To accompany the video of the Arlington-Belmont Chorale’s March 11, 2018 concert “Through the Glass Ceiling:
Six Centuries of Choral Music by Female Composers” found at https://youtu.be/pRNcRW8w_C8.
This is no secret: it is an obvious fact that almost every aspect of society – commerce, government, art, religion – for the last 2000 years (at the very least) has been dominated by men. The fact that women have demonstrated equal, and often superior, talents and actions in all these areas has unfortunately not resulted in equal opportunities for them. The world of concert music is no exception. The vast majority of music published – and therefore performed – is composed by men. For the last few decades there has been much effort to reverse this trend, and the number of contemporary female composers since the middle 20th century has grown tremendously. Still, when one looks at the vast catalog of music composed since medieval times, the number of works by women is unconscionably tiny. Because of women’s traditional roles in patriarchal society, they were generally discouraged from serious pursuit of the creative arts. And when their creativity was unleashed, when music was composed by women, the indifference towards performing, publishing, and preserving this work was high. So, much of what was produced is no longer available to us – well out of proportion to the loss of male-composed music.
Nonetheless, much music written by women in all the various musical periods has survived; enough has been unearthed or re-created, to fill many concert programs. Today’s program is just a small sample of this rich musical output – there are many, many deserving female composers who are not represented here today. The earliest of today’s works dates from the late 1500’s; the most recent is getting its premiere performance this afternoon. Each half of our program runs in roughly chronological order, as do the composer notes which follow.
Our earliest composers all come from various regions in what is now known as Italy. Extremely little is known about the life of Maddalena Casulana (ca. 1544 – ca. 1590), other than what can be inferred from the dedications and writings on her collections of madrigals. Most likely she was born at Casole d’Elsa, near Siena, from the evidence of her name. Casulana received her musical education and early experiences in Florence. She was well-regarded by her contemporaries; Orlando di Lasso conducted her work at various times. Casulana’s surviving creative output consists of 66 madrigals for various combinations of voices. In a dedication to her first book of madrigals, to Isabella de’ Medici, she shows her feeling about being a female composer at a time when such a thing was rare: “[I] want to show the world, as much as I can in this profession of music, the vain error of men that they alone possess the gifts of intellect and artistry, and that such gifts are never given to women”. Come fra verdi erbette comes from her second book of madrigals, published in 1570.
Until recently it was thought that Rafaella Aleotti and Vittoria Aleotti were two sisters, but recently scholarship has suggested that they are in fact the same person, born around 1570 in Ferrara and died somewhere after 1640. The prevailing theory is that the composer was christened Vittoria Aleotti, but took the name Rafaella at age 14 upon entering the convent at San Vito, which was famous for fostering musical talent. What is known is that the music published under the name Vittoria is all secular and quite few in number. The pieces published under the name Rafaella are almost entirely sacred, and there are many more of them. In addition to her composing talents, Aleotti was renowned for her skills at the organ, harpsichord, trombone, and other wind instruments. Today’s program presents an example from each of these Aleotti’s: Hor che la vaga Aurora (Vittoria) is a tuneful polyphonic madrigal, while Facta est cum Angelo (Rafaella) is a richly harmonic motet, somewhat reminiscent of her contemporary composer Claudio Monteverdi.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was renowned among her contemporaries both as a singer and as a composer. At least one scholar has named Strozzi as “the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the Middle of the 17th century.” Her output is also unique in that it only contains secular vocal music, with the exception of one volume of sacred songs. Much of her music is written for solo soprano (most of which she likely premiered herself), but several choral pieces are in her published output. Her adoptive father, Giulio Strozzi, was a celebrated poet of the time, and he is the author of the text to Consiglio amoroso, set for three-part mixed chorus. This highly original and dramatic piece is almost operatic in its shifts between recitativo statements, impassioned homophonic writing, and dance-like triple-meter episodes.
Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) was nearly as prolific as Strozzi. However, her musical focus is exactly the opposite – entirely religious, with no record of ever composing anything secular. She was from Novara, in the Piedmont region of Italy. In common with Rafaella Aleotti, Leonarda entered a convent during her teenage years and remained there for the rest of her long life. Her work covered nearly every imaginable sacred form: masses, motets, sacred concertos, psalm settings, responsories, Magnificats, and litanies among them. However, Leonarda was not afraid of secular influences – the antiphon Ave Regina caelorum strongly suggests a dance with its lilting 6/8 rhythms and upbeat conclusion.
Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), born Fanny Mendelssohn in Hamburg, Germany, was the elder sister of celebrated 19th century composer Felix Mendelssohn. Like her brother, Fanny was a prodigy both as a composer and as a pianist. In her relatively brief life, Hensel composed over 460 pieces of music – much for piano, and many for voice. Some of these were in fact published under Felix’s name in an attempt to gain them more ready exposure in a society still not ready to accept the work of a female musician. Im Wald and Lockung were composed around 1846 and published as part of set called Gärtenlieder. The harmonic and melodic language of these pieces is not unlike those of Felix – not surprisingly, since the two close siblings often consulted one other and edited each other’s work.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896), born Clara Wieck to a musical family in Leipzig, was considered one of the most important pianists of the Romantic era. She was a child prodigy, performing regular recitals at a very early age. In common with Fanny Hensel, her life accomplishments are strongly linked to (and overshadowed by) a better-known male composer – in this case, her husband Robert Schumann. They were strong musical partners from before their 1837 marriage up until Robert’s death in 1856. Clara continued to perform and compose through the remaining 40 years of her life. She wrote relatively little music for chorus; Vorwärts is one in a set of three a cappella choral songs composed in 1848 in honor of her husband’s 38th birthday.
