Marga Richter, Composer in a Male-Dominated Era, Dies at 93


Marga Richter, a prolific composer whose determination to be heard in a male-dominated field once led her to rent Merkin Concert Hall to stage a program of her own works, died on June 25 at her home in Barnegat, N.J. She was 93.

Her biographer, Sharon Mirchandani, reported the death.

Ms. Richter, born into a musical family, wrote almost 200 works, for orchestra, chorus, small ensembles, voice and more, in a career that began in the 1940s and continued until late in her life. She made an impression while still in her mid-20s.

“Miss Richter’s works were restless, inventive, dissonant, clean, and her intentions seemed to be well realized,” read a brief review in The New York Times when her compositions were featured in a Composers’ Forum concert at Columbia University in 1951. The review added, “We will hear more from Miss Richter.”

That proved accurate. Over the next 30 years Ms. Richter’s works were performed on stages in New York and beyond. In 1977 the violinist Daniel Heifetz played her “Landscapes of the Mind II” as part of his program at Alice Tully Hall.

Allen Hughes said in a review in The Times that the piece left a favorable impression. “The ideas in it are not profound, indeed some seem to be banal on purpose,” he wrote, “but the contrasts of energy and mood are handled adroitly.”

Despite her successes, Ms. Richter chafed at the inequality she and other women experienced.

“Conductors or musicians see a woman’s name on a score, and they won’t look at the music,” she told The Times in 1981. “Like math and the sciences, music is supposed to be too rigorous for women. Oh, as musicians we were allowed to play it if someone handed it to us, but we weren’t supposed to write it ourselves.”

And so in October 1981 she staged her own program at Merkin, with a sampling of her work performed by the Drucker Trio, the Atlantic Quartet and others.

“After writing music for 33 years,” Ms. Richter told The Times shortly before the concert, “I wanted to present myself to New York. Say, ‘Here’s my life’s work and what do you make of it?’”

What Theodore W. Libbey Jr., reviewing in The Times, made of it was that though he found the works not varied enough to sustain a full evening, individually they were appealing.

“In small doses, the music of Marga Richter can be intriguing and enjoyable,” he wrote. “Intriguing because it involves the listener in an experience in which he can gauge probabilities with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Enjoyable because it is highly melodic and takes advantage of sustained and accumulated sounds that are often, if not always, kind on the ear.”

In subsequent decades Ms. Richter’s works were performed and recorded by countless orchestras, small ensembles and individual musicians, including the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic. Dr. Mirchandani, a professor at Westminster Choir College of Rider University who told Ms. Richter’s story in the 2012 book “Marga Richter,” also contributed an essay on her to “Women of Influence in Contemporary Music” (2011), edited by Michael K. Slayton.

“Marga Richter,” she wrote in that essay, “has steadily risen to become one of America’s pre-eminent musical matriarchs.”

The composer Rain Worthington, in an online tribute, said Ms. Richter wrote music “with conviction when there were few women composers attempting to enter the field.”

Florence Marga Richter was born on Oct. 21, 1926, in Reedsburg, Wis. Her mother, Inez (Davis) Richter, was an American soprano who enjoyed success in Germany. Her father, Paul, who had been a captain in the German Army during World War I, met her mother when he saw her in an opera in 1921 and, entranced, lingered afterward hoping to talk to her.

“He fell in love with this nice lady in a blond wig,” Ms. Richter told The Times in 1978, “and went backstage and discovered she was a brunette. But that didn’t deter him.”

The couple settled in Wisconsin and later moved to Robbinsdale, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis.

Ms. Richter was taking piano lessons by age 4, and at 12 she began composing. She was 15 the first time one of her works was performed in public: “Jabberwocky,” a setting of the Lewis Carroll poem, which she and her mother presented at the high school in Robbinsdale.

The family moved to New York in 1943 so Ms. Richter could further her music studies. She enrolled two years later at the Juilliard School as a piano major, but by the fall of 1946 she had switched to composition.

“I really didn’t notice that there weren’t any women composers to model myself after until I got to Juilliard, and then I found I was the only one there,” she told an audience at Nassau Community College on Long Island, where she lived for many years, during a preshow talk in 1979.

Ms. Richter earned a master’s degree in composition at Juilliard in 1951 and slowly found traction in her chosen profession, despite many slights and obstacles. The dance world provided her with some of her earliest commissions; among them was the score for “Abyss” (1964) for the Harkness Ballet, which found its way into the repertories of the Joffrey and other companies as well.

Ms. Richter was never associated with a particular school and never used a definable system of composition, relying instead on inspiration and intuition.

“When I try to develop new sections by manipulating themes, chords and rhythms, I often destroy the work,” she said on her website. “I have to throw out these constructions and go back to allowing the music to come from its own mysterious source.”

Ms. Richter’s marriage to Vernon Hughes, in 1948, ended in divorce in 1950. In 1953 she married Alan Skelly, a philosophy professor who died in 1988. She is survived by a son, Michael Skelly, a pianist who sometimes performed with her; a daughter, Maureen Raj; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

During her lifetime Ms. Richter saw opportunities and recognition for women broaden somewhat. Two years after her self-financed 1981 concert, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who is 12 years younger than Ms. Richter, became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.

But the playing field is still far from level. For example, a recent report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film showed that of the top 250 films at the domestic box office in 2018, just 6 percent had scores by women.

Ms. Richter’s works were sometimes included in programs of compositions by women, but she often expressed the hope that such programming would become obsolete. In the Nassau Community College talk, she lamented the developing trend of concerts “featuring” women or minority composers.

“We don’t want to be featured,” she said. “We want to be absorbed.”

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