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Ruth Steiner, 1931-2019

Posted By Administration, Friday, October 4, 2019

Ruth Steiner (née Piette), Professor Emerita of Music at Catholic University of America (CUA), died on 22 February 2019 at the Collington Continuing Care Retirement Community in metropolitan Washington, D.C. area after a long illness. Born in Oak Park, IL on 2 February 1931, she studied with Jan LaRue and Hubert Lamb at Wellesley College, MA, receiving her B.A. in 1952. After working with Gustav Reese at the Manhattan School of Music from 1952 to 1953, she began graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, earning an M.A. in 1957. She completed a Ph.D. at the Catholic University of America in 1963, where she then taught and served on the faculty from 1966 until 2000.


Steiner attended her first AMS Annual Meeting in Santa Monica in 1957. She wrote in “Wish 61” from the AMS’s 75 Birthday Wishes, “What happened in Santa Monica was that I fell in love, not with any particular individual (at least no one I can remember clearly) but with the whole idea of the AMS” (see Her AMS service began with the Board of Directors (1977–78) and the Program Committee (1982, 1991), and continued with three terms as Secretary of the Society (1983–88). During a period of transition in 1994, Steiner served briefly as Executive Director.


Steiner’s main areas of scholarship were groups of chant in the Sarum and Gregorian rites, with an emphasis on the responsories, prosulae, differentiae, and invitatory tones of Gregorian chant. She was internationally known as a specialist on the chants of the Divine Office. She served as Chair of the International Musicological Society Study Group ‘Cantus Planus,’ on the editorial boards of JAMS, the Journal of Musicology, and Plainsong and Medieval Music, and was an active member of the Medieval Academy of America. Perhaps her most significant contribution to the study of early music began in 1987, before “online” existed, when she obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to start what has become the Cantus Manuscript Database. This searchable index of chant manuscripts, now including images, has enabled scholars around the world to carry out research right from their own desks; the Cantus Database has transformed the study of liturgical chant and influenced the development of the discipline now known as the Digital Humanities. In the words of one of her colleagues in musicology, Grayson Wagstaff, former Dean of Music at Catholic University, “Many of us have wonderful ideas, but Ruth created a new world.”


A recipient of many honors, Steiner received The Catholic University of America Alumni Achievement Award in 1994. A series of grants from the NEH allowed her to welcome scholars from many disciplines to CUA for summer study, and with grants from the Dom Mocquereau Foundation, she was able to build an exceptional microfilm collection for the study of the medieval Office. With her creativity and imagination, she nurtured a generation of scholars, training them in manuscript study while demonstrating the vital importance of developing new tools for the exploration of the manuscript sources she had mastered, as well as providing a professional and ethical model of how to be a scholar.


Steiner’s numerous publications include several JAMS articles, some reprinted in her book, Studies in Gregorian Chant (Routledge, 1999). A Festschrift in her honor, The Divine Office in the Latin Middle Ages (Oxford, 2000), was edited by Margot E. Fassler and Rebecca A. Baltzer and includes contributions from principal figures in medieval liturgical chant research.  This volume immediately became an indispensable resource for the study of the liturgical Office and attests to the impact that Steiner’s Cantus Project and investment in the medieval Office in general has had on medieval chant research.

Debra Lacoste (assisted by Barbara Haggh-Huglo, Bob Judd, and Jon Steiner)

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