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Ruth Schonthal

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, I’m going to feature a composer near to heart, Ruth Schonthal. Last month, my duo partner and I performed a concert that featured her stunning Totengesänge (Death Songs) as the finale. You can find the recording from our performance on 26 February below. 

After our concert, nearly everyone we spoke to was stunned that not only had they never heard this masterpiece, they’d never heard of Schonthal herself. 

Ruth was born Ruth Esther Hadassah Schönthal to a Jewish family in 1924 in Hamburg, Germany. From a young age, it was clear she had talent. By the time she was 5, Ruth had started composing for the piano and soon became the youngest student of her time at Berlin’s prestigious Stern Conservatory

The rise of the Nazis and Hitler cut her time at the conservatory and in Germany short. After being expelled along with all the other Jewish students in 1935, she returned to Hamburg for a few years. By 1938, her parents recognized the danger of the Nazis and were able to leave the country for the relative safety of Sweden.

Despite the horrors of World World II, Ruth continued her musical studies in Stockholm at the Royal Academy of Music until 1941. By then, Europe had become too dangerous for Jews, and the family fled once again, this time to Mexico.

Now 17, Ruth adjusted to life in Mexico City by continuing her studies. She worked with 2 composition teachers, Manuel Ponce, and Rodolfo Halffter. While Halffter focused on modern composers like Schoenberg, Ravel, and Debussy, Ponce featured folk tunes from his native Mexico.

5 years after arriving in Mexico, Schonthal played the world premiere of her Concierto Romantico for Piano and Orchestra. The piece impressed famous composer Paul Hindemith so much that he immediately offered Ruth the chance to study with him at Yale.

Schonthal took the opportunity and moved to the US to study with Hindemith and graduated in 1948 at age 24. 

In 1950, she married Paul Seckel, and they moved to New York City together. Over the years, the couple had 3 children together. 

Despite her innovative approach to music, Ruth had to pay the bills somehow. She began writing pop music and jingles for radio advertisements to keep the lights on. 

However, she continued to write non-commercial music and to perform as a concert pianist. Her musical style is nearly as varied as her background. While much of her music follows a thread of romanticism, you can hear the influence of Schoenberg, Hindemith, Ponce, Weil, and traditional music from Judaism, Mexico, Germany, and the US. 

She wrote many works, including pieces for piano solo, voice and piano, 3 operas, and concertos. Her pieces play with the sound of the instruments and sometimes include improvisation, which she was known for in her own performances. 

Many of her works have a religious or political slant.  Her 1994 chamber work, The Wall Before and After, is about reunifying Berlin. In Bells of Sarajevo for clarinet and prepared piano (1997), she provides commentary on the tragedy in Yugoslavia, and her 3rd string quartet from 1997, Holocaust in Memoriam, deals with the Shoah.

Her works extend to electric guitar and 3 operas, including Jocasta (1997), a feminist retelling of Oedipus. 

Ruth Schonthal died in 2006 in New York. Before her death, she returned several times to Germany, where she was recognized for her incredible compositions.

Totengesänge is a masterpiece that shows the many different faces of death, portrayed through the words and the varied styles of music. You’ll hear the longing for the death bells in the piano, the scathing of a lover scorned in the sprechstimme, the fear of a mother guarding a sick baby, and the ecstasy of a young dying virgin. Below you can find the lyrics in German and English (written by Schonthal herself) and the recording.

Totengesänge (Death Songs) by Ruth Schonthal (1963)

1. Totenglocken (Death Bells)

Nun ist das große Leid
und die große Freude
vorüber.
Nun sehne ich mich nach dem Tod.
Nun, in meinem Traumen
hör ich Totenglocken läuten.

Now that the great suffering
and the great joys
have passed.
I long for Death.
In my dream,
I hear Death Bells ring.

2. Die ewige Liebe (The Eternal Love)

Die ewige Liebe
von der man mir sprach,
die gibt es nicht!
Das allerliebenste Paar
geht schweigsam durch’s Leben
bis all die Leidenschaft
und Wärme,
und Sehnsucht,
und Ehrfurcht
zur Gewohnheit wird.
Verkalkende Hände
halten einander mit trockenem Griff,
leiden einander in resignierter Trauer
und zivilisierter Toleranz
bis nur der Tod sie erlöst –
bis nur der Tod sie scheidet!

The Eternal Love
of which one speaks,
does not exist!
The most loving couple
goes silently through life
until all passion
and warmth
and yearning
and respect
becomes habit.
Calcifying hands
hold one another with a dry grip,
suffer one another in resigned sorrow
and civilized tolerance
until only Death redeems them –
until Death does them part!

3. Wiegenlied an ein krankes Kind (Cradle Song for a Sick Child)

Eya popeya,
Süße Äuglein,
die mich anstrahlten,
zärtliche Arme, die mich umarmten,
fiebernde Wangen,
die wie Feuer glühen,
Pulse, die rasen,
Atem, der röchelt!

Sei ruhig, mein süßes Kind!
Eya popeya.
Schließe die Süßen Äuglein zur Ruhe zu,
geschwind!

Wenn dich der Tod,
aus meinem Armen reissen würde,
würde ich schreien wie ein Tier!
Mit müden Augen werde ich über dich wachen
die ganze lange Nacht.
Im dunklen Zimmer sitz ich und warte
zähle die Stunden
bis die Sonne
mit ihrem Strahlen
dich zärtlich erwecket.

Eya popeya
Sweet little eyes,
which shine into mine,
tender arms, which embraced me,
feverish cheeks
that glow like fire
Pulses that race
Breath that wheezes!

