Marga Richter - Long Island Composer

Marga Richter - An interview with the Long Island composer. "You come to New York, and it was just overwhelmingly wonderful."

Marga RichterMarga holding score

Marga Richter was a composer from Minneapolis, Minnesota and eventually resided in Huntington, Long Island. Having come from a musical family - with her mother being an opera singer and her grandfather a conductor - Marga started learning music at a young age. She received private piano lessons through her teens and would frequently perform duets with her mother. After graduating high school, the family moved to New York City, so Marga could further her piano studies. During these years she started to write her own compositions. Once Marga settled in New York, she enrolled in a Bachelor of Science degree program. It was there, where she received invaluable piano training from Bach expert Rosalyn Tureck. After receiving her masters degree, Marga had a difficult time getting her career started as a composer... mostly because she was a woman and didn't receive any guidance from the establishment. This didn't stop her, as she continued to write compositions whenever she could. To pay the bills, she took on a number of piano students. Always finding time to network herself, Marga was constantly making connections and eventually met up with a choreographer who liked her compositions. At this time, Marga started writing what would become, landmark pieces in her career. She started recording for MGM records and found her husband in the process. Throughout her career, Marga had composed pieces for band, ensembles, dance, opera, chorus, and more. In 1972, Marga co-founded The Long Island Composers Alliance with Herbert Deutsch, which is a non-profit organization to help local composers get their music noticed and performed. Marga had her compositions performed on a regular basis. This interview was conducted in 2014.

R.V.B. - I guess what I'd like to get started with is, maybe just talk a little bit about your youth and how you were originally exposed to music.

M.S. - I come from a very musical family. There was music everywhere. My mother was an opera singer and my father's father was a conductor. There was music in the home. It's in your genes...  where you get your music from I guess. When I was about three years old, my sister was playing the piano - and she made a mistake - and I sang out the right note and they looked at me and said "Wait a minute, what's this?". (haha) So I started piano lessons when I was about four.

R.V.B. - Did you see your mother sing at all?

M.S. - Well yeah. I didn't see her in the opera... that was before we were born but she sang in church and sang in a couple of concerts. She also sang my early songs and was very good at it.

R.V.B. - Did she give you any singing lessons?

M.S. - Not voice lessons. I tried to take singing lessons but I had no voice. No, we had piano teachers.

R.V.B. - Did you have one piano teacher for a long time or did you go through various teachers.

M.S. - I had the same one from age four to ten and then she had an accident. Somebody hit her and she was an old lady, so we found another teacher who was a friend of my mothers. I studied with her for many years. There was a Polish Countess - Helena Marsztyn - that my teacher Irene Hellner studied with. This woman lived in New York but came to Minneapolis every year to give master classes. So when I was about fourteen, I applied and got a scholarship for her master class. That happened for two years. I was about sixteen when this teacher came to my parents and said "You know she really should come to New York. We decided to change teachers in Minneapolis because my teacher was my mother's best friend. You couldn't say to her "We don't think you're good enough." So we up and moved to New York... my father, my mother, my brother, my dog, my piano and me.

R.V.B. - Now they basically did this for you?

M.S. - Yeah, it's amazing... just unbelievable. My family just came to New York

R.V.B. - Well that was very nice of them. (hahaha) Did you move to the city or out here on the Long Island?

M.S. - No, we lived in New York City at that time, on West 28th street. The house has been demolished and there is no plaque saying Marga Richter lived here, too bad. (hahaha)

R.V.B. - Do you have any memories of that time period that stick out in your mind? Marga street sign

M.S. - Yeah, you come to New York and it was just overwhelmingly wonderful. We lived just off 5th Avenue.

R.V.B. - You went from a rural town, right to the big city.

M.S. - A rural town of 7000 to New York City, right in the thick of it.

R.V.B. - Did you go take in the culture? Did you go see plays and shows?

M.S. - Well we didn't have much money. We went to Carnegie hall and saw various people. I think I heard Rubinstein and Horowitz there and because we didn't have much money, my parents didn't even go to the Met which was six blocks away.

R.V.B. - So you got the new teacher there...

M.S. - Yes, the Countess Helena Marsztyn. I gave a couple of little piano recitals and then my parents decided once again in their wisdom that she wasn't really doing anything for me. So they said "You should really go to Juilliard." (Hahaha) So I applied to Juilliard and got in.

R.V.B. - Well that was a feat in itself right?

M.S. - Well yes it was.

R.V.B. - What school did you go to when you first got here? A music school or public school?

M.S. - I took my senior year in summer school, so I was all finished with high school before I came to New York. That's when I was seventeen.

R.V.B. - When you did go through grade school, were you in the band or anything?

M.S. - No I was not in anything. I just practice piano all day long and studied the rest of the day. I think I played for the chorus or something but unfortunately I never learned another instrument which is too bad.

