to a turtle's than a hare's.") His love of music and knowledge of the great German romantic composers, along with the poets and philosophers of that era defined his life. He almost never missed the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and the Sunday broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic. If the opera was by Wagner, his favorite, he insisted on silence throughout the house. She recalls, "We didn't dare even walk through the living room." The psychological and philosophical underpinnings of Wagner's slowly unfolding music may have been a subconscious influence on Marga's own music.
Another aspect of the influence of Marga's mother was her leaving her Baptist roots and becoming a Christian Scientist, after the family moved from Reedsburg to Minneapolis. Marga's father had been Lutheran, but left the church after he resisted taking baby Marga out in the cold Wisconsin winter to be baptized and was told by the minister that she would go to hell without it. He never set foot in a church again, but acquiesced with his wife's choice of Christian Science. Marga considered herself a Christian Scientist and attended Sunday school regularly until the mandatory cut-off age of twenty. She went to church services for a few months after that and then gave up all organized religion. Her early experiences did however shape many of her attitudes throughout life. She finds beauty in nature all around her and tries to think good thoughts and keep her health up. She believes the lack of strict orthodoxy and rituals in the Christian Science church may have fostered her lifelong penchant for following her own muse in her creative and personal life. She also considers the sexes as equals; perhaps this is from the Christian Science understanding of God as both mother and father. Christian Scientists eschew drugs or surgery for medical treatment and instead emphasize healing through prayer, akin to relieving the stresses that may cause disease, and she recalls trying to cure headaches with thought as a teenager. Though she did not continue this as an adult, she recalls not knowing quite how to swallow an aspirin when she was first offered one by a fellow Juilliard student. She never saw a doctor until her 1952 bout with pneumonia, and in her eighties is in robust good health, taking no medication. She believes in a creator, but considers an afterlife unknowable and plans to be cremated.
Both of Marga's parents instilled in her the belief that she could follow her dreams and supported her musical endeavors in every way.
Early Musical Experiences
When asked about her earliest musical training, Richter recalled:
My earliest, I was told about. I don't remember it. I was three. My sister was taking piano lessons and practicing and when she'd play a wrong note or hesitate ... I was sitting on the floor with my dolls ... I'd sing out the proper note. And that's when my parents said, in effect, "let's take a look at this kid."
So, by age four, Richter began to take piano lessons from Mary Dillingham in Minneapolis. From her she learned much about musical phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, and the importance of playing with "feeling." Because of her good ear, and because much of the learning at first was by rote, Richter easily memorized every piece. The downside of this method was that she did not become a good sight reader, a fact she definitely regrets. When Richter was ten, Dillingham was seriously injured in a car accident and was unable to continue teaching. Richter then continued piano lessons with Irene Hellner, who became a close friend of the family.
Richter learned the standard European piano repertoire of the day, with emphasis on Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. She specifically recalls playing the following works: Bach: Preludes and Fugues, English Suites, the Italian Concerto, and Partitas; sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert; Schumann Arabesque No. 1; Chopin: waltzes, mazurkas, preludes, polonaises, ballades, and études; Grieg: Concerto in A Minor; Rachmaninoff: Preludes in G Minor and C Minor; Debussy: Reverie; Griffes: Clouds; Bartók: Mikrokosmos; Shostakovich: Prelude in E Minor; and Soler: Fandango.
Though she had no theory or composition lessons, Richter began to compose on her own at age twelve. Richter believes that the desire to compose came from an innate longing to express her ineffable emotions, especially in regard to her emotional attachments to the significant people in her life. As a teenager, she experienced three intense "crushes" on teachers and friends, and used music performance and composition to garner their attention and ultimately their admiration.
The first of these was for her seventh- and eighth-grade English and science teacher, Mary Howell (later Brinkman). Richter recalls, "In order to bring myself to her attention I started to affect a very troubled demeanor when around her, which eventually had the desired result: she asked me what was wrong and I confided in her that I had found papers at home that indicated I was adopted. She acted appropriately shocked and sympathetic. I soon had to admit this was not true, but now we had a special bond." Howell then took a special interest in Richter, admiring her musical accomplishments, which included a birthday song called "I'm Thinking of You" that Richter wrote for her. (The song, a very conventional ditty, did double duty when Richter sent the same song to her cousin Helen several months later. "Always one to extract full value from an idea," quips Richter.) When Howell announced that she was leaving to be married, Richter was devastated at the thought of never seeing her again. She remembers, "I poured my deep feelings of impending loss into my interpretation of Goddard's Second Barcarolle, which I was going to play at a piano recital in Minneapolis on the last day of the school year. I wanted to play this for her so she would understand how much I loved her and she had agreed to come. The afternoon of the concert, she invited me to come to her apartment and told me she simply did not have the time, because she was packing to leave immediately. I was crushed. I went home and cried for a very long time."
