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- Dr. Ida Halpern
- Ida Ruhdofer (maiden name)
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Ethnomusicologist, teacher, writer -- Ida Halpern was born Ida Ruhdofer in Vienna on July 17, 1910. She was the only child of Heinrich (Hersch Meilech) Ruhdorfer and Sabine Weinstock. Halpern was raised by her mother and grandmother in Vienna. In spite of difficult circumstances she attended private schools including private music lessons which began with the piano at age six. From 1916 Ida attended the state Volksschule matriculating to the Madchen-Reform realgymnasium. The curriculum at the realgymnasium included classical languages and German literature. With her focus on the piano and the Vienna musical milieu, Halpern’s years of study were steeped in European musical tradition. Halpern matriculated in 1929 receiving her matura and then immediately entering hospital with rheumatic fever. Leaving hospital after a year of care, in the fall of 1929 Halpern enrolled in the Musicological Institute of the University of Vienna. At the Institute Halpern received an education that left her well-equipped for the Canadian west coast cultural encounters she experienced over a decade later. She enrolled in the Institute at a time when a group of musical scholars brought innovation, exploration and a contemporary social context to the study of music. Amongst the main influences of Halpern’s musical approach was Robert Lach the Institute’s director. Of interest for Halpern’s later west coast indigenous studies, Dr. Lach wrote on “oriental, primitive, and Mezoamerican music, with an emphasis upon origin and evolutionary problems.” (D. Cole, “The Musical World of Ida Halpern,” B.C. Studies, no. 97, [Spring 1993]: p.5). Egon Wellesz was another significant influence. Wellesz’s “specialty lay in the Byzantine ecclesiastical chant.” (ibid.) Halpern learned much to apply to her work on indigenous music of the Canadian West Coast, in Wellesz’s efforts to decipher the notation of this music. She would later write on the similarities in musical structures between the Byzantine ecclesiastical music and the songs of west coast indigenous peoples. Finally, the faculty of the Institute gave Halpern an appreciation to study music within the social context of the peoples who lived the music and of non-western, European music.
Ida met Georg Halpern in 1933. After two years of courtship, on November 9, 1936 Ida married Georg Halpern at the Reform synagogue on the Seitenstellegasse in Leopoldstadt. Following marriage the couple moved to Milan, Italy for Georg to take a position in an Italian pharmaceutical company. Ida would continue work towards her PhD with Milanese resources. The venture failed after a year and the couple returned to Vienna. In March 1938, Hitler entered Vienna. That spring, Ida defended her dissertation. To avoid persecution the Halperns decided to move to Shanghai where Georg’s sister, Dr. Fanny G. Halpern, taught neurology and psychiatry at the National Medical College. They left from Trieste, Yugoslavia, in October 1938. Although arrangements were made, Ida’s parents did not take the trip. Ida lost contact with her parents and despite her post-war efforts to locate them, she never found them. In Shanghai, Ida found a position as a lecturer in musicology at Shanghai University. But with Japanese aggression threatening, the Halperns decided to leave for Canada. Fanny Halpern’s friendship with Canadian Robert D. Murray convinced them of this decision. Murray was the manager of the Shanghai branch of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (Cole, p. 10). In July the Halpern’s were baptized into the Catholic faith. Ida and George (now with anglicized name) Halpern arrived in Vancouver with tourist visas on the Empress of India, on August 7, 1939. Although they failed their initial immigration application, with the financial support of Mr. Murray, the Halpern’s successfully appealed their immigration application on September 2, 1938.
