Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg loved music.
She was a regular at the opera, with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves her favorite singer.
So when she tragically passed in September, it only made sense to Brooklyn College adjunct piano professor and acclaimed pianist Jeffrey Biegel to remember her through music.
He dove into a tributary project, bringing a group of extremely talented musicians together to create a large-scale operatic piece dedicated to Ginsburg, but he also wanted to do a more immediate solo piano piece, for himself and other pianists to enjoy.
But when Biegel, who only sheepishly takes the title of composer, sat at his piano with blank music paper, he had idea how to start. What came to him first were Justice Ginsburg’s many names.
“I thought about all the different letters of her names like RBG, Ruth and Bader and Ginsburg, and her nickname is Kiki,” he said. And The Reflection on Justice: An Ode to Ruth Bader Ginsburg grew from there.
The aim, he said, was to incorporate Ginsburg’s work into our future and use her legacy to help us move forward as a nation. Peace, dignity, respect and strength were the words that kept returning to him as he wrote.
“It’s very contemplative in the beginning, then it is a eulogy in a kind of way,” he said. “The section is very spiritual, as though she was watching form heaven, it’s a very angelic section.”
While the angelic upper register notes are being played, the left hand plays the notes of all her names. It then incorporates a section of the Star Spangled Banner. The song builds to a final blow, where the right arm is used in its entirety to create two loud chords.
“I wanted a big sound, but five fingers couldn’t do it but my arm could,” Biegel said, adding it related to the long arm of the law and how that was the most important part of her life, “observing and honoring the law, and making it adaptable to everybody.”
The powerful piece has been very well received, with singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester saying she was struck by how emotionally far reaching Biegel’s composition soared, shined and satisfied. “The melodic tenderness for RBG is there as is her thunderous gavel of justice as is, in the end, her heavenly light twinkling as the final sweet intervals leaving us with her nickname, ‘Kiki’.”
The piano solo is a smaller part of a larger project Biegel is working on that is being written for a narrator/vocalist, piano and orchestra, based on composer Aaron Copland’s piece composed in memory of Abraham Lincoln.
He said the piano will play a prominent role in the piece, along with an orchestra that can be adjusted for different sizes. Where it differs from Copland’s piece is that there will be a vocalist.
After gaining the approval of Ginsburg’s family, and on the recommendation of her son, Biegel approached vocalist Denyce Graves to see if she would be the designated vocalist. “She immediately said yes, because she loved Justice Ginsburg,” Biegel said.
Biegel then approached his friend and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich to compose the piece, to which she said she would be honored. The plan is to have the piece ready by fall 2021.
Currently, Biegel is fundraising for its production.
“It will be part of her legacy,” Biegel said. “People will be able to remember her through the music, and she loved music.”
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