Composer Bio

Undine Smith Moore

Born in 1904 in small-town Virginia, Undine Smith Moore made her mark as a talented composer, pianist, and exceptional teacher. She earned her title, “the Dean of Black Women Composers,” by continuously giving her all to her students at Virginia State College and through her songs, piano pieces, and spirituals, which many are rediscovering today.

Moore’s family focused heavily on music, so it was no surprise that she quickly took up the piano. At church and home, the entire family celebrated with singing and playing. After moving to Petersburg, VA, in 1908 with her family, Undine started taking lessons with Lillian Allen Darden. She trained diligently, learning the ins and outs of becoming a top-notch classical pianist.

Following her love of music, Moore attended the historically black college, Fisk University, for her undergraduate in piano studies. In 1924, Julliard, a world-renowned conservatory, recognized Moore’s talent by offering her a full scholarship. However, she chose to accept an offer to become the supervisor of music in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The following year, she joined the music faculty of Virginia State College while also commuting to Columbia University for her Master’s.

During her long tenure at Virginia State, Moore became the backbone of the department. Through her efforts in co-founding and directing the Black Music Center at Virginia State, thousands of young Black musicians could experience the music of top Black composers and performers. They could learn from leading Black lecturers in a variety of musical fields, including blues and jazz. At the time, few college curriculums included music by Black composers, and Moore pushed to change that.

Although Moore didn’t consider herself a composer, she wrote and arranged over 100 pieces, primarily for voice and piano. When asked about composing, she said, “One of the most evil effects of racism in my time was the limits it placed upon the aspirations of blacks, so that though I have been ‘making up’ and creating music all my life, in my childhood or even in college I would not have thought of calling myself a composer or aspiring to be one.” It wasn’t until she retired from teaching that she truly began to think of herself as a composer rather than a teacher.

Moore also frequently spoke about the issues concerning women in classical music, particularly in composition and conducting. She believed that because both conductors and composers serve as authority figures in the musical world, it was no surprise that women found it difficult to break into these fields. Additionally, Moore often expressed that because women had to care for the “minutia of daily life,” like taking care of children and the house, they had less mental space to find the freedom needed for composition. This theme is a recurring one, with social norms forcing women to take more mental energy to run the household, care for children, and feed their families. From Clara Schumann to Amy Beach, women composers across history have found it challenging to balance the needs of the family and their need to compose.

Through Moore’s work, thousands of young students learned about Black and female composers and performers that would otherwise have disappeared into history. She also gave us a wide range of fantastic pieces, including art songs, arrangements of spirituals, and a cantata featuring her own libretto, Scenes from the life of a Martyr, which honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Throughout her life, Moore received many awards and recognitions, including an honorary doctorate from Virginia State and Indiana University and the Humanitarian Award from Fisk University. In 1977, Virginia named her its music laureate, and in 1985 the state awarded her the Virginia Governor’s Award in the Arts. She passed away from a stroke on February 6, 1989.

While preparing for a competition, I came across Moore’s arrangement of Come Down Angels. It’s a beautiful arrangement, and I hope you enjoy our rendition of it.

To learn more about Undine Smith Moore, check out From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and their Music by Helen Walker-Hill. There’s also The Gershwin Initiative and Music by Black Composers.

You can find her music in some anthologies, including Hildegard Publishing Company’s Art Songs & Spirituals by African-American Women Composers.

Composer Bio Topic Thursday

Tis the Season

The holiday season means different things to different people, but most of us associate the holidays with certain pieces of music. Whether that’s the Hallelujah chorus, Hänsel und Gretel, La Bohème, or Christmas carols, it’s been difficult this year to celebrate with music.

I decided to start looking around for some Christmas music by women. During Hannukah last week, I was fortunate to perform Ella Milch Sheriff’s Shacharit in a livestreamed concert, which made me think there must be some Christian holiday music by women out there too.

Furore Verlag has several fantastic compilations of Christmas carols, which feature music by Amy Beach, Luise Greger, and Emilie Zumsteeg, among others. I thought about picking one of these pieces and performing it for you all when I remembered that there’s a well-known carol loved by British choristers called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.”

Elizabeth Poston

Born in 1905 in Hertfordshire, Elizabeth Poston was a composer, pianist, and supposed British agent during WWII. She attended the Royal Academy of Music, starting in 1924, and received several prestigious composition awards while there. Like Elizabeth Maconchy, another composer two years her younger, Poston studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and developed a strong professional relationship with Peter Warlock, both of these established composers encouraging her compositional career.

