Friday, June 29, 2018

Women Composers That You Should Hear!

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong

Most of the Western Classical Music world has been dominated for centuries by male composers.
Or, at least we think it has. Many great women composers have lived and died, and many are actively writing beautiful music today. Who are they? Where are they? How come we don't know more about them?  Well, let's start with classical concert programmers. A recent article in The Guardian by Mark Brown pointed out that about 95% of all the classical music on concert programs through 2019 was by male composers. Is it possible that male composers wrote 95% of all the classical music that's worth listening to or performing? Of course not! 

Fanny Mendelssohn, 'Women in European History'

Clara Schumann's Drei Romanzen
A quick observation is that the classical music world has changed drastically in the last thirty years. It used to be that professional orchestras were almost exclusively male, and many youth orchestras were evenly split between male and female. Today, though, many youth orchestras are predominantly female and many professional orchestras are slowly shifting in that direction as well. Isn't it time we heard the voices of women composers? Here's a short listing of some of our favorite historical and contemporary women composers. Give them a listen!

Starting with a historical composer, I would like to mention Clara Schumann. At a very young age she trained with her father on piano, eventually becoming widely known and recognized. After performing in Vienna for a few months, she was bestowed the fancy title of "Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso", the highest musical honor in Austria. She toured Europe at age 11, and was praised by Goethe, Chopin, and Paganini. A talented performer and composer, she included at least one of her own compositions at every concert. Composing her first piano concerto, Piano Concerto in A Minor, at 14 years old, she continued to compose both concert pieces and 'domestic' pieces, which were meant to be played at home, frequently until age 36. In addition to her Concerto, she composed Piano Trio in G Minor, Three Romances for Piano and Violin, and about 70 other pieces. But at age 18, against her father's wishes, she married Robert Schumann. After marriage she had a change of opinion about her compositions, stating "I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?" A quote that just breaks my heart. She even gave up performing for some time, prioritizing her family to an extraordinary extent. Not only was she an advocate and editor for Robert's work, she protected and supported her family fiercely. In the 1849 Dresden uprising, she snuck her mentally ill husband and her eldest daughter out of the city, and later returned at night for her 3 younger children while 7 months pregnant! After Robert's death, she performed about 50 concerts a year to support her family. What a general badass!

Clara Schumann from a 1835 lithograph

image from wikipedia
Clara Schumann's 193rd Birthday
A google doodle commending Clara Schumann on her 193rd Birthday

image from google doodle archive

Another composer of Schumann's generation, Fanny Mendelssohn, was also often overshadowed. This time by her brother, Felix Mendelssohn. She wrote an incredible 500 pieces, mostly keyboard, choral and chamber music. Unlike Schumann, her family did not approve of a musical profession, despite giving her the education for it. Her father wrote in a letter to her, "for you [music] can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing." This mindset stifled her talent, though it was often recognized as equal or greater than Felix's. In 1820, Carl Friedrich Zelter wrote to Goethe about Fanny, saying "his oldest daughter could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special". In 1842, Queen Victoria praised her favorite song, Felix's Italien, which he confessed was written by Fanny. Despite this, she very rarely performed concerts, though she hosted successful Sunday salon concerts, Sonntagskonzerte, which Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt would often attend. Without access to the orchestras and stage that her brother had, she mostly composed smaller scale pieces, like this Notturno in G minor. A particularly interesting piece she wrote was Das Jahr, or The Year, a collection on 13 pieces for the piano, one for each month and an epilogue. They reflected her travels and were printed on different colored paper with illustrations by her husband, a Hungarian painter. It predates Tchaikovsky's similarly formatted piece The Seasons by 35 years.

Fanny Mendelssohn Notturno in G Minor

Image: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

images from Library of Congress
Image result for fanny mendelssohn
A sketch of Fanny Mendelssohn done by her future husband, Wilhelm Hensel

