Sonneck Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXIII, no. 1 (Spring 1997)

An American Composer Answers the Call to Egypt

by Ann Sears

Ruth Lynda Deyo began her remarkable musical career as a Wunderkind of the keyboard. Like many virtuosi, she performed her own works from childhood, but these early piano pieces were only a suggestion of the profound interest in composition she would develop as a mature woman. Her attraction to opera and ancient Egyptian culture was also evident during her childhood. In the 1920s these various threads of her musical and imaginative life came together to draw her to Egypt, where she performed frequently, composed, worked as a pioneering ethnomusicologist, and became something of an Egyptologist -- all at a time when women engaged in few of these activities.

By the time of her first trip to Egypt in 1924, forty-year old Ruth Lynda Deyo (1884-1960) traveled with the credentials of a well-established concert pianist. From age three she had played her own compositions and those of other composers at parlor concerts, church gatherings, and local musicales. On September 8, 1893, the nine-year-old prodigy gave a recital of her own works in the Assembly Hall of the Women's Building at the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, playing eight short pieces, including By the Sea, Twilight Serenade, Caprice, Hymn, and several dances; some of her compositions were published that year. Although she was compared to the young Mozart and urged to tour, her mother prudently arranged further instruction. In 1894, she began piano study with William Mason in New York, describing him as "an inspiring teacher."

Deyo's rewarding work with Mason was interrupted by her mother's ill health and death. In 1900 a family friend took her to New York to resume piano study, this time with Edward MacDowell. In her autobiography she also reports having studied theory, counterpoint, and music history with him. After two years MacDowell told Deyo's father that he had taught her all he could, and she must go to Europe to continue her studies. By this time she was an accomplished young artist playing the major works of the classical and romantic repertory. Deyo always remembered MacDowell with affection and performed his Sonata Tragica often. However, she told her family privately that she could not grant his request to become the chief proponent of his work, for she did not feel that his works were truly great music.

In 1902 she went to Europe and began piano study with Varette Stepanoff, an important Letchetizsky expert. Two years later she made her Berlin debut at the Beethoven Saal, playing works by Rameau, Bach, Scarlatti, Schumann, Chopin, the Sonata Tragica of MacDowell, and transcriptions of Wagner's Magic Fire Music and Ride of the Valkyries. This concert was followed by more engagements, both solo recitals and concerto performances with various European orchestras.

Her concerts were greated with torrents of critical and popular acclaim. A June 12, 1905, cable dispatch to the newspaper in Albany, New York, reported:

Deyo continued to study while pursuing professional activities, working with Paderewski and Teresa Carreño. She went on o play with most of the major orchestras in Europe and the United States during her performing career and played chamber music with such luminaries as Fritz Kreisler, Georges Enesco, Hans Kindler, and Pablo Casals. She often toured with Casals, and they are credited with the United States premiere of the Debussy Sonata for Cello and Piano. Unfortunately she never recorded, and our appreciation of her pianistic artistry comes form the glowing review found in a series of nine scrapbooks covering the years 1891-1956. Following her career through the scrapbooks, it is clear that although she performed widely varied repertory throughout her life, she gradually began to focus more on composition, and during the 1930s, much of her performing involved promoting her major work, an opera about ancient Egypt entitled The Diadem of Stars. She did this through lectures on the opera and Egyptian folk music and through concerts of music from the opera, usually accompanying the singers herself.

Deyo's opera had a long incubation, for she became enchanted with the theatrical and musical magic of opera early in life. ONe of her first memorable musical experiences was attending a concert by the Theodore Thomas Orchestra when shewas foru years old. At five she heard a performance of Faust, saying "it carried me into fairy land and haunted me for days." Writing her autobiography many years later, she described a particularly beloved childhood game played with her younger brother Morton:

Deyo credited her mother with great wisdom in managing her education, especially in preparing her to appreciate many genres of music. After the Colombian Exposition, she treated Deyo to a week of opera in Chicago. The child was overcome with the opera performances she heard and never forgot a single evening's offering:

She also discovered a fascination with Egypt during childhood, announcing to her brother after the Chicago experience that she had been an Egyptian princess in a former lifetime, and that she would one day go there and write an opera. The genesis of her obsession with Egypt is not clear, but as early as age eight she claimed that "her favorite phrases were: Once upon a time, They lived happily ever after, and the word Egypt."

Traveling in Norway after her London debut in 1905 she was pleased to receive greeting cards from Grieg and letters from Willie Steinway, but recollected this tripo principally as the time when she first began to learn about Egypt seriously: "I read my first descriptions of the Arabian desert and was extraordinarily fascinated by the color of the East -- little knowing how much time I was to spend on the sacred golden sands of Egypt years later." Another forshadowing of Egypt's influence appeared the next season when she performed in London:

During the years following Deyo's initial European successes, she debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1913 playing the Brahms Piano Concerto No 2 in Bb Major, op. 83 and toured with Casals; however, Egypt always sems to have hovered in the background:

Finally, after years of anticipation, she traveled in 1924 to Egypt to collect folk music and study ancient Egyptian history. Her research expeditions produced the many photographs of the ancient sites of the Pharaohs which provided the basis for her historically authentic set and costume designs, and transcriptions of indigenious folk music, acquired when she lived in the desert with the natives.

Her large circle of acquaintances in Egypt included most of the British intellectual and political elite, as well as the international and local diplomatic community. She also knew many of the eminent archaologists who were working in Egypt, among them Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922; consequently, she as often able to view important, newly-found archaeological sites and important art works before they became generally known, for example, the celebrated limestone head of Nefertiti. After seeing the now famous likeness of the beautiful queen, Deyo thought it bore a striking resemblance to her own profile and herself drawn in similar Egyptian attire. She kept photographs and drawings fo Nefertiti in her papers, and would later give Nefertiti an important part in her opera. The richness and quantity of the Tutankhamen artifacts made Carter's discovery one of the most spectacular finds in Egyptian archaeology, and fueled public interest in all things Egyptian, including Deyo's proposed opera.

Newspaper accounts through the late 1920s report Deyo's work on "a most interesting Music Drama, based on episodes in ancient Egyptian history." The Egyptian press expressed keen enthusiasm for her project, with its Egyptian content and anticipated innovative style:

Deyo began her grand opera The Diadem of Stars in 1925, working with librettist Charles Dalton, whom she married in 1932. By 1930, following several years of research in Egypt, the opera was completed. Stokowski agreed to program the prelude in 1931, and in 1935 Kirsten Flagstad committed herself to sing the leading soprano role, saying that The Diadem of Stars was the only new opera in which she was interested in appearing. Several performances were planned, and portions of the opera were to be performed in Egypt at the coronation of King Farouk in 1937. Performances were also scheduled at the Metropolitan Opera and at Covent Garden; however, funding difficulties, the outbreak of World War II, and later, health problems of both Deyo and Dalton prevented a successful production. Deyo published her autobiography The Call to Egypt in 1955 and died in 1960, her opera still awaiting its debut.

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Updated 4/20/98