Arts and Culture

A mistress of her art

Anna Jones

Wits University will be paying tribute to the life and career of composer Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph.

Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph’s name as a successful South African composer is recognised internationally, coupled with other great composers of our time such as her colleague and friend, Lucas Ligeti.

This year South Africa celebrates Zaidel-Rudolph’s 60th birthday. Over the decades Zaidel-Rudolph’s natural talent and immense dedication to the art of music has seen her rise to one of the leading composers of South African “art” music. There is no doubt that she deserves President Thabo Mbeki’s award, the Order of Ikhamanga, for her contribution to music nationally and internationally, which she had the honour of receiving from the president himself in October 2004.

Zaidel-Rudolph has lectured at the University of the Witwatersrand for more than 20 years. In honour of her contribution, and to wish her a happy 60th birthday (which actually took place on July 9), next week the university will host an evening dedicated to her composition. There will be piano and chamber music as well as a recital of her latest composition, Partials and Pedals. The concert will include a performance by the renowned pianist, Malcolm Nay.

Zaidel-Rudolph was born into a family that embraced music and her musical education began from the word go. In character with other distinguished musicians she began composing as a child, with some of her works being published in her school’s magazine. A highly accomplished pianist in her student years, she holds numerous licentiates in piano, for which she received distinctions, as well as diplomas from the Royal College of Music in London in both performance and composition.

Zaidel-Rudolph was privileged to have had the opportunity of studying with both the renowned pianist John Lill and the famously innovative composer, Gyorgy Ligeti. South Africa’s first woman to receive a doctorate in music composition (from Pretoria University), she now holds two doctorates, having just this year been awarded an honorary doctorate in education from the University of Pretoria.

She is a colourful and expressive woman and one of the most highly acclaimed cultural personalities in our immediate musical world. Throwing her hands into the air as if catching balls, she refers to her life as a juggling of her four loves: her family, her religion, her composing and her demanding role at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Working within the classical stream or “art music” of today, Zaidel-Rudolph is interested in combining the music of the Western world with the ethnic music of the country, thus bringing the traditions of our indigenous groups to the attention of the music world. She is currently involved in fieldwork research with a group of Ngqoko Xhosa women. This is a group of older women from a remote village in the Transkei who use a unique form of singing in overtones. This unusual tradition is dying, but with research from the likes of Zaidel-Rudolph this treasure may not become extinct.

Lifecycle, composed in 2003, incorporates the voices of the Ngqoko women with their traditional bows, as well as a group of 11 Western instrumentalists. Partials and Pedals, a piano work composed for the Unisa International Competition held earlier this year, is constructed from the intervals, structure and harmonies of the music of the Ngqoko women.

Honoured with various other monumental projects in her career as a composer and musician, Zaidel-Rudolph has also been acknowledged in various local and international encyclopaedias. In 1995 she was commissioned to write the present piano and orchestral versions of our national anthem and supplied the English words for it. In 1996 she was commissioned to write part of the Oratorio for Human Rights to be performed at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. In 1997 her song composed in honour of president Nelson Mandela was premiered in Cape Town.

Zaidel-Rudolph is not a person who fades from one’s memory. She influences the lives of those who cross her path, imparting her vast musical knowledge and her great love for the music of our world. There is no doubt that she is truly a mistress of her art.

Anna Jones was a student of Zaidel-Rudolph from 2001 to 2004 and teaches music at St Johns College. The recital takes place at The Atrium on Wits East Campus on September 16 at 7pm. Tel: 011 717 1376

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