Prof Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph

Prof Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph

Prof Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph’s unquenchable passion for music is reflected on her impressive curriculum vitae. As composer, researcher and academic she has made an indelible mark on the South African music landscape. ClassicSA interviewed her to find out more about the formidable person behind the oeuvre of music, awards, publications and lecterns.

You grew up in a “musical and enlightened family”. Please tell us more about your family and how they supported your musical development.

JZR: Music was always an intrinsic part of growing up in my family and home environment. My father, David Zaidel, had a glorious tenor voice and sang in operettas, my mother, Evelyn Zaidel, studied the piano and was one of my best critics; and my late brother, Malcolm, played both the piano and guitar. I was encouraged to play the piano and compose from the age of five. Sundays were days of family music-making at home – long before home recordings were popular or even possible in the early 50s, we produced many reel-to-reel tapes of our combined music making. We recorded all the radio broadcasts that featured me as a very young pianist. My family supported me every step of the way and never ever made me feel (or even aware) that a female was any less capable of being a top composer than a male.

Who were your early mentors?

JZR: Primarily my parents and my teachers. Goldie Zaidel, my aunt, taught me the piano and theory from the age of 5 till the age of 17. After completing my matric at Pretoria High School for Girls, I went to Pretoria University to begin my undergraduate studies in Music.

Later you were a piano student of Philip Levy, Adolph Hallis, and later with John Lill at the Royal College of Music in London. How did these wonderful teachers influence you?

JZR: I was enormously fortunate to have the above world-class teachers who were my specialist piano teachers. Each one of them had an enormous and profound influence on, not only my pianistic abilities, but on my life as a young composer and musician as well in a very competitive world.

Philip Levy was my piano tutor at the University of Pretoria, Adolph Hallis mentored me privately after I graduated with my B.Mus, and John Lill was my Master piano instructor at the Royal College of Music, London. Each one of these masters opened doors to different worlds of music performance: Levy introducing me to some superb contemporary composers; Hallis was a stickler for technique and authentic interpretation; and John Lill the most inspirational teacher imaginable, concentrating on the Classical and 20th Century repertoire. This knowledge acquired of the vast piano literature inspired me for my own compositions.  But as importantly, Prof Johann Potgieter encouraged my composing career at the University and supervised my early forays into composing Piano sonatas and ensemble works.

Professor Arthur Wegelin was one of your mentors when you did your Masters at the University of Pretoria. He introduced you to György Ligeti’s music. How did it come about that you later went to study with Ligeti and what was this experience like?

JZR: Arthur Wegelin introduced me to the exciting world of the European avant garde after he himself attended Festivals of ‘new music’ in Darmstadt – he brought back scores of contemporary music unobtainable in SA. He opened up the world of the Polish avant garde for me. Amongst these recordings and scores were those of the famous Hungarian composer, György Ligeti. This new daring and experimental music “blew my mind” and I was determined to try to somehow get to Ligeti to learn from him and ‘worship’ at the Master’s feet. During an ‘all-Ligeti’ concert at the Purcell Room in London in 1973, I went backstage at interval to meet this famous composer, and inquired if he would take me on as a student. He asked me to leave my original music with him to peruse and that he would let me know. Three weeks later he wrote to say that he accepted me into his class of only three students for composition for 1973/1974. It was the greatest privilege of my life to study with this world-class composer, who influenced an entire generation of composers across continents and across all national borders. I learnt virtually everything I know about counterpoint, orchestration and composition from Ligeti. He was a taskmaster, quite eccentric but enormously kind and attentive as a teacher.

Stefans Grové also played an important role in your development. How did he influence your compositional style?

JZR: Grové is a teacher who, like me (as a teacher), does not so much try to influence the student’s compositional style, but rather aims to explore and reveal the maximum technical and musical potential within each student’s chosen style, and not impose a particular composing ideology on the student . Integrity to one’s writing and developing one’s own voice, but with solid technical skills, is the hallmark of Prof Grové’s method of teaching. Even Ligeti did not favour seeing clones of himself in his students’ compositions.

Most of the people you studied under where men. Are there any specific female composers that you admire?

JZR: From the earlier periods, I admire the work of Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger (1st woman to win the Prix de Rome) and from contemporary women, Grażyna Bacewicz (brilliant Polish composer), Tania Leon (Cuban composer), Joan Tower and Judith Lang Zaimont (USA).

Did the fact that you were female ever stand in your way during your career, or did you ever feel discriminated against?

JZR: I have been exceptionally fortunate to have achieved what I have to date without experiencing any real gender discrimination. Very occasionally I have experienced patronizing attitudes by some men, but on the whole feel that I have been accepted on my merits and not because of, or in spite of, being a woman.

You were the first woman to obtain a Doctorate in Music Composition in South Africa and one of the few female composers in South Africa. This seems to be a global tendency. Why do you think this career choice is still dominated by men?