The Halpern’s rented a house in the neighbourhood of Kitsilano in Vancouver at 2336 West 12th. George Halpern took a job with the Canadian Fishing Company in 1941. Ida purchased a piano and began to teach and perform music. She became actively involved in the Vancouver music scene. The president of the University of Shangahi had given Ida a letter of introduction for University of British Columbia President Dr. Klinck. This support quickly opened doors at the institution. In 1942 Ida introduced the first classes in music at UBC. She wrote a correspondence course titled “Fundamentals of Music” for the Department of Extension. She began a series of UBC noon-hour music appreciation lectures and taught private lessons, normal school evening course instruction, and UBC summer school programs (Ida Halpern fonds, MS-2768, box 43). These were the only instructional opportunities at a time when UBC did not yet have a music department. In 1956 Simon Fraser University made Ida a founding member of its Convocation and an Honorary Associate of its Centre for Communications and the Arts. In January 1942 the Halperns put down money on a house at 3707 West 37th Street, in Vancouver. In 1955 they moved to Wallace Crescent where they kept permanent residence. In 1948 Halpern helped to establish the Friends of Chamber Music. She was president for the first four years of the Friends’ existence and she remained chair of the Programme Committee and Honorary President until 1958. Halpern remained deeply involved in the Vancouver music scene for the remainder of her life. She was the Director of the Metropolitan Opera auditions for Western Canada. She was also President of the Woman’s Musical Club, Director of the Vancouver Symphony and the vice-chair of the Community Music School of Greater Vancouver. In 1952 she became a music critic for the Vancouver Province, a weekly contribution she maintained until 1957.
Halpern’s educational background ensured her interest contemporary music, musical exploration, and the identity of peoples through local musical tradition. The music of the folk, and its community values of culture and identity, remained a touchstone of her musical understanding. In this vein, Halpern is best remembered for her work to record First Nations’ music from across the West Coast. She arrived at a propitious time to make her musical exploration. Settler society on the Northwest Coast was at the cusp of a popular appreciation for art and culture of local First Nations’ communities. Further, many of the native elders Halpern recorded were willing to offer songs, naming ceremonies and other musical creations because they recognized the generational decline in the common usage of their indigenous culture. Because of the timing of her arrival, Halpern captured an unprecedented volume of sound recordings of valuable cultural creations from leading elders in Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Tlingit, Haida, and Coast Salish communities. In a CBC interview dated 1967, Halpern related it took her six years to convince Elders from a variety of indigenous communities to offer to perform their songs for her to record. Ida’s first set of indigenous recordings occurred in 1947 when Billy Assu, the progressive leader of the Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw communities near Cape Mudge, Quadra Island, invited Ida to his home to stage recording sessions. Promising her a hundred songs, Halpern was Assu’s guest for ten days. By the end of the visit Ida had recorded 88 songs on her Meissner recorder/player. She was convinced Assu would have reached 100 but she could not stay longer (Ida Halpern fonds, MS-2768, boxes 59-60). Halpern’s next significant recording sessions occurred in 1951 when she recorded Mungo Martin in Vancouver performing traditional songs of the Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw people. Martin was in Vancouver with his wife Abayah to participate in the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) totem pole restoration project. During his two-year participation in the UBC project, Martin and his wife were frequent guests in the Halpern home where Ida recorded 124 of his performances. (Ida Halpern fonds, MS-2768, boxes 61-62). Following Martin’s Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw recordings, Ida recorded her first Nu-cha-nulth recordings in 1951. She made these recordings on a trip to Port Alberni with Harry Hawthorne, professor of anthropology at UBC, Charles Borden, from the same UBC department, and Wilson Duff, a graduate student who would soon direct the anthropology section of the Royal BC Museum. Her work at this time was prolific: between 1947 and 1952 she collected original musical performances from 6 hereditary chiefs; all were between the ages of 70 and 80.
Ida had accumulated over 200 local indigenous songs by 1952. The recordings included significant work from Assu and Martin as well as several other native representatives. It was a body of source material large enough to support significant study. Halpern’s studies moved beyond a kind of salvage ethnography into the study and promotion of First Nations’ contemporary musical culture. Halpern avoided most secondary sources and scholarly ethnographic studies of the First Nations’ who delivered the songs she recorded. She claimed to prefer to work from the raw “data” she recorded. Her focus was the complex construction of native music and her work is generally acknowledged to be free of glaring ethnographic errors. Her work built on the foundation of her graduate studies in musical theory. She viewed west coast indigenous music as unique and complex and worthy of intense academic study.