image from Wikipedia

File:Fanny Hensel Januar.jpg
Januar from Das Jahr

From Wikipedia

Florence Price was an accomplished female, African-American composer in the 1930s. She was born in Little Rock Arkansas, and after graduating at the top of her high school class, she began studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. There, while hiding her race by pretending to be from Mexico, she graduated with honors. After graduating, she became head of Clark University's music department and married Thomas Price, an African-American lawyer. They moved back to Little Rock, but after a series of lynchings, they left for the relative safety of Chicago. In Chicago, Florence had more career opportunities, though she still faced financial difficulties and eventually divorced. A single mom of 2, she began writing radio ad songs and playing organ for silent films to make ends meet. In 1932, she entered the Wanamaker Foundation Awards with 5 pieces, and won both 1st and 3rd place. In 1933, the Boston symphony played Florence Price's Symphony in E Minor, making it the first African American composition played by a major US orchestra. The Symphony, and her music in general, mixed a Romantic style with the syncopation of African spirituals, making it uniquely American. Though the performance received national attention at the time,  after Florence's death, her music was mostly forgotten and some was lost. Until recently. In 2009, a stunning, almost mystery novel, turn of events occurred. A couple was renovating a dilapidated, abandoned home in St. Anne, Illinois. The house was in an awful state, it had been vandalized, ransacked, and had a hole in the roof from a fallen tree. Despite its poor condition, a room remained dry and relatively intact. In it, the couple found personal papers and musical scores with the name Florence Price. As 2 University of Arkansas archivists confirmed later, they had found Price's supposedly lost concertos in her vacation home. With a recent push for more women composers to be programmed and a compelling news story, Price's music has begun to reemerge. Already, the lost Violin Concertos No. 1 and 2 were recorded, featuring Er-Gene Kahng as the soloist.

Who Was Florence Price?
Florence Price

image from University of Arkansas
Florence Price's Symphony in E Minor 

Er-Gene Kahng playing Price's lost Violin Concerto No. 2

The dilapidated house had a hole in the roof. Many of the Florence Price papers sustained water damage.
The house where Price's scores were found

image from Arkansas Public Radio
Nadia and Lili Boulanger are two contemporary women composers. Nadia, the older of the two sisters, has taught many prominent 20th century musicians and composers, including Philip Glass, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. She was incredibly influential, teaching at Juilliard, the Yehundi Menuhin School, Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, and the Paris Conservatoire. She was also the first woman to conduct many major orchestras, including the BBC Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Like many accomplished musicians, she began studying music young. Nadia began her music education at 9 years old in the Paris Conservatoire. After her father died, she became the primary breadwinner of the family, performing and giving lessons from the family apartment, which would continue until her death at 92. During her time at the Conservatoire, she won the competitions for piano accompaniment, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, and organ. After she left she began composing frequently, mainly vocal, keyboard, and chamber music. Her ultimate goal was to win the Prix de Rome, which her father had won in 1835 at age 20. After 4 failed attempts, where she got as close as 2nd place, she was discouraged and gave up. Believing she lacked a talent for composing, she began primarily teaching and placed her hopes in her younger sister. Her sister, Lili Boulanger, was also a talented musician and one of Nadia's earliest students. She began sitting in Conservatoire classes with her sister before she was 5. She had perfect pitch and played piano, violin, cello, and harp. In 1912, she competed in the Prix de Rome, but collapsed during her performance due to ill health. The next year she returned and won the competition at only 19 years old with her cantata, Faust et Hélène, based on Goethe's Faust. She was the first woman to win and continued to compose until her early death at age 24.

Nadia Boulanger's Fantaisie pour piano et orchestre

Nadia Boulager's Paris apartment where she would teach students

from Wikipedia

Lili Boulanger's Faust et Hélène

Finally, Rae Howell, a contemporary Australian composer, combines multiple genres and experiments with modern elements within her music. Her past projects include Rabbitsss, a percussion piece with electronic manipulations and Invisible Wilderness, a solo piano/keyboard album. She is currently working on a project with the University of Minnesota Bee Research Lab titled "Bee Sharp", a collection of 13 miniatures based on bee vibrations with an accompanying short documentary that she hopes to turn into a full chamber orchestral piece with electronics. The music premiered at the 2017 Pollinator Party with the Laurels String Quartet (Andy was there!) and the short documentary was premiered at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. The title of the project, Bee Sharp, is actually a pun on the frequency bees buzz at, 250Hz. 250Hz is close to middle C, in other words, B#! Andy is an avid 'pollinator garden' gardener and Ivana is a hobby beekeeper. We love this idea and are looking forward to more from Rae Howell.

Rae Howell

image from her website

Howell is adding short claymation clips to Bee Sharp, including the one above

Postcards for her newest composition 'Bee-Sharp'

Image may contain: plant, flower, tree, outdoor and nature
Andy's pollinator garden

We would also like to recommend Jennifer Higdon, Dobrinka Tabakova, and Tania León as a few more contemporary composers, though we can't write about them for the sake of time. For a more extensive archive of women composers, check out Achiv Frau und Musik, a German website that is mostly translated into English. It features over 1,800 women composers from the 9th-21st century. The lack of women composers in our concert halls certainly isn't because of lack of talent. 

Listen to a few of the pieces listed and keep an eye out for women composers in your local orchestra's program! And if you don't see any women composers programmed, ASK FOR THEM!

Jennifer Higdon's Blue Cathedral

Dobrinka Tabakova's Dawn

Tania León's Batá

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