Madam secretary on the 88s

I greatly admire the character of Condoleezza Rice. I tried to explore some of her personal qualities last year in the Standard column “Birmingham’s new legacy.” Today’s New York Times provides a revealing personal glimpse of Secretary Rice at play in her living room with her chamber group in an excellent story by Anthony Tommasini: “Condoleezza Rice on the piano.”


The story is interesting in several respects. Here are a few paragraphs picking up the thread of her family influences and the Birmingham connection that I tried to explore in the linked Standard column:

MS. RICE, an only child, is a fourth-generation pianist on her mother’s side. Her mother, Angelena Rice, who died of cancer in 1985, taught music and science at an industrial high school in a black suburb of Birmingham, Ala. “My mother was a church musician, and she read music beautifully, but she didn’t play classically that much,” Ms. Rice said during the earlier interview. “But she had a marvelously improvisational ear, which I don’t have.”

Her father, John Rice, who succeeded his father, a son of slaves, as minister at a Presbyterian church in Birmingham, also loved music, especially big-band jazz. (John Rice died on Christmas Eve in 2000, days after learning that Ms. Rice had been appointed national security adviser.) When she was an infant, Ms. Rice’s parents gave her a tiny toy piano. “They had a plan,” she said. Today that gift is prominently displayed on the coffee table in her apartment.

But it was her maternal grandmother, Mattie Ray, who proved the decisive musical influence in her life. Because both Ms. Rice’s parents worked, she was dropped off each day at the house of her grandmother, who taught piano privately and sensed her eagerness and talent. Lessons started when she was 3. “I don’t remember learning to read music — you know, the lines and spaces and all that,” Ms. Rice said. “From my point of view I could always read music.”

Classical music became her passion from the day her mother bought her a recording of Verdi’s “Aida,” and she listened, “my little eyes like saucers,” she said, to the brassy and stirring “Triumphal March.”

Ms. Rice, not quite 9, was sitting in her father’s church on the Sunday morning in 1963 when, two miles away, bombs went off at a Baptist church and four black girls were killed, one of them a childhood playmate of hers. During this period of protests, fire hoses and bombs in Birmingham, she found comfort taking music classes at a local conservatory that had boldly opened its doors to black children. In 1969, the family moved to Denver, and Ms. Rice, having skipped the first and seventh grades, entered the University of Denver at 15 as a music major.

Tommasini also reports on some of Secretary Rice’s favorite music and composers, as here, for example:

After the Shostakovich, they turned to Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor: “Condi’s piece,” as Mr. Battey called it. This intense, intricate and extremely difficult work is one of Ms. Rice’s favorites. She reveres Brahms, she said, because the music is “passionate but not sentimental.” In the scherzo, the players set a breakneck pace. Sometimes notes splattered and coordination teetered on the brink. It hardly mattered. The music-making was risky and vital.

If you are a fan of Secretary Rice, or of music, don’t miss Tommasini’s article.


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