Ruth Lynda Deyo: A Hatshepsut of our Time

By Emily Finan

In honor of Women’s History Month, this week I’d like to honor one of our own remarkable Hudson Valley native women, Ruth Lynda Deyo, by examining some of her artifacts from within our archives. Deyo (1884-1960), born in Poughkeepsie to Peter Deyo and Ida Florence Woolsey Deyo, was a pianist prodigy.  While other three years olds were mastering the art of potty training, Deyo was mastering the art of piano composition by writing and performing original works at parlor concerts, church gatherings, and local musicals.1  She continued to hone her skills throughout her childhood and on September 8, 1893, a nine year old little Deyo captivated crowds with a recital of her own works in the Assembly Halls of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where she was compared to Mozart.2  By the age of 10, Deyo had studied under the great William Mason in New York and was instructed to travel to Europe to further augment her knowledge under the mentorship of Varette Stepanoff, a Letchetizky expert.3  Before Deyo was even a teenager she was a renowned concert pianist and world traveler, certainly making her more modern than most women of her time.

Deyo’s successful travels in Europe produced this program within our collection, following her series of concerts in London. Although the program is undated, it probably originates around the time of her growing success as a concert pianist in the early 1900’s and would have been distributed at her recitals. At this time, the Musical Times noted “the attractiveness of her playing” at Deyo’s November 7, 1905 performance at Aeolian Hall in London.4  Deyo’s name appears again in the Musical Times for her June 1, 1911 concert at London’s Bechstein Hall, where she performed a sonata in F sharp minor by Schumann.5 Within the pamphlet, one can detect Deyo’s extreme global prominence. London, Paris, Boston, Cincinnati, Canada, and New York all produced glowing praise over Deyo’s extraordinary talents.  However, not only was she a talented and driven composer and an experienced world traveler, but she was also deeply fascinated with Egyptian culture, which she sought to incorporate to her musical world.

Similar to her early interest in composition, from a young age Deyo was also captivated by Egyptian culture and operas. This fascination carried into her adult life through her desire to produce an Egyptian themed opera. At the age of eight, it was said that her favorite phrases were “once upon a time, they lived happily ever after and the word Egypt.”6  In pursuit of her ambitions, Deyo traveled to Egypt in 1924 to study ancient Egyptian history and to collect folk music to help her create historically authentic sets and costume designs for her Egyptian Opera, which she named Diadem of Stars.7 Therefore, Deyo can be considered a bit of a Renaissance woman of the arts world; she was a master of the piano and the art of composition, she immersed herself within various cultures, and she studied Egyptian art and architecture in order to accurately replicate it.  Deyo was also a bit eccentric.  She held strong convictions that she was actually a conduit between the Egyptian sun god, Ra, and the rest of the world.  She avowed that he spoke to her and told her she would soon meet the love of her life.8  Ironically enough, Ra was right and Deyo met her husband, Charles Dalton, soon after.

The inspiration for the subject of Deyo’s Egyptian themed opera may have been born in her childhood fascination or her direct connection with Ra, but it is more likely that it was also influenced by contemporary Egyptomania.  First coined in the early 19th century by architect Sir Soane in reaction to the contemporary decorative arts being influenced by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 and ensuing British invasion, the term in this time also refers to the explosion of fascination surrounding the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb.9  Fatefully, Deyo was in Egypt at this moment and was good friends with Howard Carter, the excavator of King Tut’s tomb, and her connections allowed her to view artifacts before the rest of the world.  For instance, upon seeing the limestone head of Nefertiti, she asserted that she saw a resemblance to herself, which might explain why her opera focuses specifically on Nefertiti and Akhenaton.10  Our second Deyo artifact is a letter she wrote to her Aunt Gertrude, who lived in the Fort at Huguenot Street, concerning her Diadem of Stars opera.

This letter is dated August 28, 1937 and states that “King Farouk [of Egypt] expressed a wish to hear our opera, parts of it were sung for him at a reception given in his honor at the Egyptian Embassy in London in June” and that he loved it so much he “wanted it to be given in Cairo.” Deyo’s success and immense reputation is unmistakable.  For a woman of her time, she was truly remarkable.

Deyo is an impressive woman even for today’s standards, but even more so in her contemporary society.  When women were only just getting the right to vote, Deyo was becoming a master pianist and supporting herself through her legendary talents.  Deyo “performed frequently, composed, worked as a pioneering ethnomusicologist, and became something of and Egyptologist – all at a time when women engaged in few of these activities.”11  Deyo can be labeled a feminist of her time; her achievements undermine gender constraints and underscore the assertion that women are capable of any task, even those categorized as solely masculine.  Deyo performed the work of men before her such as Beethoven, Schumann and Mozart, surpassing their constraints by creating her own masterpieces.  She traveled the world and gained global acknowledgement and respect for her compositions.  Deyo also was an activist; she thought that her opera could change the world if she could only bring “Akhenaten’s vision of peace and prosperity” to her viewers.12  Deyo is an inspiration to all and the impeccable candidate for a closer examination to honor Women’s History Month.

Sears, Ann. “An American Composer Answers the Call to Egypt.Sonneck Society for American Music Bulletin, 23, no. 1. (Spring 1997).

2 Sears.

3 Sears.

4London Concerts and Recitals,”  The Musical Times, Vol. 46, No. 754 (Dec. 1, 1905): 809-81, Accessed March 8, 2017.

5London Concerts,”  The Musical Times, Vol. 52, No. 821 (Jul. 1, 1911): 471-473, Accessed March 8, 2017.

6 Sears.

7 Sears.

8 Wheaton College, Ruth Linda Deyo, video, 02:51, May 2016.

9 Brian A. Curran, “Review: Egyptomania: Egypt In Western Art, 1730-1930” by Jean-Marcel Humbert, Michael Pantazzi and Christiane Ziegler, The Art Bulletin Vol. 78, No. 4 (Dec., 1996): 739-745.

10 Sears.

11 Sears.

12 Wheaton College, Ruth Linda Deyo.

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