9 Women Composers You Should Know, Part II

In the first part of this series, you were introduced to Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Clara Schumann. Their professional lives were challenged as composers simply because they were women. However, they followed their path and are earning their rightful place in history. If you missed the first part of this series, here is the link: 9 Women Composers You Should Know About, Part I

Below are three more composers you should know about.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach was a child prodigy who harmonised lullabies with her mother as an infant, composed waltzes at 4, and performed Beethoven sonatas by 7. Even more remarkable was her ability to analyse and compose without the aid of a musical instrument. Despite these gifts, Amy was not granted the opportunity to study music in Europe, at the time the place to receive extensive and elite training. This was a privilege her male counterparts enjoyed and therefore Amy resorted to other ways of training herself. She learned fugal composition by memorising most of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, writing fugues down and comparing them to the original scores. She also learned about tone colours by going to concerts and memorising the themes she heard with proper instrumentation. She then wrote them down and compared them to the original works. Eventually, Amy became the first American woman to publish a major symphonic work. Although her work met with positive reviews, the prevailing attitudes of the 19th Century offered her acceptance into the symphonic world – “as one of the boys”.

Like Fanny, Amy encountered the stigma of being an upper-class woman working in music. Her husband, Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, stopped her from being a piano tutor and limited her performances to two a year with proceeds donated to charities. However, he did encourage her to continue composing.

The general view held in Victorian society was that women were solely interpreters but too emotional for the science of writing music, to which Amy responded:

“From the year 1675 to the year 1885, women have composed 153 works, including 55 serious operas, 6 cantatas, 53 comic operas, 17 operettas, 6 sing-spiele, 4 ballets, 4 vaudevilles, 2 oratorios, one each of fares, pastorales, masques, ballads and buffas.”

“…more women are interested in the serious study of the science of music as well as the art than formerly.” – Amy Beach

(Amy Beach = “Gaelic Symphony”, ca. 1894)

Florence B. Price

Florence B. Price was the first black American woman to have a work performed by a major American symphonic orchestra. Her harmonies blended European tradition with Negro spirituals and black American folk tunes, a blend Czech composer Antonín Dvořák urged decades before for American musicians to embrace:

“The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” – Antonín Dvořák

Florence excelled at piano (her mother taught her) and eventually auditioned at the New England Conservatory of Music. Adhering to her mother’s advice, she passed as someone of Mexican descent and won a spot. She also studied with renown composer, George Whitefield Chadwick, who encouraged her to take up composition. Florence started her career as a pianist and teacher, but was limited in her professional aspirations and denied acceptance into all-white music associations. She founded Little Rock Club of Musicians instead and taught in segregated black schools. Because of troubling race relations in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence and her husband moved to Chicago. Eventually, her husband left Florence to support herself and her small children. However, she continued to enter composition contests and eventually won first place in the 1932 Wanamaker Prize, leading her “Symphony in E Minor” to be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and earning her initial recognition.

Unfortunately, Florence B. Price’s work was overshadowed by the musical canon of WASP male composers; and while few gave her work a platform, she is slowly finding her rightful place in the symphonic repertoire.

“To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins…”

“…I would like to be judged on merit alone.” – Florence B. Price

(Florence B. Price = “Concerto in One Movement”, ca. 1934)

Germaine Tailleferre

Attitude is what Germaine Tailleferre was born with – and lots of talent. A talent that was nurtured by her amateur pianist mother but disdained by a father who thought to be a musician was equivalent to being a prostitute; in addition, a woman in those days was not meant to be a composer. By age 2 Germaine was showing signs of a child prodigy and by age 8 she was already composing short pieces. Germaine’s mother secretly arranged for her to audition at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris and was accepted. Two years later her father found out and enrolled her in a convent school. However, Germaine continued to defy her father, even after he discontinued to finance her education. Germaine then supported her studies by teaching and went back to the Conservatoire, winning multiple prizes. Impressed by her talents, quirky composer Erik Satie named her his “musical daughter”, while the poet and writer Jean Cocteau invited Germaine to his eclectic group of artists, comprised of five prominent French composers. This group would later become known as the famous “Les Six”, with Germaine being the only female member.

Germaine Tailleferre suffered some ups and downs in her personal life and her low self-esteem prevented her from receiving much-needed exposure. However, in recent years there has been an emerging interest in her work.

“… A woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” – Cecil Gray, music critic commenting on Tailleferre’s work, ca. 1927

(Germaine Tailleferre = “Fandango for 2 Pianos”, ca. 1920)

Spotify Playlist:

To learn more about these composers, please check out my Spotify list containing some of their works. Next time, stay tuned for three more women composers whose works and importance are being re-discovered.