R.V.B. - What was your practice regimen like?

M.S. - I would practice two hours before I went to school and when I got home. I loved it... that's all I really wanted to do.

R.V.B. - Did it affect your social life?.

M.S. - Life was a little different then. I had one really good friend... she was just as crazy as I was and we just spent our time together.

R.V.B. - Was she a musician also?

M.S. - No, she probably could have been a writer but she didn't do anything with it. We read Dickens and did silly things together and went to concerts together. I didn't bother with boys... I went to a couple of dances but it didn't amount to anything.

R.V.B. - How were your years at Juilliard? Were they very exciting for you? Was it difficult?

M.S. - No, I enrolled in the Bachelor of Science so that you get academics as well. I learned a little French, took a little history, and did a little psychology. I studied with Rosalyn Tureck who was a great Bach expert. Marga filing compositions

R.V.B. - How was that?

M.S. - Fantastic! I learned more from her in two years then I had ever learned before. The most important thing that I remember from her is rhythm. She called it "the Agogic accent". If you go (dadalalalalalala) it's boring but if you go (dada' dada' dada') and wait for those beats to come... when an orchestra plays it gets very exciting with the rhythm. Many, many pianists just don't do that. They just rattle on and you don't feel anything.

R.V.B. - Some of that Bach music is very repetitive.

M.S. - Yes, but any music that you play, if you differentiate the downbeats from the other beats and even in between, you get more excitement. Another thing was just the way she played the piano, which was sort of a sliding motion sometimes and you get a melding of tones from one to the next. As soon as you play a note on a piano it disappears... it decays. If you play the next note loud, sometimes it doesn't work very well. You have to meld them together. Does that make any sense?

R.V.B. -  Yeah, she taught you a little bit about dynamics and rhythm.

M.E. - Rhythm, dynamics, touch and of course a big handful of Bach, which I never played before. After two years, she decided she should go on. In the meantime I started writing music when I was about ten or eleven... just for fun. There were no women composers in those days that anybody had heard about. Although I didn't think in terms of being a composer... I just did it. I wrote a few songs and some of which I wrote the words for, when I was nineteen.

R.V.B. - Do you still have those songs? Marga Jab 1

M.S. - I do, and they're still good. I'm gonna have them performed next June. I got them out recently and I thought "you know these aren't bad," especially if you call them four early songs. A couple of silly piano pieces. I set the Jabberwocky to music, and my mother and I performed it at the school. It was all just sort of like a hobby.

R.V.B. - Now you accompanied your mother on the piano?

M.S. - Yeah, it's for voice and piano but some of it is spoken. You know the Jabberwocky from Alice in Wonderland? It's a silly thing, but I perform it once in a while. Like I said, nobody took it seriously which is probably a good thing because if I had been funneled into studying harmony and how you do things, I might not have been able to go my own way... which I think I've done pretty much.

R.V.B. - So during Juilliard, you put composing on the back burner a little bit.

M.S. - I wrote a few things while I was there - when I was studying piano - but then after two years when she said she was going to leave the school, she would take me as a private student... one of two that she was interested in. I thought "Well I want to study with her and I also wanted to stay at the school, so I'll be a composer." That's how haphazard it was. I submitted these early songs... these silly little piano pieces. Today, I would probably be laughed out of town, because the kids who go to Juilliard today - at fourteen - are doing orchestra pieces. They cheat and take it off the internet. They know a lot more then I knew certainly, but somebody saw something, or they needed extra students... I don't know. In any case it was a defining moment of my musical life.

R.V.B. - I see that you also studied with Vincent Persichetti.

M.S. - The first person I had was William Bergsma... both of these teachers were young. The thing that they did best was to let you go your own way, instead of telling you what to do. If you studied with Hindermith, you'd probably end up sounding like Hindermith... especially Persichetti, he'd get all excited of the form you were taking, and the stuff you were doing, and kind of point out that maybe it could go on a little longer or kind of kept out of your way... which is good.

R.V.B. - That gives you more freedom to be an individual. Marga artwork

M.S. - Whenever he analyzed anything, he got all excited about arriving someplace. That's what so many of these younger people today do is  just all this multi-media crap. The piece doesn't have any destination. It kind of goes on and it's exciting, and everybody gets all the rhythms, and the pictures, and all the rest of it but the form doesn't grow... in my opinion. 

R.V.B. - So you received a nice foundation of an education. When you finished Juilliard, how did you go about facing the professional world?