As it turned out, the relationship continued. They exchanged letters, and Howell, now Brinkman, sent Richter a pair of white mittens embroidered with colorful flowers for Christmas of that year (1940) and notified her of the impending birth of her first child (1941), for whom Richter composed her second piece, another song for which she wrote the words as well, and sent it to her. "It was probably called Lullaby. The piece has been lost, and I cannot remember all of it, but the opening theme marked the beginning of what I feel is my personal, original style: tonality immediately gone awry. The pitches are C–F–G–G#–A–F#–D#."
In 1943 when Richter left Minnesota to study music in New York, she saw Brinkman one more time. Richter contacted Brinkman, knowing she lived in a suburb of Chicago, to ask if they could see each other during Richter's layover in that city. Brinkman graciously invited her to stay with her in lieu of a hotel. Richter was overjoyed to see Brinkman and to meet the child for whom she had written the lullaby. After a few more letters and Brinkman's move to Denver, Colorado, they lost touch. Sixty-seven years later, at age eight-one, Richter used the Brinkman lullaby melody (revised) in her piano piece March Berserk.
Irving Boekelheide was the second teacher to play a significant role in her life. He joined the faculty at Richter's high school in 1940 and taught mathematics and directed the chorus. Richter's aptitude in his algebra class brought her to his attention, and he soon became interested in her as a musician, and as a person. He, himself, was a composer and violinist, and he asked Richter to perform his Theme with Four Variations on a school assembly program. She recalls:
It was the first contemporary music I had ever played, full of changing meters, jazzy rhythms, slightly dissonant harmonies, and formally quixotic. I lost the music in a fire [see chapter 2], but when we reconnected, due to my sleuthing in 1995, he sent me a copy. I was amazed to find that this piece had made an indelible impression on my subconscious musical mind, to the point that I unknowingly used a few of the melodic and rhythmic fragments in my own music, years later. This performance definitely created a bond between us.
He further influenced Richter's musical development by bringing a record player into a classroom after school to play orchestral music for her. Franck's Symphony in D Minor was her favorite.
Boekelheide also arranged for her to attend the Minneapolis Symphony concerts (Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor). Her parents allowed her to go by herself on public transportation, since he offered to drive her home. She remembers:
These concerts, at which I first heard great orchestral music and soloists live, including the premiere of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony and Rachmaninoff playing his second piano concerto, were a great source of inspiration and joy. And I was by then totally "in love" with Boekelheide. And, it would seem, his interest in me was not totally platonic. After the last concert of the season, rather than take me directly home, we drove around for awhile, and he made three responses I have never forgotten, to something I must have said: "The only thing wrong with you is you are only fourteen"; "If you were older I would be rougher in my talk"; "I am only sorry there are only eleven more weeks of you."
The relationship, which remained innocent, was a heady experience and further exposed Richter to the act of composition and to high-caliber performances. She recalls that working with him on his music made composition seem like a normal thing to do.
As I had with Howell, when I knew he [Boekelheide] was not returning to the school in the fall, I made my feelings of sadness known to him by playing Liszt's Consolation No. 3 for him on the last day of school in the music room. I thought I would never see him again. Unexpectedly, we kept in touch by telephone through the fall. In October he invited me to go with him to St. Paul to play his Theme with Four Variations for his composition teacher, Donald Ferguson. After I played, we were offered tea. Asked if I would like a cup, I demurred and said I would just like the lemon. This attempt at humor was met with stony-faced incomprehension. As a Christian Scientist, I had never had either tea or coffee. Our host took me seriously and I, blushing, had to decline the proffered wedge. I saw Boekelheide once more, probably in the summer of 1944, when he surprised me by visiting me in New York, bringing me a copy of a piano version of Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges. Always the teacher!
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