Mother Africa’s Jewish take

Jewish composer Prof. Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph spread her musical wings at a young age and, since then, has reached many high places.

Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph with Nelson Mandela 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph with Nelson Mandela 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Besides our very own “Hatikva,” there can’t be too many national anthems around the globe that a Jewish composer has had a hand in creating. Prof. Jeanne Zaidel- Rudolph belongs to that select group, having played a significant part in devising the national anthem of post-apartheid South Africa in the mid- 1990s.
Zaidel-Rudolph has enjoyed a number of high-profile roles in her country over the last 20 years or so; she wrote “Oratorio for Human Rights,” which was commissioned for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and a year later she composed a song called “He Walked to Freedom,” which was played at former president Nelson Mandela’s honorary doctorate ceremony at the University of Cape Town in 1997.
We met up in Jerusalem toward the end of her most recent visit here, this time to attend a gala musical event in her honor at the Ra’anana Music Center as well as to present a number of workshops at Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann-Mehta School of Music and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem.
Zaidel-Rudolph has numerous strings to her bow, which is a natural offshoot of her roots and the later influences she has taken on board.
“There are five generations of us in South Africa; my grandchildren are the fifth generation,” she notes. “I am also white, female and Jewish, so that brings a lot of influences and backgrounds and competencies and political stuff and gender stuff into what I do. You know, one is a product of who you are, having been brought up in a sort of Third World African country, although we attempt to be First World in our standards, certainly at the university.”
She is referring to to the University of the Witwatersrand, where she has headed the music department for some years. She is happy with her department’s integrated academic milieu which, she says, opens up all sorts of creative avenues for both staff and students.
“We have a wonderful music department; we offer so much. We are the only music department in the country that is part of a school of arts. We are in the same building as the drama department, the fine arts department, the history of art, television, animation and digital music.” That necessarily leads to a more rounded artistic ethos.
“We are a combination of high academia and conservatoire,” she continues, “so we are not one or other. In other countries they often get separated.”
That multi-pronged approach suits her just fine.
“The kind of music that emanates from me has been a distillation of so many sound worlds. I grew up loving black choirs, because choral music in South Africa is paramount. So that is a part of me and what I do, too,” she observes.
After imbibing a heady mix of classical and African music as a youngster, she followed an international route through her higher formal education after first showing promise as a classical pianist at the Pretoria High School for Girls. Her early mentors included celebrated composers Philip Levy and Adolph Hallis, and she subsequently moved to London where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Royal College of Music under the guidance of John Lambert, whom a leading American conductor once termed “the father of new British music,” and English- Australian composer Tristram Carey, who made a name for himself as a pioneer of electronic musical exploration.
IT WAS while she was in London that Zaidel-Rudolph first encountered distinguished Jewish Hungarian-Romanian pianist and composer György Ligeti. She had already managed to spread her musical wings from European classical music to far more contemporary works, including avant garde and electronic material, but when she caught a concert of Ligeti’s music at London’s Purcell Room, her artistic path rook a new twist.
“I very cleverly took some of my scores with me and, at the interval in the concert, I went backstage to see him. He was almost hyperactive, and there were all these groupies there and I wondered how I could calm him down for a second and introduce myself. I just said, ‘Maestro, your work is unbelievable and can I be a student of yours?’ and he asked me if I had some scores with me and when I gave them to him he said he’d take them away with him and he’d let me know. They were quite experimental scores for the time.”
Ligeti obviously liked what he saw because, in due course, he invited the young South African to join him in Hamburg, where he taught, and later in Vienna.
“He wanted me to stay in Vienna, and then I was offered a post as a junior lecturer in Vienna but I was homesick and I left after 18 months,” she says. “I told him I’d come back but I never did, because I got a job as a lecturer in university in South Africa. I was only 24 and it was all very exciting for me. Some of the students were older than me. It was my first real bash at teaching and I loved the challenge.”
Even though she never collaborated with Ligeti again, many years later her path crossed that of another musician of the same name, and it led to an unexpected and, for Zaidel-Rudolph, emotive departure.
“Several years ago, there was a big festival of electronic music in South Africa, called Unyazi, and on the program I see the name Lukas Ligeti,” she recalls. “I went straight up to him at the festival and I asked him if he was the son of the great Ligeti.”
The young musician initially reacted negatively to being associated with his famous father, as he had spent much of his life trying to escape his parent’s forbidding shadow, but he subsequently turned to Zaidel-Rudolph for help.
“He asked if he could do his PhD with me,” she says. “I pointed out that I lived in Johannesburg and he lived in New York, but he said he regretted the fact that he never exploited the opportunity to learn from his father and that, as I was his father’s student, he wanted to study with me. He’s a fabulous composer and wonderful drummer. For me, teaching Ligeti’s son brings things full circle.”
OTHER THAN nurturing the education of her former mentor, Zaidel-Rudolph has spent much of the last four decades furthering her own compositional development and has collaborated with all manner of European classical and African musicians, including bow instrument players from the Xhosa people. (The “Xh” of the name is pronounced with a clicking sound.) Xhosa music, along with Jewish liturgical music, was a central part of Zaidel-Rudolph’s upbringing.
“I had a Xhosa nanny who used to sing to me,” she says, breaking out into an African song from her infancy. “I had Zulu music coming at me, and the Xhosa music and then I heard about a great virtuoso who played the chopi piano, called Venuncio, who lived out somewhere in some mining area. I used to go out there at six in the morning, because that is when they play music, with my little tape recorder with me, and I have recorded lots of ethnic music. It is part of my DNA. I am an African.”
Zaidel-Rudolph is evidently the sum of many parts, and that comes through in her broad oeuvre, which ranges from her 1981 work “Five Chassidic Melodies” to “Ukuthula” for soprano and mezzo-soprano voice and orchestra to her work on the stirring revisited South African national anthem and her wide-ranging complex 2010 composition “Pendulum for Piano and Orchestra,” which she says was spawned by her “dreams of ringing bells and chiming clocks and the unrelenting mechanization of our century.”
She says she was suitably impressed with the music students she met on her foray to Israel and that we can look forward to more of her input to our classical music scene as she plans to return to present more workshops here in 2013.