b. 1914, Łódź, Poland – d. 1979, Palm Springs, CA, USA


Born in Łódź, Poland on 2 August 1914, Roman Ryterband came from a well-to-do family of lawyers and musicians. He studied law at the University of Warsaw and piano performance at the Music Academy in Łódź. Composing music already at the age of 12, Ryterband was strongly encouraged by Alexander Glazunov to pursue a musical career, which he did by performing as pianist and composer in Łódź and Warsaw during the mid-1930s.

Touring Western Europe on the eve of World War II, Ryterband was able to take refuge in Switzerland, where he worked as a manual laborer alongside other wartime foreigners interned on Swiss territory. He also completed his PhD studies of musicology at the University of Berne, indulging his passion for studying different languages and cultures, and conducting an extensive research of Slavic, Swiss, Italian, Brazilian, Indian, and Negro folk music traditions. They inspired Ryterband to write a number of works utilizing various native idioms as well as author and deliver numerous lectures and articles on indigenous music traditions throughout his life.

Having married Italian-born Clarissa de Lazzari in 1950, Ryterband continued to reside in Berne where he appeared as pianist, composer, conductor and lecturer, earning accolades from such artists as Ernest Ansermet and Artur Rubinstein. His two daughters, Astrid and Diana, were born in Switzerland but, by the mid-1950s, Ryterband set his sights on North America. He moved his family to Montreal, where he assumed the post of music director for the classical radio station, CKVL. Just as in Switzerland, Ryterband’s years in Canada were marked by his intensive participation in the local musical life, producing concerts, appearing as pianist and conductor, composing a variety of works from classical to popular vein, lecturing at McGill University, and founding his own chamber orchestra.

Ryterband’s next move was to Chicago, where he joined the faculty of the Chicago Conservatory College in 1960. Active as composer and conductor, Ryterband led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, participated in concerts and conferences of the Chicago chapter of International Society of Contemporary Music, and organized numerous events for the local Polish-American community. Ryterband’s cultural contributions were recognized with a 1965 Chicago City Council Outstanding New Citizen of the Year Award.

Eager to explore new horizons and meet new challenges, Ryterband moved his family from Chicago to Palm Springs in 1967, where he spent the remaining twelve years of his life. In addition to composing and performing at various local venues, Ryterband also lectured at California State University in Los Angeles, and served as chairman of the Piano Teachers of the Desert association as well as music director for the Presbyterian Community Church of Palm Desert and Temple Sinai of the Desert in Cathedral City. He also founded and directed the annual Palm Springs Festival of Music and Art, bringing many operatic, ballet and orchestral performances for the local audiences. Diagnosed with cancer, Roman Ryterband died in Palm Springs on 17 November 1979.

Almost forty years after his death, Roman Ryterband’s music remains largely unknown, especially in his native Poland, perhaps because he spent most of his creative life abroad. Ryterband’s musical language represents a cross-pollination of early twentieth century modernists like Debussy and Britten with a robust admixture of folk elements present in the works of Bartok, Copland, or Kodaly. Although his career as a composer began with a few short piano works and some popular songs in Poland in the late 1930s, Ryterband came into his own during the World War II years spent in Switzerland. There he completed several large-scale solo piano cycles (24 Variations on a Folk Song, Suite Polonaise, and Three Preludes) and a number of solo and chamber works for harp (Two Images, Sonata for Harp and Two Flutes, Sonata breve and Trois Ballades Hébraïques), as well as many vocal works, choral cantatas and compositions for saxophone and piano.

Although most of his catalog is represented by chamber music (often in interesting combinations of instruments), Ryterband also penned a few large-scale orchestral works, including Jubilate Deo for soloists, orchestra, organ and men’s and boys’ choirs (1949), symphonic poems Vida Heroica (1953) and Russian Rhapsody (1962), as well as orchestral ballet music Tableaux of Laguna (1976) and Heracles and the Argonauts (1978). Folk and religious music add further diversity to Roman Ryterband’s opus with such entries as Three Hebrew Songs for voice and piano (1938), Song of the Slavonic Plains for violin and piano (1944), Rhapsodia helvetica for trombone and piano (1948), and several songs based on Negro spirituals (The Gospel’s Mah Religion, Yo’ Serbant, So Sing—So Play, Trusty Jim), as well as a number of psalm settings (Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem, Raise Your Heads, O Gates) and settings of traditional texts and poetry in Hebrew, Polish, French and German.

The winner of several awards, including the First Prize at ISCM Chicago in 1961 for Piece sans titre for two flutes, Ryterband also received the Kosciuszko Foundation 1977 Award and a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities for a work celebrating American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976.

List of Works

See List of Works (April 2016) & Full Biography (PDF)

Manuscripts at USC

See the Roman Ryterband Collection at the PMC

Ryterband’s Music

by Robert H. Eisele

Roman Ryterband has composed in nearly all media of musical expression. His friendship with the noted Italian-Swiss harpist, Corina Blaser, meant learning the intricacies of the celestial harp. This instrument is so dificult to play, and certianly to write for, especialy in a more advanced idiom. It is one he deeply adores.

The Sonata Breve, penned in 1961, is particularly concise in thematic material and development, intending to convey its message in the most direct manner. The first movement is virile and vehement, yet yielding to the true nature of both instruments. The second movement flows in to the third the latter a lively dialogue, and by bringing back the subject of Adagio the composer conjoins both movements actually into one.