9 Women Composers You Should Know, Part I

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven: most people are familiar with these composers’ names. Other composers that may be a favourite to those following the Western art tradition are Frédéric Chopin, Franz Schubert, and Felix Mendelssohn. If you dabble in electronic music, you may even be familiar with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. However, name your favourite female composer. Just one… Are you drawing a blank?

If so, you are not alone. The interest in women in music has been lacking for centuries. It has been a particular annoyance in the area of music composition. When was the last time you encountered a performance on a Lili Boulanger’s work? I have yet to find a concert programme on Fanny Mendelssohn’s compositions. Have you? However, your next classical concert will be enriched with the sounds of Bach, Schubert, or Gustav Mahler. Sprinkle a few more concerts with a dash of Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, or Hector Berlioz and the crowds are sent home thinking they have experienced the pinnacle of Western art music.

Luckily, the recent movement towards a more inclusive and accepting society has given rise to research on the contributions of “the other” – historically marginalised peoples in mainstream society, or members outside of it. If you are looking to learn more about women in music, let this be your primer into the little known world of female composers. Yes, we have existed for centuries, but have been obscured not only by a lack of interest but also by a culture that has held limited beliefs on women’s musical (and technological) abilities and what their ‘proper’ roles in society should entail.

This is a 3-part series introducing nine women who followed their passion for composing music despite societal conventions, some defying expectations while others succumbing to it.

Hildegard von Bingen

In Hildegard’s times, only those that were part of the church had access to education. For women in the church, they were excluded from the priesthood – like today – and were to be silent. However, the only place that allowed women to be educated and have a voice was in a monastery. Hildegard demonstrated that not only would she be heard, but she would influence leaders of the church and state. Rare for a woman of her time, Hildegard was a polymath and wrote on matters of philosophy, zoology, botany, theology, and other subjects. She was also a mystic and chronicled her visions. Hildegard von Bingen gave the world a repertoire of monophonic chants that pushed compositional style forward, offering medieval sacred music a fresh makeover.

In 2012, the Roman Catholic Church canonized Hildegard von Bingen and named her Doctor of the Church, one of four women in all of Catholic history to be given such honour.

“Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women like Saint Hildegard of Bingen who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.” – Pope Benedict XVI

(Hildegard von Bingen = “Ordo Virtutum”, ca. 1151)

Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn was the older sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn, a pillar in the Romantic Era. Fanny showed just as much compositional talent as her brother but unfortunately was constrained by the attitudes of her day. As a lady of society, she could not pursue music as a profession, only as a hobby:

“Music will perhaps become his (Felix’s) profession, while for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing…” – Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy, father

Felix did publish some of his sister’s works under his famous Songs for Voice and Piano (Opus 8 and Opus 9). Fanny was equally supported by her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, who encouraged her to compose every day. Although Fanny died at a young age, she did live to see attitudes for women composers begin to change.

(Fanny Mendelssohn = “Ostersonate” (“Easter Sonata”), ca. 1828)

Clara Schumann

As time has pushed forward, Clara Wieck Schumann has become a subject of fascination and intrigue. She was one of the great pianists of her time and also took care of the business affairs of her performances and of her husband’s career, Robert Schumann, a composer of significant stature from the Romantic Era. Clara’s compositional talent was encouraged by her father, a notable piano teacher, and her husband. Clara Wieck’s middle-class position allowed her as a woman to work as a musician and publish her compositions under her name, unlike Fanny Mendelssohn,  who was restricted because of her social status. Although Clara enjoyed over a 60-year career as a performer and piano teacher, her career as a composer ended at the age of 36. Women’s compositions were considered moody and not considered note-worthy. Three years after Robert Schumann’s death, Clara abandoned composing:

“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?” – Clara Schumann

(Clara Schumann = “3 Romances, Op.22”, ca. 1853)

Spotify Playlist:

To learn more about these composers, please check out my Spotify list containing some of their works. Next time, stay tuned for three more women composers whose works and importance are being re-discovered.

 

Creative Writing a la Español

Part of my background is in creative writing leaning more into Spoken Word and quirky, sexy monologues. The English language has a vast amount of words to toy with and dress up a character, accentuate an emotion, and colourise a scene. Think of Oscar Wilde’s brilliant depiction of Dorian Gray, describing the story’s imagery with a fantastical yet elegant style. In lyricism, I often think of Morrissey’s penchant for moody and witty sarcasm, while cleverly signaling to queer culture (e.g. “Picadilly Palare“, “I Have Forgiven Jesus“). Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant is more polite, poking fun at the hypocrisies of society using sarcasm and introspection (e.g. “I’m With Stupid“, “Rent“). On the more fun side of lyricism, the English language supplies plenty of naughty humour, with the likes of such odd acts as Aqua (e.g. “Bumble Bees“, “Barbie Girl“), and let’s not forget the socially conscious and poetic rhymes of the hip-hop culture (e.g. 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby“, Queen Latifah ft. Monie Love, “Ladies First“).

