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
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:
When an American girl brings a great Leipsic [sic] audeince, which considers itself the most critical in
the world, to its feet with a storm of cheers, and commands the same outburst in cold London, it is a
musical triumph worth regarding.
Ruth Deyo, a pianist of New York, has won receptions from several European audiences recently which
eclipse anything which any other American artist has gained in recent years. Her concert in London
yesterday under the patronage of Ambassador Reid was one of the most successful events of the season.
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:
One of our favorite enjoyments was to give operas; Carmen, Romeo and Juliette, etcetera -- which we
acted with great realism. We made our own costumes, and we used to give these performances for
Mother's friends. Once particularly delectable memory is being showered with "bouquets" in the form of
chocolates in coloured tinsels at the end of the afternoon's opera -- I think it was Faust!
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
Never shall I forget that blissful week. I was completely transported into a world filled with enchantment
of sound and light; and I wept bitter tears when it came to an end! The first sorrow I had ever known -- I
wanted it to last forever. The program of the week is still engraven on my memory and I give it here ...
Monday evening: Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci with Calve. Wednesday evening: Tannhauser with Melba,
Nordica. Thursday evening: Lohengrin with Emma Eames, the de Reszkes. Saturday matinee: Romeo and
Juliette with Eames, the de Rszkes and Plancon. Saturday night: Carmen with Calve.
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
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:
Mr Chamberlain of the Associated Press and his wife were very good friends of ours and Mr. Chamberlain
gave me while in London a beautiful blue scarab. I had it read by the museum experts and found it to be
of the 18th Dynasty, having the cartouche of Amenhotep the III. When I came to Egypt many years later
I realised [sic] the significance of this scarab.
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:
Strang it was that on these toures [sic] I used to carry books on Egypt with me to read on the train, and also
in Boston before my concerts with the orchestra. I used to dream of the Nile and the Temples, and then play
Brahms and Beethoven. And then, years after, Casals came to Egypt and saw my orchestral score embodying
the spirit of ancient Egypt and his great mind and infinite musical understanding knew what I had expressed --
What an unboudned delight to have him come to our Maru Nefer and how he understood the Mighty Egypt
the moment he set foot here.
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:
She has managed to assimilate into her music many of the old Egyptian folk melodies, whilst retaining
throughout the whole of the music a striking originality of conception which seems to exude the
spirit of Egypt rather than to be dominated by the monotony of the Oriental ideiom so discouraging to the
western ear. The scope of the work is vast, its idea original, and Miss Deyo's many friends and
admirers will await with keen interest the completion and production of a composition which should
prove to be entirely different from anything that has previously been done in music.
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.