By the time Marga Richter started piano lessons at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, she had already been playing for seven years.
A short time later, at age 12, she began composing, and went on to write nearly 200 works over a career spanning eight decades.
Richter died June 25 at her home in Barnegat, N.J., at 93. Born in Reedsburg, Wis., she received much of her early musical training in Minneapolis after her parents settled in Robbinsdale.
There was music in the family. Her mother was the American soprano Inez Chandler and her paternal grandfather was German conductor-composer Richard Richter. Her father — a German army captain in World War I — barred the family home to visitors whenever the Metropolitan Opera broadcast a Wagner performance on the radio.
Richter was 15 when one of her works was presented publicly for the first time — “Jabberwocky,” based on the Lewis Carroll poem, which she and her mother performed at Robbinsdale High School.
The family moved to New York in 1943 for Richter’s career. She wound up at Juilliard as a piano major, but later switched to composition, earning a master’s degree. “I really didn’t notice that there weren’t any women composers to model myself after until I got to Juilliard, and then I found I was the only one there,” she once told an audience.
“I like to write music that the listener responds to immediately,” she told the Star Tribune in 1976 when the Minnesota Orchestra played her “Lament,” a piece for string orchestra inspired by the death of her mother, who sang with the orchestra when Eugene Ormandy was its music director. “Whenever I hear it, I become very emotional.”
Richter also wrote a one-act chamber opera, “Riders to the Sea,” based on the play by Irish writer John Millington Synge.
Though she was active in a period when women composers struggled to be taken seriously, her music attracted regular performances by high-caliber musicians such as the pianist Menahem Pressler, violist Walter Trampler and soprano Jessye Norman.
Richter lived to see a more enlightened attitude toward female composers emerging in the 21st century, although she bristled at how “women’s music” can be presented in a token fashion, and not judged seriously on its own merits.
“People do realize that women write music — good music,” she told the Star Tribune. While she was a co-founder of the New York-based League of Women Composers, “my goal is as soon as they accept women on the same basis as men, we should disband the league.”
She is survived by a son, pianist Michael Skelly; a daughter, Maureen Raj; four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.