However, the embracing of English in order to make an entrance into the North American market takes away from the importance of learning another language and contributes to the loss of linguistic diversity. To learn a second, or third, language well is to appreciate what it offers in its own unique creative expression. It creates a bridge to others and breaks down walls of misunderstanding and prejudice. The English language should not be considered the only lingua franca of business, entertainment, media, popular music, literature, and social media. In regards to creative writing, many languages – if not all – rival the beauty of expression, and it is refreshing to see higher institutions establishing university programmes in languages other than English (e.g. University of Iowa’s Spanish Creative Writing MFA). In other instances, PhD candidates are defending their dissertations (also known as ‘thesis’ in other countries) in indigenous languages (e.g. Peruvian scholar defends the first thesis in Quelchua language).

As part of my own exercise into practising what I preach, I will be posting in Spanish as well as in English. Hopefully, it will invite diversity of thought and also demonstrate how equally expressive and charming another language can be.

(Speaking of charming, here is a perfect example of beautiful expression: Pablo Montero, “Hay Otra En Tu Lugar”, ca. 2002)

Thinking About Generational Shifts…

So here are the ramblings of an educator watching how society is changing in front of her eyes:

This week my students & I were talking about generational theories (which for the most part I don’t wholeheartedly subscribe to but find fascinating in relation to historical events & how technological advances change human behaviours). I noticed that much current information on the subject stopped at the GI (Greatest) Generation. I remember a decade or more meeting people from the Lost Generation & I was willing to put money on the notion that there were still members alive from that cohort.

I would have lost that bet; the last member of the Lost Generation in the world died last month. It is mind-numbing to discover that a whole generation is gone in the world, while the Greatest Generation, their children, will be gone in the next 10 years (which will include two of my relatives). What is even more of a reality check is that the large demographic of Baby Boomers (my mom’s cohort) has started to make their exit, and my father’s generation – the Silent one – is quickly dwindling away. We all know that our stay here is temporary but when we confront the passing of time, that is another level of realization – and knowing that I will see four generations in humanity gone in my lifetime is mind-blowing.

This term that just ended was the first time I felt a generational shift (as a younger Gen Xer, a classroom full of Millennials never really moved or impressed me much 😂); the majority of my students were Gen Zers, & their astuteness, quickness, intellectuallism, activism, collectivism, & ability to multi-task w/ technology & still be perceptive to what I was teaching was disorienting. Their tolerance to modern-day issues & people’s differences made me realize how older generations, as much as we moved the bar in our times, are still subconsciously stuck in eras where we were emotionally vested in our futures & continued to push against older values until we settled down, or conformed – and then time stopped for us. Our musical tastes are an example of how we are frozen in time (see Adam Neely’s video below). So how can I as an educator today, knowing that in less than 10 years Alpha Gen (the first fully-born 21st Century generation that will never know what it is like to live in a non-digital world & will have a quicker, more intuitive ability w/ lighting speed information) will be making its entrance into my classroom, forbid students their technologies or get irritated at them when they are on their smart gadgets & laptops multi-tasking & processing info at fast speeds in my class? Or have the attention span of a gnat & must be stimulated quickly to not lose their focus? It is not them that has to adapt to me, it is I who must progress….

(I really do hope reincarnation is real, lol.)

Precursor to Many…

Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes may be his two most known pieces; however, he was far more prolific and influential than previously thought. He was the godfather of the French collective of composers called Le Six; John Cage once called him “indispensable”; he was labeled a precursor by the Impressionist composers; and he collaborated with painters, writers, and artists. He was an odd man with an odd life who gained celebrity later in life.

He was the man who explored boredom in harmony and once wrote a piece that when performed, lasts for ~19 hours.

His name, Erik Satie.

Is It Noise or Music?

Merriam-Webster defines music as the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.

However, does noise fall into this category? Can it be neatly combined and ordered to produce a composition? The Italian Futurists seemed to think so in the early 20th Century. However, their audiences were horrified. Turns out the Futurists may have been almost a century ahead of their time.

PBS Idea Channel makes the argument that dubstep, an electronic sub-genre dependent on noise, is the perfect example of the concept of noise as music.

A Brief History on Gated Reverb

Vox Pop’s Earworm series presents a brief history of gated reverb. This is the production technique that was accidentally discovered in the beginning of the 80s and re-emerged about 20 years ago. Berklee professors Susan Rogers and Prince Charles Alexander speak on the technique.

Long live the 80s!