Music is a vital part of Ruth’s life and family. Her musical choices on Michael Berkeley’s Private Passions, 1998, and Desert Island Discs 2009, included opera, folksong, chamber music, Muddy Waters, Theodorakis, and Melina Merkouri singing The Boys from Peiraeus. In another life, she has said, she would love to be an opera director – and wishes she could play the oud.
Chamber Music, Singing
Ruth’s parents met at a Music Camp in Bothampstead. Her father played cello, her mother clarinet, and Ruth grew up s playing viola in string quartets within the family. The first fee she ever earned was £5 playing viola in Westminster Abbey.
The professional musicians in her family were on her father’s side. Her father’s grandfather Christian Gottlieb Padel was a piano soloist, born in Christiansfeld, south Denmark, who studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire with Carl Reinecke, Moritz Hauptmann and Beethoven’s pupil Ignaz Moscheles. In 1868 he settled in York, teaching – one of his pupils was the composer George Butterworth – and playing concertos with the York Symphony Orchestra. His son, Ruth’s grandfather Charles Frederick Christian Padel, born in York, played the violin and as headmaster of Carlisle Grammar School established a vigorous school orchestra and a family string quartet, a tradition that continues through the family.
But wherever she has lived, Ruth has also sought out singing, whether this meant learning Cretan mantinades from workmen in the archaeological trenches at Knossos, or in more formal settings. She has sung in the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, Philippe Caillard’s choir in Paris, the choir of St Eustache in Les Halles, the Heraklion Town Choir in Crete and – for a couple of evenings, unpaid – in an Istanbul nightclub. She currently sings in a madrigal group.
Writing and Broadcasting on Music
Ruth has written, lectured, and mentored in a wide range of contexts on music and singing. She taught a course on ‘women in opera’ in the Modern Greek Department at Princeton University in 1995, mentored poets writing words for choral music on a 2012 programme Writing for Voices in Oxford, has given pre-performance talks at Glyndebourne Festival Opera and chaired a session, Listening to the 20th Century, with Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017.
On BBC Radio 3, she has presented an episode of The Choir, and broadcast a radio essay on playing the viola and also a series of interval talks on opera – in which she sang some of the soprano examples herself, though she gave up on ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca.
Among her BBC Radio 4 five-part series on artists and writers were five programmes on Edward Elgar; her book I’m A Man combines her love of opera with rock music. She written essays on women’s voices in opera and a sixteenth-century madrigal for The London Review of Books, and is currently writing a book of poems, scheduled for publication 2020, on Beethoven and Schubert.
In 2013, Ruth was commissioned by Tring Chamber Music to write and perform a sequence of crucifixion poems to accompany Haydn’s string quartet Opus 51, Seven Last Words from the Cross. These poems became the centre-piece of her poetry collection on the Middle East, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth. ‘Padel is a poetic Daniel Barenboim,’ said the Observer review ‘determined to find common ground and to arriv, at some approximation of Middle Eastern harmony. The collection includes more than one poem describing a musical instrument, including the oud itself. The opening poem goes into sensual detail about the making of the instrument and is a mini-creation story.’
Ruth went on to perform these poems with the Endellion Quartet at the Aspect Foundation and elsewhere, and from 2015 she has worked with the Endellion Quartet in concerts combining her poems with music by Beethoven, Schubert and Tchaikovsky.
In 2014, Ruth was first Writer in Residence at Covent Garden. She attended rehearsals of a ‘Faustian package,’ a revival of Gounod’s Faust alongside two new operas on the Faust theme, and blogged about the behind-scenes process from rehearsal to performance.
From 2010 to 2014, Ruth collaborated with composer Michael Zev Gordon on two musical-cum-scientific projects funded by the Wellcome Trust. Their first project was Music from the Genome, an arts and science project aimed at discovering, and reflecting upon, musical aspects of genes. Each member of a forty-strong choir sang their own genetic code to a text by Ruth, which Ruth and Michael titled Allele.
Allele premiered in 2010 at Diamond Light, the UK National Synchrotron Facility, which won Michael Zev Gordon the 2011 BASCA Composer of the Year award (choral section). Ruth wrote about the complexities of this collaboration for the Wellcome Trust’s website on the project.
Ruth’s second collaboration with Michael was a project called Awake, which incorporated patients’ reports of waking under general anaesthesia. To begin their research, Ruth and Michael were put into scrubs to visit the Anaesthesia Unit at St Thomas’s Hospital for a day, observing patients anaesthetized for operations from hand surgery to heart surgery, and talked to patients in recovery. They found that Ruth could not bear watching knives cutting into flesh, and Michael could not bear watching injections. Michael then planned a cantata – and the text Ruth wrote for it was called Into the Dark, first performed in 2015 by soprano Clare McCaldin at the Royal Society of Medicine.