M.S. - That was an interesting thing. Once I graduated, and I think because I was a woman... I really believed this... nobody told me what to do, like "You should go to Tanglewood... you should do this... you should do that." I think they figured "Oh well, she'll just get married and  have babies". So I was just out... set adrift all by myself. (Hahaha)  At Juilliard, I had written a really exciting sonata for clarinet and piano. It's still viable and it's still exciting. I met a guy named Irwin Bazelon. He came into the composers forum, at one time when I was just sort of drifting, and asked if anybody would play his piano sonatas at concerts, so I raised my hand. I played the piece and he got interested in my music. He then introduced me to the man who was running the composers forum, at the McMillan Theater in New York City. I went to him with these two or three pieces and the guy said "Well these are extraordinary works for a young woman, and yes you'll be the youngest woman we'll ever put on in our series." So that was really what set me off, because a dancer named Jimmy Waring came to that concert. In those days - and maybe still, dancers were always listening to music and putting it aside for something they might want to choreograph to. So about nine months later, James sent me a post card and said he liked my music, and would I be interested in doing a dance with him? I said "Sure," because I had nothing else to do. (Hahaha) From there I got my husband, who was good friends with an A&R man at MGM Records. They both took me on and asked me to write these pieces, that became landmarks in my career. They put these recordings out and I was on my way. Very circuitous and fortuitous... that's kind of the way it's been ever since.

R.V.B. - Making your presence?

M.S. - Well I was teaching piano and I had my own little apartment and I did my thing.

R.V.B. - How many students did you have approximately?

M.S. - Well at one time I had about twenty five. I would go out to Queens, walk around and take busses. I was quite a pioneer at the time.

R.V.B. - So you were composing, and doing things with the dancer, but I see that you took a job a little while later at Nassau Community College.

M.S. - That was just sort of a fill in job. I probably shouldn't have done it. They had a strike and they called me up and asked me to do it, and I didn't really like it. It was music appreciation, and after three terms I decided to quit. I wasn't really into this and besides at that time, I could hardly find time to write music. I used to joke that I wrote chance music... whenever I got the chance. (Hahaha) You've heard of John Cage? "I roll the dice and do all this stuff. I write chance music whenever I get a chance."

R.V.B. - (Hahaha) Did you ever dabble with the avant-garde style like John Cage?

M.S. - No, no, no, I did dabble a little bit in twelve tone and I tried to make my own system and stuff, but it just wasn't me.

R.V.B. - You wrote wide variety of things. Choral works and ...

M.S. - I've written for everything. I written for band and high school band. I've written a little opera. It's not a full scale orchestra piece but it's an opera, so I guess I've done everything you can think of.

R.V.B. - A couple of things that caught my attention... just because of the name of them. What's the story behind Bye-Bye Bake Shoppe?

M.S. - (Hahaha) That's a very cute piece. One of the members of the Composers Alliance - George Cork Maul - and I became good friends. He was always full of interesting things. He got a couple of poets together, and a bunch of composers. We picked whoever we wanted to work with. When I read the words to Bye-Bye Bake Shoppe... it was very funny and it's a really silly piece. It's about a baker that had to give up his shop, and she personifies the case in the cookies, and everybody's talking. It's very cute. It's not on a professional recording. I'm not even sure we got a good live performance but it needs a narrator. That's the story on that one.

R.V.B. - Another one, and again because of the name... and it seemed to take off pretty well for you, was Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark No 1.

M.S. - (Hahaha)

R.V.B. - Not only is it a tongue twister but it's an unusual title.

M.S. - Right... well it started off as just a piece and I didn't know what to call it. I was looking up the work quaint. I don't know why, but I came across all these words in the dictionary and I thought it was kind of interesting because it darts around from one thing to the other. I have no idea what a quark or a quantum is?

R.V.B. - I know it's something big and small (Hahaha)

M.S. - It's a five minute piece. I wanted to get the Long Island Philharmonic to play a piece of mine, and they wanted a new piece, so we told them I was writing this piece which I hadn't started yet. So I had to write it in about twenty three days, which it's fantastic for me to orchestrate. I mean Mozart would have wrote it in one day. (Hahaha)

R.V.B. - Well, you have to make sure you have it right. I see the Czech Radio Symphony played it.

M.S. - Yeah, that's the orchestral version. There's also a piano version and an organ version. I got a lot of mileage out of that one little piece.

R.V.B. - I know you said sometimes you write when you have the time, but did you pick a topic and write about it or write a piece and then pick a topic? Marga composition

M.S. - Probably both, I mean some pieces are abstract... you decide to write a piano sonata and you do it. It's just music. Sometimes I'll see a painting or a landscape that really appeals to me and makes me feel like writing a piece. That's why I have so many fancy able titles.

R.V.B. - Now you mentioned that you worked with dancers... the piece Abyss... did you write that on a commission basis for someone?