JZR: It is a historical fact that in past centuries, societal mores and male prejudice prevented women from openly being composers – it was viewed by their families as being ‘unladylike’ (Fanny Mendelssohn’s father and even Nannerl Mozart’s father e.g., but it was fine for their famous brothers!) and not a profession for a female. Women instrumentalists in those days were far more acceptable (especially harpists!). Although still very few active female composers in SA today of any note, this is NOT the case globally! American, Russian, Chinese, Israeli and many other women composers are making their mark on the concert scenes of the world, and although still with a little resistance - due to historical prejudice - are being programmed by concert organisers in mainstream concerts and also receiving very important commissions. 

There is a humorous anecdote that I heard about involving your identity in the Total Oil Composers’ Competition.

JZR: I submitted my music under a pseudonym and when the winner was announced there was a shocked silence; it was later revealed to me by one of the judges that they thought the music calligraphy (writing) belonged to a local male composer and never imagined that a woman composer could win such a prestigious competition!

Although you are against gender segregation you did become involved in making people aware of women’s music and started lecturing on female composers in the 1980s. What was the response to this?

JZR: I am absolutely against gender segregation or discrimination, but at that time in the 1980s, it was very necessary to bring the world’s attention to the phenomenal music that was being composed by women, but was not much seeing the light of day. Also, I was very fortunate to have a vast collection of recorded music by women composers, as a result of my friendship with Aaron Cohen, the South African author who produced the very first World Encyclopaedia of Women Composers. At first it was mostly female audiences to whom I gave these lectures, but gradually there was new interest in music by women across the board by broadcasters and concert programmers.

Many composers only have the privilege to compose when they are commissioned and they have to keep the pot boiling with teaching, etc. Do you compose at random or mostly when you get a commission?

JZR The answer is both. I have been very blessed to have had many commissions to keep me busy, but that does not stop me from composing music simply because I am inspired to do so for instrumentalist friends or simply for myself. Since I am passionate about teaching and have spent most of my life lecturing at Wits University. It has been as important to me as composing. I have imparted my knowledge and experience to young musicians and have produced some wonderful young composers. Composing can be a lonely life so I enjoy the balance between composing and teaching.

Of the commission you have received, which proved to be the most challenging and interesting?

JZR: The commissions by the University of Johannesburg in 2009 for the Youth Oratorio, as well as the SAMRO Commission for my Piano Concerto, Pendulum, have been amongst the most challenging, as these are both large-scale works for which I knew would have multiple performances for large audiences. I am very happy with the results of both works. My earlier commissions from Unisa for set competition pieces have also been very exciting.

You have composed Orchestral, Chamber, Choral and Piano works, as well as a ballet score and a large work for musical theatre, a rock opera - thus a large variety of genres. Do you find it easy to compose for different genres and in different styles?

JZR: Yes! I love the variety of different instruments, occasions and performing artists and would get bored if I restricted myself to only one style of writing and in specific genres.

Having been widely recognized with numerous awards, as well as an honorary doctorate, which of these hold a special place in your heart?

JZR: The President’s award, The Order of Ikhamanga is something I will always cherish as it is recognition from the people of my own country. My Honorary Doctorate (D Ed.) from Pretoria University (UP) holds a special place in my heart as UP is my Alma Mater and all my other academic degrees hail from UP.

Earlier this year you were awarded a NRF grant for creative research. What will you base your research on?

JZR: This is the second cycle in which I have been awarded an NRF Grant, which will support my research financially till 2017. I am deeply invested in research into Intercultural Music and have an ongoing interest in the group of Xhosa ‘overtone’/throat-singers: the Ngqoko Women’s Cultural Group from the Eastern Cape.

Reading through your CV it is clear that you work very hard. Beside the long list of compositions, you serve on several boards, you have published widely and have continued research of various subjects through the years, and you are Professor of Music at the University of the Witwatersrand. What keeps you inspired?

JZR: Yes, I do work very hard but reap great rewards for that work, both composing and teaching!  The joy of creating a brand new musical work is exhilarating and in itself inspiring. I have a very optimistic view of life and people. I learn much from my own students of composition and have an insatiable thirst for new knowledge, particularly in indigenous music. My love and passion for music gives me the drive and energy to find new ways and paths of expression. Having been a Composition Professor at Wits University over many years has in itself been a source of inspiration for new works, as I love working with young aspiring composers.

You have five daughters – have any of them followed in your footsteps and pursued a music career?

JZR: I have not encouraged my daughters to pursue music as a profession. They are all very musical and have pursued music as an interest to love – they have studied the piano and violin, but not as a career. Two of our daughters are principals of schools (with degrees in Education and Business), one is a qualified reflexologist, and our “laat-lammetjie” has just qualified as a Speech Pathologist and audiologist at Wits University.

On a more personal note, what do you do when you are not at work?

JZR: We are blessed with a large family. In addition to our five daughters and sons-in-law we have 12 grandchildren, with another one on the way. Since I work so hard, I try to spend time with these absolutely amazing little people. I also love to read at the weekends and go to the Theatre.

Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler
Published 20 May 2013

What's On

January 2017
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 1 2 3 4