Beginning in 1949, Ida began to bring her work to a public audience. In that year she brought her recordings to European audiences through a series of broadcasts on various radio stations including RIAS (Berlin), BBC (London), and RAVAG (Vienna). Several of her recordings were included in the 1953 Volume VIII of the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, edited by Alan Lomax and Marius Barbeau, on Columbia Records. In 1957 Ida arranged, supervised and supplied First Nations’ music for Lister Sinclair’s play “World of the Wonderful Dark,” performed at the first Vancouver International Festival. In 1961 she attended the International Folk Music Council conference at Université Laval in Québec. At this conference she delivered her first major ethno-music publication, “Music of the Kwakiutl Indians.” The following year she published the article in the Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Cambridge, England. In 1962 she released three songs to Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress publication, Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. In 1965 Ida introduced UBC’s first course in ethnomusicology. In 1966 Ida was selected to represent the Canadian Folk Music Society as the English representative at the International Folk Music Council Meeting in Ghana, Accra, University of Legon. Constantly studying and collating her musical collection, one year later Ida provided four LPs of her recordings of First Nations’ songs: Indian Music of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The albums were put out by Folkways Records through support of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The albums contained extensive liner notes which were more studies in ethnography than simple musical publications. In June 1967, the Centennial Workshop on Ethnomusicology was held at Nootka House, Totem Park, in Vancouver. The unique workshop was jointly sponsored by the Canadian Folk Music Society, Simon Fraser University, and the Department of Extension of the University of British Columbia. Ida was Chair of the Workshop and the theme was “Native Indian Music of the Canadian West Coast and its Relationships with the Indigenous Music of Other Cultures.” Scholars from Europe, Asia, and North American delivered nine papers over four days. In addition to delivering the opening keynote address, Ida presented a paper summarizing her research with the “Kwakiutl: Music of the B.C. Northwest Coast Indians” (Ida Halpern fonds, MS-2768, box 55). In part to support the Centennial Workshop, Ida also entered into discussion in 1966 with Folkways, and the co-sponsorship of Simon Fraser University, to publish another album of selected recordings: “Indian Music of the Pacific Northwest.” This 1967 publication was a two-disc song collection with an extensive explanatory booklet discussing the style characteristics of the music including rhythm, translation, and scales. Margaret Sargent McTaggert, formerly of the National Museum of Canada, assisted in the preparation of the collection. In 1974 Ida arranged for her first publication devoted to the musical culture of a single First Nation: “Nootka: Indian Music of the Pacific Northwest” (Ida Halpern fonds, MS-2768, box 54). Again the project was completed through Folkways records. On this occasion Marjorie Koers assisted Ida in the introduction. Once again a very detailed commentary on the complexities of the music of the “Nootka” accompanied the publication. Ida presented again at the Society for Ethnomusicology Congress in 1976. In this work she addressed and disproved the so-called “meaningless-nonsensical syllables,” which scholars had attributed to misunderstood indigenous music. This paper was subsequently published in the Journal of the Society of Ethnomusicology. In 1981, Ida returned to the theme of a single First Nation’s music by publishing her second assessment, this time titled “Kwakiutl: Indian Music of the Pacific Northwest” (Ida Halpern fonds, MS-2768, box 55). For the first time in her studies, she employed “exhaustive electronic analysis” based on sonograms. Finally, in 1986 Ida published her third study of the musical culture of a single First Nation group: “Haida: Indian Music of the Pacific Northwest” (Ida Halpern fonds, MS-2768, box 56). This time the research was assisted by David G. Duke. In her accompanying notes for this Folkways publication, she offered the fundamental principles with which she has always approached her study of First Nations’ music on the Northwest Coast: “begin with an open mind and the highest respect for this unique, complex musical culture; preserve the oldest examples of authentic, hereditary songs; find the best way of understanding this important music.” This approach led to her greatest achievement: to prove through detailed study that the music of the indigenous, northwest coast peoples was unique, consistent in its complexity and sophisticated in its design, a representative and expressive art deeply rooted in its cultural identity.
Ida Halpern died in Vancouver on February 7th, 1987. At the time of her death she was working with a filmmaker on a documentary of her life. The work was never finished. The documentary indicates Ida remained pre-occupied with her musical studies of First Nations cultures until the end.
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Death registration record: http://search-collections.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Image/Genealogy/5add431d-5189-47dd-b017-c01339eae7f6