M.S. - Yeah, here's the story on that one. Again, a dancer had collected music, and he liked a piece of mine called "Aria and Toccata" for viola and strings. He called one evening and apologized for interrupting my dinner and I said "You could call me at three in the morning if you want". (Hahaha) He wanted to use this piece but he wanted something longer. It was ten minutes long in two movements. So he came out to my house to see if I had any other music, that we could it adapt to and stick in there. We didn't, so he got the Harkness Ballet... which he was writing this for to commission me to write the middle part. I've never been commissioned by a big deal. I've done small things... of course, the MGM Records but I didn't get any money out of that. I went to the office that was giving out the money and they said "Well, we gave Samuel Barber $1,000 to do this and that, so we'll give you $1,000." I think it was $1,500 to write a ten minute piece and I said "WHAT?". A little girl from Robbinsville couldn't imagine such a thing. (Hahaha)

R.V.B. - That's a nice payday.

M.S. - So I wrote the interesting middle part, and it was done all over the world, and it was a popular ballet for a while. I think in every continent except Antarctica. Then of course, many other ballet companies took it up and it got a lot of mileage for a lot of years. It was done on Broadway. Then these things faded and you go on to something else.

R.V.B. - Now I see that there are some pieces with dark titles. There are two examples that come to mind: Three Songs of Sadness and Death and Sara Do Not Mourn Me Dead. Were you in a sad mood?

M.S. - Quite often. (Hahaha) I would say 80% of my music is very solemn, angst ridden and emotional, and then there's the other side with all the silly pieces. There's two sides of my musical and personal personality I guess? The Sara song is fantastic. It has just been recorded on a beautiful new CD that I have. It's the setting of the words from a letter from a civil war soldier to his wife about the week before he was killed, and he said "Dear Sara, I'm sure I'll come back to you but if I don't... if the dead can come back to the earth and if the wind blows your hair, it will be me." It's an emotional and sweet and poetic thing. Just talking about it sends chills up and down my spine. I got the idea from the Ken Burns "Civil War" series. Did you ever watch it?

R.V.B. - I don't think I saw the whole series in its entirety, but I did see some episodes.

M.S. - I watched it twice and I heard this letter read. The New York Times published part of it, so I cut it out and said "I have to put this to music someday.". It took a while and I did... it was published a couple of times and it's one of my favorite pieces.

R.V.B. - Very nice. Are there any other pieces that you're particularly proud of?

M.S. - Oh Yeah. It's hard for me to select the top ten but I'll give it a whirl. My favorite probably is Qhanri - it's the cello variations. The next one would be the concerto variations.

R.V.B. - I read a little bit about that. You were inspired to write that on a trip to Tibet right?

M.S. - Yes

R.V.B. - How was that trip for you?

M.S. - Oh fantastic, except that I got altitude sickness and almost died. I felt ok for a while and then suddenly you just can't eat or do anything. I had to get some medical attention. We heard a little tune sung by the monks on the street at one point - and I wrote it down. I used that when I got home and I just love the piece a lot.

R.V.B. - You have a little notebook that you took with you?

M.S. - I had a little tape recorder and I taped them. So that's that piece, and then there's the Variations and Interludes of Themes from Monteverdi and Bach... nice long title for triple concerto: piano, violin, cello and orchestra. That's one of my top ten. There's the Seacliff Variations lament. My opera, Riders to the Sea. How are we doing? That's about six right? Marga holding score 2

R.V.B. - Let's go with the opera. Did you have a whole theme in mind and build upon it?

M.S. - There was a play... I took the libretto from a play Riders to the Sea by John Synge. I thought for years that I'd like to make an opera out of it. My husband used to say "Don't write an opera unless you get a commission... you'll never get it performed.". After he died, I got a chamber opera interested in commissioning the piece. So I wrote it for almost no money. She never performed it because she couldn't get the money. (Hahaha) So it languished for a while until I got a performance on Long Island, and then we recorded it. It's a beautiful recording.

R.V.B. - Where was it performed?

M.S. - St. Marks church in Queens. The singer is fabulous - you really should try to listen to that. She's a local person out here on Long Island, and she just personifies the heroine. If anybody wants to know how that piece goes... she's it. I'm very happy with it.

R.V.B. - I know that you're very involved with music in the Long Island scene, with the Long Island Composers Alliance. You formed that with Herbert Deutsch?

M.S. - Yes, He used to live in Huntington and I had read about him in the paper, when he did a concert at the Museum of Modern Art. He lived ten minutes from my house, so I called him up and said "Would you like to get together?," and we've been friends ever since... since 1971. So we knew each other's music and I said "Why don't we get a few people together and give a concert?". So we started off really small and now we have about fifty members. We give twenty concerts a year. We do all kinds of good stuff, including: having a contest for student composers, having student pianists and performers play our music.

R.V.B. - Sounds like a nice organization and it's very nice that you do this. Thank you for taking this time with me, I appreciate it.

M.S. - Thank you. Have a nice day.

Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz in 2014

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