Comments the composer:

“The principle of contrast, innate law of nature, of life, and of arts, finds its expression both in the structure of the work and the juxtaposition of serial elements and tonal gravitations. Aesthetically, the emphasis is put on the rarely employed ‘tough grip’ of the traditionally serene, ephemeral or even morbid harp: it is written for violinists and harpists of our own day, aware of true unity can be achieved, as the violin and the harp cannot be entirely deprived of their subtlety.”

“I love the flute,” says the composer, concluding his own description of his I.S.C.M. competition First Prize Award winning Piéce sans Titre, a flute duet of disarming charm, written in 1952. “A faun resting on a cliff and flirting with a dancing goat against a pastoral landscape of the antique Hellas… The short composition can be seen as an amalgamation of Debussy`s L’après-midi d’un faune and Honegger`s Danse de la chèvr. But leaving the platform of programmatic description, it is rather a scherzo stereofonico, a stereophonic joke of chasing fugato motifs deriving from two different foci, and with a calming final accordance in a unison.” For concert performances the composer composer suggests to place the flutist off stage, invisible to the audience. Due to the vavid attention the piece awoke in dancers, he provided a set of choreographic guidelines.

At the time the composer lived in Montreal, he became attracted by the strong but highly refined writings of the prominent French Canadian poet, Robrt Choquette. The Suite Marine, an apotheosis of the sea in form of a modern “Divina Commedia”—which brought the author the First Prize in Literature in France—offered Roman Ryterband enough rich material to choose from. The two exquisite sonnets, Eroica and La Perle, are excerpts from large volume. Musically, the set, conceived in 1955, sublimes the change in style which already at the end of Ryterband’s stay in Switzerland in the early fifties caused subconscious departure from a milder idiom. Fond of both the harp and the flute he created a tone combination which he cherished in some of his future works, here “coppered” by the timbre of mezzo-soprano or a contralto voice.

“The music absolutely serves the poetry and pays homage to the Promethea aspirations of man in the first chant, and lives trough the sufferances of the dolorous transformation of the oyster into a perl in the secound, implaying along with the poet the unique parallel with man, whose despaired, sobbing soul one day frees itself under the impact of spirit of creativity”—these are the composer’s own words.

Roman Ryterband’s interest in musical folklore, in that unspoiled and fascinating well of authentic freshness and beauty, found it’s expression in many pieces. The tragic chain of events during World War II moved the sensitive composer to release his sentiments and the sorrowful crisis of humanity in music. The Trois Ballades Hébraiques, emotionally charged with a mystic aura of trance in Le Rêveur, with a subdued—though tragically deceiving—humor in Le Maître joyeux, and the subtly eloquent but at times impassioned, anguished reverie in the Berceuse, make apparent an unmistakable sensibility and nobility of the composer’s soul. No wonder he chose the violin to shed the romantic glow upon the spiritual texture of his triptych.

With the Suite Polonaise, Roman Ryterband turned to the rich idiom of the Slavic nation and the Polish folk song which he knew so well from his young years spent in that country. He is a specialist on Chopin, giving lecture-recitals dedicated to this great composer. He is acquainted with Artur Rubinstein, foremost interpreter of the Polish master. Ryterband was a colleague of the noted Polish-Belgian pianist and editor of the complete works of Chopin, Stefan Askenase. At the time of composing the Suite Polonaise Roman Ryterband was living in Berne, Switzerland. He had visited the Polish Museum of Rapperswill on the shores of Lake Zürich, where a collection of rare recordings made by indigenous bands from the various provinces of the country served him as a basis for the ten dances comprising the Suite. The cyclical work encompasses a wide gamut of melodies, moods, modal reminiscences, and rhythms, which make up the incomparable folklore of the Slavic nation. Some of the stylized movements employ authentic motifs, some use them in a mirror from and other contrapuntal attire, and some are original themes of the composer.

The radiance of the three selected excerpts imparts new freshness and excitement in the folkloristic section of the album. Drobny, cultivated by the mountaineers of the northern slopes of the Tatras, manifests traces of medieval modes with intriguing harmonic sequences, coupled with stunning 3-measure and 5-measure-units in the first half of the dance, all set upon the typical “empty” intervals of the basetla, the native bass viol.

The melody which Ryterband selected for the Krakowiak, a dance from the region of Cracow, is the best known Krakowiak in that part of Poland—and, for that matter, in the whole land—however, it has been thematically inverted right from the beginning of the piece; it develops in a burlesque fashion, but gently fades away at the end. Oberek, a strongly rhythmical dance in triple meter, is a fast, rapid Mazurka, also coming from the central plains region of the country called Mazowsze. There are no limits to the exuberance and propelling drive of an Oberek, which usually starts—as the Mazurka does—with those pace-setting, acerbic perfect fifths in the bass, and abounds with invigorating accents and syncopations.

The pianistic qualities of the Suite Polonaise present a challenge to the virtuosity of performer, and it’s very contents examine his taste and understanding of the Polish musical heritage.


2016: A Tribute to Roman Ryterband (PMC concert at USC)
Tomasz Fechner plays Sonatina for Guitar by Roman Ryterband (Youtube)
PMC @ LAMOTH: 5/21/17, “The Music of Roman Ryterband” (Youtube, PMC concert at LAMOTH)

Page updated in June 2016.