Be quiet, my beloved child!
Eya popeya.
Close the sweet eyes in peace quickly!

If Death were to yank you away from my arms, I would scream like an animal!
With tired eyes, I will sit vigil over you all night long.
In the darkened room, I sit and wait
counting the hours
until the sun
with her rays,
tenderly awakens you.


4. Tod einer Jungfrau (Death of a Virgin)

Ich liege hier im dunklen Zimmer
und wartet auf ihn.
Er kommt zu mir –
er kommt ganz nah an mich heran.
Er schaut in meine Augen,
Er sieht mich liebend an.

Ich fühl seinen kalten Atmen auf meinen heißen Schläfen.
Es quellt meine Lust.

Es streicheln seine Hände
zärtlich meine Brust.
Schon senkt sich die Schwere seines Körpers
auf den meinen.

Ich schreie auf! Ich fühl den seinen! O Ekstase!
In den Armen des Todes
will ich von der Liebe lernen!

I am lying here in a dark room
waiting for him.
He is coming toward me-
he is coming very close to me
He looks in my eyes
he looks at me lovingly.

I feel his cold breath upon my burning temples,
My lust surges.

His hands tenderly caress my breasts,
Already the heaviness of his body sinks upon mine.

I cry out! I feel him! O ecstasy!
In the arms of Death I will learn of love!

5. Totentanz (Dance of Death)

Der Tod fordert mich auf zum Tanze.
Mir graust.
Er kommt ganz nah an mich heran.
Er lächelt
und ergreift seine Violine
und fängt zu spielen an.

Oh Weh, was ist das für ein Getöse,
was für eine jämmerliche krazterei?
Es brausen meinen Ohren!
Es bricht mein Herz entzwei!
Es dreht sich mich alles im Kreise,
immer toller wird seine Weise.
Warum kann er, mit diese fürchterliche Musik
nich aufhören?
Wie mir die Ohren lösen!
Es bricht mein Herz entzwei!

Death summons me to a dance
I shudder.
He comes quite close to me.
He laughs
and grabs his violin
and starts playing.

Ah, what kind of miserable,
what kind of pitiful scratching?
My ears are roaring!
My heart is breaking into pieces!
Everything is turning in circles
His melodies are getting constantly more fretful.
Why can’t this horrible music stop?
How it rages in my ears!
My heart is breaking in two!

6. Totenreigen (Round Dance of Death)

Leise, in immer näherem Kreise,
Dreh’n wir uns dem Tode
zögend entgegen.
Näher, immer ihm näher,
bis wir in seinen Armen versinken.

Softly, in always closer circles,
we turn towards Death.
hesitantly.
Closer, and always closer to Him,
until we sink into His arms.

7. Hurenlied (Song of a Whore)

Der Tod nahm mich beim Schopfe,
er warf mich ins kühle Grab.
Da lieg ich nun und weine,
und büße meine Sünden ab.

Doch hätt’ ich nich gesündigt,
wär ich genau so Tot.
Im Leben muss man nehmen
die Lust sowohl als auch die Not.

Im Leben muss man arbeiten,
oft auch sündigt für das täglich Brot.

Death grabbed me by the hair,
and threw me in the cold grave.
There I am lying, now crying,
doing penance for my sins.

But, had I not sinned,
I would be just as dead.
In life, one has to take lust as well as misery.

In life, one has to work,
often sinning for the daily bread.

8. Die Spanierin (The Spanish Woman)

Der Sand und die Sonne,
der in gold-gekleidete Mann
erregt die Lust und die Wonne
in der Brust von der Spanischen Frau.

Doch wenn des Stieres scharfe Hörner
den Torero tötlich verwunden,
seine Schenkel ganz tief durchdringen,
Geht es wie ein Singen, wie ein klingen,
durch den geniessenden Leib
von dem Spanischen Weib.

The sand and the sun,
the man, all clad in gold,
excites the lust
in the breast of the Spanish woman.

But when the sharp horns of the bull
inflict a deadly wound upon the toreador,
penetrating his thighs,
Something like a singing, like a sounding,
flows through the gratified body
of the Spanish woman.

Performed by 

Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano

David Wishart, piano

with Theater Vorpommern in Stralsund 26 Feburary, 2023

The score is from Furore Verlag. The text and translation comes from the score.

This blog thanks Wikipedia and the New York Times for information about the composer.

Thanks to Katja Pfeifer for moderating our concert, Theater Vorpommern for having us, and Furore Verlag for publishing the score. 

By lisanewillsmith_soprano

Soprano Lisa Newill-Smith has performed across Europe and the United States. A passionate advocate of music by women, she is the founder of www.womenwhocomposed.com, performing livestream concerts and spreading information about female composers. Also a keen performer of contemporary music, Lisa has created roles by living composers, including Queen Gwenevere in Keith Beal´s Merlin, and Young Martha in David Wishart´s Absolved Passions. Lisa brings the energy from these passions to her performance of standard repertoire: her Despina was described by the Hastings Observer as “one of the most subtle performances I can recall, splendidly sung and totally alive to the text.” An extremely versatile performer, Lisa´s performance credits range from Servilia, to Gretel to Donna Elvira. Lisa has sung in masterclasses with Angel Blue, Dame Felicity Lott, Miriam Gauci and Renata Scotto. Her oratorio and concert works include Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. Lisa was a finalist in the Chicago Oratorio Award with the American Prize, the Opera Classica Europa competition, the Iuventas Canti Competition and a semi-finalist in the American Prize professional opera division. Lisa is from Virginia, USA and is currently based in Germany. For more information visit www.lisanewillsmith.com.

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