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Remembering Betty Hamilton

by Gisela Wielki

Betty was born "Bertha Jane Robinson" in 1922, the year the Christian Community was founded. She was a spring child, born on Palm Sunday, April 9th, in Orlando, Florida where she joined a two-year older sister. At the time of her parent’s marriage her father was 65 and the mother 32.

It was a relationship and love obviously not bound to convention. Her Great grandfather was John Robinson, captain of a ship in the 1812 wars. Betty’s father was a homeopathic physician from a Philadelphia family. Her mother was a home maker, born to Swiss immigrants in Kenton, Ohio.


As a three-year-old Betty had a tiny toy piano on which she taught herself to play songs by ear. She often sat under the piano listening to her mother play. At six her father arranged for her to get lessons. The lessons were later interrupted for a time during the Great Depression when financial hardships faced the family.


When Betty was twelve her mother died suddenly from complications in surgery. Betty thought she might have been a bit clairvoyant as a child as she foresaw her mother’s death, and it took her some time before she could fully embrace life again. Only six years later her father died.


At the age of 19, Betty came to Nyack to study probably on a scholarship sacred music at the Missionary Training Institute. She received her Bachelor of Sacred Music from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia at the age of 23.

Betty then returned to Nyack to teach in the music department for some years, attending classes and lectures at Union Theological Seminary, until she continued her musical studies to get her Master of Music at the Manhattan School of Music. 30 years old she now had the confidence she needed for life, and music remained central to her life.


Settling in Suffern, she held various musical positions in local churches in the area, among them a Presbyterian and Episcopal church, but the financial situation was always tight, so she worked at the same time as a waitress for a while and as a receptionist in a doctor’s office.


Betty grew up in a church very much devoted to the Holy Spirit and while she studied in Nyack at the Missionary College, she was asked to write a sermon on the theme: Even though I die, I live because of Christ in me.


Betty said of herself: I tried to live this too early: not I, but Christ in me, before I had my own self, before I had a sense of my own I. She attributed this still lacking sense of self to her having gotten married prematurely and finding herself in a relationship not suited for her.

Managing a Diner was not Betty’s calling. And she certainly did not want to see the hard-earned money working in her husband’s diner go to the horse races. So, she went to the Virgin Islands and got a divorce.


In Suffern she became friends with a family. Their son became a piano pupil of hers, and the father introduced her to Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy, but she remained hesitant until she read about Steiner’s deep relationship to the Christ.


She became involved with the activities at Hilltop House but decided to work with the newly developing Eurythmy School instead, playing the piano for 20 years.

70 years old, some feelings of resentment had to be worked through when asked to retire. Of course, little did anyone know she would live to be a hundred.


At Threefold she accompanied in the late 60’s a young man who was a very fine violinist. One day he told her about a church in NYC he thought she would like. That was the beginning of her long and dedicated relationship with the New York congregation. The fine young violinist was Philip Nusbaum, who soon embarked on his journey of becoming a priest. He was the father of Angela Nussbaum Steinrueck.


Matthew Malokie, one of her finest piano students long ago, wrote: Betty was not a showy pianist, but one of elegant sensibility and integrity. And as a piano teacher, she was heroically patient.


When I was later afforded to study with Robert Goldsand after I had stopped studying with her, she was as excited as I was. Betty was always extremely supportive, there was nothing in her of professional jealousy or anything that smacked of personal ambition.


Wishing to deepen her accompanying the service she attended a priest/musician conference in Germany in the 90’s. Here she met the composer Stolzenbach and attended one of his workshops. He had the attendees improvise and his comment to Betty was: You have form.

From him she learned a great deal and she retained some of his words and suggestions throughout her own career encouraged to begin her own compositions. Such words as: Offer up your experience to be affirmed or not. Be true to the score. When you move into the silence do it carefully according to the festival season. Use will in movement not drumbeats. It is hard for musicians to be humble, but also free. Reflecting on the latter Betty said: I have to say it in a way that does not sound opinionated as if ‘I am right’. And Betty had her way of knowing and holding opinions as we of course all do. She may have come across as timid at times, but that was balanced with a good dose of stubbornness and enough choleric fire to express herself as a free spirit.


After having attended the conference, she realized that music composed for the renewed sacraments had to be new as well.


Ruth Schontal, with whom she studied composition told her how one must feel the music in one’s palm and draw it out of the keys. One does not actually push down but lifts the music up. We have all benefitted from this wisdom in Betty’s playing and nowhere more beautifully than in the Service.


Better understood having played for Eurythmy so many years was a good preparation to find the intervals in the palm of her hand. Let the music flow through you, from your shoulder down to your arm like a stream. Don’t play your own interpretation but try and play what the composer wanted to convey. Lift the music off the keyboard. Make the piano sing, sing to become almost human. I do my daily scales. These words were spoken in April 2016.


Whenever she reflected, even at 93 years, about her composing, she always spoke in the present tense: When I compose music for the Service, I think of what has just been spoken. And out of this I compose the music and the people can take to ‘heart’ the words they heard. Music has to do with the heart.


Just about all our visits came back to the theme of music or the service. I cannot remember ever having had a conversation with Betty about world affairs.


It was in her later life that Betty met a gentleman who lived in the same building complex as she. He was a guidance counselor in a catholic high school and approached retirement, and quite a few years younger. At first, we got to know him as Betty’s chauffer who drove her on Sundays in his Lincoln to the Service in NYC. He always sat right next to the piano in his very own corner. Then we watched Betty getting younger and her skirts getting shorter. And it soon became apparent that the two were a loving couple. Sy, new to all this was at first rather cautious but unfalteringly committed to Betty, and Betty never pushed or in any way coerced Sy towards all this newness. And over time Sy fully joined in the life of the congregation. It took them together into a new form of sharing in this last phase of their lives. She survived him by seven years.


When her wellbeing declined, Christiane Landowne began to take care of all of Betty’s affairs in a very generous and giving way. And as changes in old age present new challenges, Betty was not happy to have to leave her apartment she had lived in for so long, filled with so many memories.



It took some firm and loving persistence to finally get her settled in the Fellowship Community where she in the end lived five years content and very grateful.

 

To make a gift to the Fellowship Community in honor of Betty Hamilton please visit

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