Born in Detroit, Paul Schoenfield began piano lessons at the age of six and composed his first piece the next year. Following studies at Converse College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, he earned a D.M.A. degree at the University of Arizona. His principal teachers included Rudolf Serkin, Julius Chajes, Ozan Marsh, and Robert Muczynski. After holding a teaching post in Toledo, Ohio, he lived on a kibbutz in Israel, where he taught mathematics, one of his great loves, to high school students in the evenings. Later he spent a number of years in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area as a freelance composer and pianist, and throughout the 1990s he lived in the Israeli city of Migdal Ha’emek (near Haifa), which he still considers his secondary residence after moving back to the United States.
Schoenfield was formerly an active pianist, touring the United States, Europe, and South America as a soloist and with ensembles including Music from Marlboro. He has recorded the complete violin and piano works of Bartók with Sergiu Luca. Of his own creative output he has declared, “I don’t consider myself an art-music [serious music] composer at all. The reason my works sometimes find their way into concert halls is [that] at this juncture, there aren’t many folk music performers with enough technique, time or desire to perform my music. They usually write their own anyway.” The long list of orchestras that have performed his compositions includes the New York Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano, and the Haifa Symphony Orchestra. He has received numerous commissions and been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Fund, the Bush Foundation, Meet the Composer, and Chamber Music America.
Schoenfield has been compared with Gershwin, and one writer has asserted that his works “do for Hassidic music what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango.” Although he has stated, “I don’t deserve the credit for writing music—only God deserves the credit, and I would say this even if I weren’t religious,” his inspiration has been ascribed to a wide range of musical experience: popular styles both American and foreign, vernacular and folk traditions, and the “normal” historical traditions of cultivated music making, often treated with sly twists. In a single piece he frequently combines ideas that evolved in entirely different worlds, delighting in the surprises elicited by their interaction. This, as Schoenfield has proclaimed, “is not the kind of music for relaxation, but the kind that makes people sweat; not only the performer, but the audience.”
In addition to the compositions recorded for the Milken Archive, among Schoenfield’s major works to date are Four Parables for piano and orchestra (1982–83); a concerto for flute, tenor, and orchestra; the frequently performed Café Music for violin, cello, and piano (1986); the Trio for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano composed in 1990 for clarinetist David Shifrin, realizing Schoenfield’s long-standing desire “to create entertaining music that could be played at Hassidic gatherings as well as in the concert hall … each of the movements is based partly on an eastern European Hassidic melody”; and D’vorah, a gospel oratorio with text by Margaret Stearns, premiered in 1998 in Israel by the Haifa Symphony Orchestra.
Perhaps the best summary of Schoenfield’s career to date is the tribute that the distinguished music commentator Klaus George Roy delivered on the occasion of his receiving the Cleveland Arts Prize’s 1994 Music Award:
Paul Schoenfield writes the kind of inclusive and welcoming music that gives eclecticism a good name. In the tradition of Bach, who never left German soil but wrote French suites, English suites and Italian concertos, and in the tradition of Bartók, who absorbed and transformed not only Hungarian music, but that of Romania, Bulgaria and North Africa, Paul draws on many ethnic sources in music, assimilating them into his own distinctive language. As Donald Rosenberg wrote in the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer, reviewing Paul’s recent and nationally cheered compact disc recording of three concertos, “the composer’s grasp of music history joins hands with popular and folk traditions of America and beyond. This is cross-over art achieved with seamless craftsmanship.”
If Paul considers himself essentially a folk musician, it is surely a highly sophisticated one. His rich and multi-branched musical tree grows from strong and well-nourished roots. What he communicates to us is marked by exuberant humor and spontaneous freshness, however arduous the process of composition may actually have been. His work rises from and returns to those fundamental wellsprings of song and dance, of lyricism and physical motion, and often of worshipful joy, that have always been the hallmarks of genuine musical creativity.
By: Neil W. Levin