Monday, March 30, 2009

More (or Less) About Music by Women

I spoke with another friend about yesterday's concert. She was stunned that this was the first time she had been to a concert where she heard 19th-century music written by composers who were not men. In these parts even performances of pieces written by living women are rare. It is very likely that the most often played female composer in downstate Illinois might actually be me, and it also may be possible that most of the other performances of music by women in these parts have been arranged by me. Considering the number of excellent pieces by women who are no longer alive, as well as the number of pieces by those that are still alive, this is a rather sad realization.

During the past 23 years that I have spent in downstate Illinois, I have heard three concerts that included music by Lili Boulanger. One was actually played by me, back in my flute days. Shortly after we moved here, I invited Patricia and Philip Morehead, friends from my Boston days who live in Chicago, to come to our little town to play a concert. We played a flute and oboe duo by Madeline Dring, and I believe that there were some pieces by Patricia Morehead on the program as well.

The next Lili Boulanger performance was by the teenage daughter of a pair of university faculty pianists, one who accompanied her daughter (this was a really pleasant surprise). The third Boulanger hearing was at a concert of music by women at a community college that I programmed. We also included Nadia Boulanger's cello pieces on the program, and a piece that I wrote.

There have been three performances in the immediate area of music by Amy Beach, a composer who I believe should be played often (she wrote around 300 pieces). The pianist I played with yesterday played the Violin Sonata some years back with another violinist, and I played the Piano Quintet--a wonderful piece--with my quartet and a guest pianist on the aforementioned community college program.

Around twenty years ago, the local university invited Emma Lou Diemer here as a part of Women's History and Awareness Month, and the chorus sang some of her pieces, and recently the local university invited Libby Larsen to do a program that incorporated poetry and musical material by students. That makes two women in twenty years.

Champaign-Urbana, the university town an hour or so up the road where I do most of my professional playing, has a better record. My music is played there relatively often, but this post is not about my music. About five years ago Sergiu Luca played a beautiful performance of Clara Schumann's Romances on a recital at the Krannert Museum in Champaign that was broadcast on the radio. A chamber orchestra I play with in Champaign once played a piece by a woman who had a residency at the University of Illinois a few years back. I didn't play the piece, and I only heard it once. It bothers me terribly that I can't remember the name of the composer. Kimberly Kelley, a doctoral bassoon candidate at the University of Illinois, wrote her thesis about music for the bassoon by women, and she played a recital of music by Alex Shapiro, Ellen Taffe Zwillich, and me.

On a lark I decided to look on line for recent performances of music by Amy Beach, a composer who enjoyed a great deal of popularity and international respect during her lifetime (1867-1944). I found one performance of her Galic Symphony from 2000 by the American Composer's Orchestra, and an all-Beach concert from 1995 performed by the Boston Academy of Music at MIT. I found quite a few recordings, but recordings are not concerts. Concerts require a different kind of commitment from both the performers and for the audience. Concerts, as far as I'm concerned, are what really matter.

Alex Ross apologized to me about the scarcity of composers who are/were women in his book The Rest Is Noise, which is something I sincerely appreciate. Perhaps the scarcity of women from the 20th century on the programs of the many concerts he attends unconsciously informed his omission. Ross enjoys pointing listeners, both old and new, in interesting musical directions, and I imagine that future editions of his book will include composers of both sexes. Scholars are always a little ahead of the game, and it is hard, given the necessities of attracting a paying audience, for performing institutions to keep up. There are an embarrassingly small number of pieces by women on concert programs. I can't remember ever going to a performance of an opera that was written by a woman, though I do remember seeing (and loving) Deborah Drattell's The Festival of Regrets on the television around ten years ago. Drattell has had subsequent works performed at the Los Angeles Opera, which is very good news. We'll see if her work remains in their repertoire.

I'm hoping that someone reading this post will be able to "talk me down," tell me that I am wrong, and then assure me that there an increasing number of performances of music (orchestral, chamber music, and operas) written by women, both living and not living, out in the larger world.


T. said...

I LOVE the music of Madeleine Dring! Lots of lovely oboe!

Do you know the work of composer Elizabeth Swados? She has written two works in particular that I deeply admire: Bible Women, a beautiful song cycle, and Missionaries, a musical play about four Christian women who were slaughtered in El Salvador. I attended a concert version of the latter in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and was privileged to hear Ms. Swados reflect on the process of composing Missionaries - how she had to learn about Latin American liturgical/folk music in addition to the more "traditional" sounds of Western Catholic liturgy, as well as try to understand, as Jewish person, the relationship these women had with their faith and what would bring them to such a fate in a faraway corner of the world. What a POWERFUL experience. We need more voices and minds like hers (and yours!).

Elaine Fine said...

Boy does Swados' work look interesting! Thank you for the "introduction."

T. said...

I SO wish she would publish Missionaries - it's one of the most profound creative works of ANY kind I've ever experienced.

Bible Women IS available on CD out there - not super-easy to find, but possible, and well worth the search effort.

Swados has also written about teaching theater to young people and about composing, if I'm not mistaken; I am unfamiliar with her writings.

Unknown said...

I am investigating ways to improve the performance and study of Art Song by women composers. As a pilot project, I have posted a survey of the intellectual and emotional impact of this genre on singers.

I will provide a link to the [anonymous] survey below. Participation is open to anyone who is at least 18 years old and who has sung or studied an Art Song by a woman composer.

Mary Baldwin Art Song Survey 1: