Miriam Gideon was born in Greeley, Colorado, where her father was a Reform rabbi. Her interest in composition—begun in childhood as an ancillary, experimental, and almost private activity—soon became the primary focus of her creative energies. At Boston University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree with a major in French literature and a minor in mathematics, Gideon continued to study music, and she returned to New York after graduation with a view toward a career in public school teaching. But the urge to compose absorbed her more and more.
One of the most important imprints on Gideon’s future was her private study, for several years during her late twenties, with the now fabled émigré Jewish composer from Russia, Lazare Saminsky. Saminsky was then the music director and organist at New York’s Temple Emanu-El. After a few years of private lessons, he suggested that Gideon study with the esteemed American composer and composition teacher Roger Sessions, who had been a pupil of Ernest Bloch’s. Gideon worked with Sessions for eight years, gradually developing her distinctive and deeply expressive combination of extratonal and pantonal idioms that would define her music thereafter. In 1946, she earned her master’s degree in musicology from Columbia University, but even before matriculation she began teaching at Brooklyn College. The eminent composer and intellect Hugo Weisgall, the chairman of the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantors Institute and Seminary College of Jewish Music (now the H.L. Miller Cantorial School), invited her to teach there, and thus began a fruitful, rewarding, and mutually beneficial affiliation for some forty years. Weisgall became a fervent champion of her music, and in 1970 she earned her doctorate (Doctor of Sacred Music) from the seminary under his guidance.
Like Weisgall, Gideon had a particular affinity for literature and its expression as vocal music, saying that she was “moved by great poetry and great prose almost as much as by music.” She was especially prone to set literature in the context of vocal chamber music—voice with small instrumental ensembles—in which the vocal line often functions as one of the instruments. Even more remarkable was her fondness for dual-language and even multilingual settings.
Her first Jewish work was her English setting of Psalm 84—known liturgically in its original Hebrew as Ma tovu but composed and published by her as How Goodly Are Thy Tents. Written for women’s voices, it won the Ernest Bloch Choral Award in 1947. Then came her first Hebrew setting—Adon olam—in 1954, commissioned and premiered by Hugo Weisgall at the Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore. Three Masques for organ followed in 1958, commissioned by composer and virtuoso organist Herman Berlinski. Gideon based that work on cantillation motifs for the annual Purim rendition of the Book of Esther.
Gideon’s two Jewish magna opera, however, are unquestionably her two artistically sophisticated Sabbath services. The first, for Sabbath morning, Sacred Service (for the Sabbath), was commissioned in 1971 by The Temple in suburban Cleveland. This work was scored for baritone and tenor soloists, with mixed chorus and an ensemble of six wind and string instruments together with organ.
Her second service, comprising principal elements of the liturgies for kabbalat shabbat and Sabbath eve (ma’ariv), is titled Shirat Miriam L’shabbat. Commissioned and premiered by Cantor David Putterman for the annual Friday evening service of new music at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue in 1974, it is scored more conventionally for tenor cantor, mixed choir, and organ. In fashioning this service, Gideon accepted some of Cantor Putterman’s well-meant advice to consider tradition a bit more than she had done in her first service so that the work would stand a better chance of a life afterward.
Taken together, these two services demonstrate her refined craft, her ability to express emotional depth and strength with subtlety, and the power of her exquisite economy. Gideon was fond of relating how, upon hearing her Seasons of Time, a critic once remarked to her that he had “never heard so many right notes.”
Gideon felt that defined considerations of sonorities and technical devices wrongly mask the more important matters of emotional impulses—with which she believed there was insufficient concern in postwar 20th-century music. She cautioned that many composers were so eager to demonstrate facility that they didn’t allow themselves to become personally involved in their own music. “As far as I am concerned,” she said, “I must see whether what I am writing comes from a musical impulse, and whether I am responding to it. What I write has to mean something to me…. It has to seem new. I have to be surprised by it, and it must register as feeling.”
“I didn’t know I was a woman composer until ‘the movement’ in the 1960s,” she reminisced in the mid-1980s. “I knew I was a young composer, and then, suddenly, an older composer. But never a woman composer.”
By: Neil W. Levin