When Kindness Trumps Competence

When my dearest friend Bill Ryden was in the final stages of terminal cancer a most enlightened doctor brought him a big bottle of Maker’s Mark and told him, “This will do you more good than any medicine I could give you.”

I had been in touch with Bill two or three times a week during the entirety of his illness, but when we decided that we would have cocktail hours the level of communication, love, and high spirits dominated those last few weeks.

Bill was not only a wonderful composer but an inspired one. His main genre were rags and I don’t think that even Scott Joplin would have had an easy time keeping up with the saucy and sentimental music that Bill wrote. For many years June and I played his music where ever we played, and it was always Bill’s music that got the greatest response from the audience, even when Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky were on the program. We premiered six of his rags in concerts in Carnegie Recital Hall and recorded 11 of them on a disc called “Rags, Spells, and Tangos” and three duos for violin and cello which were appropriately placed between the Kodaly and the Ravel duos. Strangely enough right after Bill died we were listening to our recording of the Ravel, because our edition for International Music Co. was going into print. Right after the Ravel the three rags of Bill Ryden came on, and both June and I were surprised by what a refreshing change it was.

During the next three weeks Bill and I talked six times with drink in hand. During these talks he told me about the great satisfactions in his life. Strangely they centered more on taking high school age singers who worked in his community theatre to the Met and a fine dinner at a French restaurant and a limousine to take them to and fro. He was so pleased with how some of them turned out when they became professional. We often talked during these times about a young lady named Lisa who was probably 6,7, or 8 when Bill was writing music for the Electric Company and Sesame Street. She was so charming and lovely that Bill wrote a rag called “Lisa’s Spell” which enchanted everybody who heard it, at least as much as Lisa enchanted Bill. When we premiered “Lisa’s Spell” in 2007, Lisa actually came to the performance and we met her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t 6,7, or 8 anymore, so the who she was will remain encoded in Bill’s music.

Bill spent a great deal of time working with the community theatre in Forest Hills, Queens. He composed the music, auditioned the singers, taught the marginal ones how to get up to snuff, and played the piano. One of these was based on Alice and Wonderland, and we had the privilege of editing three Wonderland Rags for Master’s Music. From the time they went into our repertoire in 2007 we played them on every program often positioned between Dvorak Dumky Trio and Mendelssohn D Minor, and during these talks Bill delighted in hearing about the many successes that we had with our audiences.

To me Bill’s vast knowledge of all musical forms was somewhat intimidating. Among other things that he gave me was a biography of Mozart written in the early 1800’s with interviews from many people who knew Mozart personally. We had wonderful discussions about the magic of Mozart. I would always mention the” Dissonant” Quartet and the A Major Quartet . Bill’s favorites were the G Minor 2 Viola Quintet and we both swooned over the Clarinet Concerto and the Requiem. We spent a good several minutes talking about Strauss and particularly the significance of Salome and Elektra. Being a total romantic Bill preferred Rosenkavalier to everything else Strauss had wrote, and considered the beautiful trio at the end of the third act to be one of the greatest moments in music. As we spoke about these things this terminally ill man fueled by his newly acquired bottle of Maker’s Mark came to life with such enthusiasm and love that I felt privileged to be in his company for those precious few hours. ­

I first met Bill when I suggested that International Music Company (of which Bill was the editorial director) publish a compilation of cello solos from the operatic and ballet repertoire. My teacher Leonard Rose edited three books of orchestral excerpts for IMC, and they also published Strauss and Wagner excerpt books, but those books didn’t include the very important opera and ballet repertoire. Since I had studied with Leonard Rose, and had been principal cellist of both a major ballet and a major opera company for many decades, Bill embraced the project and published the book in 1999, the year that Puccini’s music entered the public domain.  When a review came out two years later in the American Record Guide of my trio’s recording of the complete Brahms trios for violin, cello, and piano, Bill asked us to make editions of these trios for IMC. This was most unusual, since IMC already published unedited editions of all three trios. With Bill’s help and encouragement, I made editions of concertos by Boccherini, two Haydn’s, Saint-Saens, Schumann, Dvorak, Lalo, Elgar, and Tchaikovsky.

His music has always and will continue to bring a smile to my lips and tears to my eyes. During our cocktail hours we became as one in our love and enthusiasm. I will always miss him and yet he will always be with me, and my gratitude to the wonderful doctor who put kindness over competence is boundless.

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