The remaining composers in this program are all from the United States. Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was the first successful American female composer of concert music, one of the first American composers to succeed without the benefit of European training, and one of the most respected and acclaimed American composers of her era. Born in Henniker, New Hampshire, Amy showed every sign of a child prodigy. She was able to sing forty songs accurately by age one, she was capable of improvising counter-melody by age two, and she taught herself to read at age three. At age four, she composed three waltzes for piano. As an adult pianist, Beach was acclaimed for concerts she gave featuring her own music in the United States and in Germany. She had a major compositional success with her Mass in Eb major, premiered by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1892 – that group’s very first performance of a piece composed by a woman. (The Arlington-Belmont Chorale performed the Mass in 2006). Yet despite these accomplishments, she was a product of her society; her musical career was often subordinated to her role as the wife of the prominent Boston surgeon H. H. A. Beach. (Her published works all originally listed the composer as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach”). Beach is represented today by three pieces: the serene Nunc Dimittis is part of the Service in A composed in 1905; Sea Fever, a tumultuous song for tenor and bass voices with piano, was composed in 1931; and the tender anthem Peace I Leave With You was one of her earliest published works, written in 1890.
Mabel Wheeler Daniels (1877- 1971), born in Swampscott, Mass., was an American composer, conductor, and teacher. Unlike Amy Beach, Daniels’ musical career was never stifled by societal convention – she was a professional musician first and foremost. She attended Radcliffe College before traveling to Germany for further study in Munich. Her memoir of this period, “An American Girl in Munich”, written in 1905, is still in publication. Upon her return to the United States she became head of the music department at Simmons College, serving there until 1918. She continued working until late in her life, and was given honorary degrees by both Boston University and Tufts University. Much of her output was choral, though she wrote a handful of operettas and some orchestral and chamber works. One important work was the Exultate Deo for chorus and orchestra, composed for the 50th anniversary of Radcliffe College. (This piece will be performed by the Chorale and Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra during our Sponsors’ Concert on April 29). The beautiful lullaby Dream Song for women’s voices was an early work, written in 1904.
The works of Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947) have often been part of the concert programs for both the Chorale and Chamber Chorus. Born in New Caanan, Connecticut, Dr. Walker is a “proud resident of Vermont for many years.” She is a graduate of Brown University and the Hartt School of Music. She holds B.A., M.M. and D.M.A. Degrees in Music Composition. A former faculty member of the Oberlin College Conservatory, she resigned from academic employment in 1982 in order to pursue a career as a full-time composer. A hallmark of Walker’s style is the use of a regularly repeated text phrase over shifting harmonies, providing a very dramatic effect. Every Night When The Sun Goes Down was composed in 1996 and takes its text from a tradition Appalachian song. The composer writes, “This arrangement focuses on the transcendence of faith over sorrow and of peace (through death) over suffering and pain”. The last verse (“And when I rise”), added by Dr. Walker, invokes the image of the departed soul symbolized by a bird passing overhead — during this verse, she says, “the listener might hear a fluttering of wings (‘la-la’s) from within the choral texture”.
Originally from the Boston area, Karen A. Tarlow (b. 1947) now lives in Western Massachusetts and composes music on commission. She has written a wide range of vocal and instrumental music including ballets, solo and chamber works, choral music and music for orchestra. Dr. Tarlow recently retired from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she was Assistant Professor of Music Theory. She holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in Composition from Boston University, and is a member of ASCAP. Five Shaker Lyrics (composed in 1999), is a set of choruses using hymn texts from the American Shaker movement. These pieces have a strong suggestion of traditional Shaker melodies, using the pentatonic scale as a basis for all five sections, but by using some non-traditional harmonies and counterpoint the composer has added a modern edge.
Adria Stolk (b.1970) is a Boston-based composer of contemporary classical music. She is originally from Dallas, Texas, where she studied classical piano as a teenager. Adria studied music composition at Boston University (D.M.A. 2017), Berklee College of Music (B.M. 2010) and The Boston Conservatory (M.M. 2012). Adria’s primary teachers were Andy Vores, Ketty Nez, John H. Wallace, Marti Epstein, and John Bavicchi. Her recent works have been performed by Genesis Chamber Singers, Boston Percussion Group, Videri String Quartet, Calliope, the JACK Quartet, Joint Venture Percussion Duo, and Arizona Pro Arte Ensemble. Adria is on the faculty at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, teaching courses in music theory and ear-training.
Adria’s compositions explore her emotional, spiritual, and cognitive responses to nature, human relationships, and life experiences. Currently, her compositional interests lie in finding ways to explore and interpret sensory and emotional stimuli through musical textures, shapes, and sounds. Adria views her compositions as explorations of life through sound.
Today’s work, Voyage, was composed for the Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus and its commission was funded by the PSA’s Bavicchi Fund which was established to support the commissioning of new works, both choral and orchestral.
SEMIOSIS QUARTET: Boston-based Semiosis Quartet, formed in 2014, is quickly gaining a reputation as a dynamic ensemble dedicated to presenting the string quartet repertoire of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The ensemble’s 2017-18 season is headlined by a concert featuring composers from Central America, South America, and Mexico, part of an ongoing effort to present work by voices traditionally underrepresented in the new music community. They will also perform repertoire by Shih-Hui Chen, Anthony Green, Sofia Gubaidulina, Eric Nathan, Toru Takemitsu, Caroline Shaw, and local composers Steven Snowden and Jason Huffman. Semiosis continually seeks to expand the quartet repertoire, and has commissioned and premiered several works. In 2016 they presented the world premiere of Curtis Hughes’ String Quartet No. 2, and the 2017-18 season includes a commission by Aaron Jay Myers.