In 1930, Poston went abroad to collect folksongs and study art architecture. When she returned in 1939, Poston started working with the BBC, composing over 40 scores for radio and TV. During the war years, many speculate that she sent coded messages embedded in gramophone discs to underground groups in Europe, taking orders directly from Churchill.

After taking some time off to recuperate from her efforts during the war, Poston returned to the BBC and remained there for decades. Her pieces included collaborations with many famous authors, including CS Lewis, and she created the BBC’s Third Programme, which broadcast plays, operas, and concerts in their entirety, without interruptions.

By the 1960s, Poston had turned her attention toward song collections, focusing on collecting and curating six compilations, including the famous Penguin Book of Christmas Carols. Together with Vaughan Williams, she also edited The English Hymnal, creating the widely used Cambridge Hymnal that many choirs know and love today. She also gave a five-part talk about Warlock’s life and music for the BBC.

In the early 1970s, Poston was forced to take a step back after an aneurysm. After recovering, she continued to work on her song collections and compositions. She suffered a stroke and passed away in 1987 while working on a collection of Christmas carols. Her legacy remained, with over 40 scores for radio and tv, many pieces for voice, both solo and choral, and an impressive number of academic writings and song collections.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

One of Poston’s most well-known arrangements is the beautiful 6-part acapella version of the Christmas carol “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” I wanted to perform some Christmas music, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to get a choir together in these strange times.

Instead, we figured we would record it for some festive fun! Here’s our first-ever attempt at a multi-track recording, featuring yours truly on Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto 1, and Alto 2, and Dave singing tenor and bass. We hope you enjoy and have a safe, healthy, and happy holiday.

Composer Bio Topic Thursday

Ella Milch-Sheriff

Today I had the privilege of speaking with composer Ella Milch-Sheriff in the first-ever Women Who Composed interview. She’s experienced huge success as a composer, with works premiered by theaters in Germany (including Staatstheater Fürth) and Israel throughout the years. She’s just finished composing a piece for soprano and orchestra that will premiere next year and is already getting started on her next.

Next week, on 17 December 2020, I’ll be performing her Shacharit, a work for soprano and baritone soloist, choir, and orchestra, with the Synagogue Ensemble Berlin. We’ll be live streaming from the beautiful Nikolaikirche in Potsdam. Watch my Instagram for more information on how to see the concert online! 

Watch my interview with her below to learn about her composing process, what it’s like watching your pieces be performed, and how she’s dealt with 2020. 

Composer Bio

Marianna von Martines

Although the spelling of her name is debated – Marianna/Mariana/Marie Anne, Martines/Martinez – it’s clear that she was a talented and driven composer. Born in Vienna in 1744 to a wealthy Austrian mother and a Neapolitan father, she grew up with her five surviving siblings in the Michaelerhaus in the heart of Vienna next to the Michaelerkirche (St. Michael’s Church). Her compositions and singing quickly became well-known throughout the city, even reaching the attention of Empress Maria Theresa in 1761 with a performance of one of her masses at the court church.

Unlike her male contemporaries, Martines was not eligible for any paid musical positions. However, this actually worked in her favor. By her mid-forties, her brother (and, by extension, the whole family) was raised to the nobility by the Empress for his work as a tutor to the royal children. The now van Martines was not only able to but expected to turn her focus towards the arts or entertaining. Of course, Marianna took this to an extreme and worked diligently every day on her compositions and practice. In addition, because the Empress had closed theaters and concert halls, private concerts became popular. Although her music would likely not have been performed publicly, she became a popular composer for these private concerts, even hosting her own concert series, which was frequented was the Mozarts.

She quickly gained an international reputation, partly due to an older librettist who also lived in the Michaelerhaus – Metastasio. He had acquired great fame as a librettist and playwright, with composers including Hasse, Pergolesi, and Scarlatti setting his words to music. He recognized early on that Marianna had a musical gift, and he, along with a teenage Hadyn (who lived in the attic room of the house) and Nicolò Porpora, taught Marianna composition and singing.

Although she received accolades and awards for her compositions (including a mention by the Queen of Naples, and an invitation to the Accademia filarmonica in Bologna, the first woman invited since its founding in 1665), she always erred on the side of caution and conservatism. As an upper-class woman, she thought it would appear improper to travel to Naples or Bologna and chose to remain in Vienna in her world of private concerts. Because of this “propriety,” her invitation was rescinded as the Accademia required the composer to be present at the performance of their work. This conservatism also appears in her works; while they are beautiful and incredibly virtuosic, they rely on older styles and use older instruments (like the harpsichord rather than exploring innovations in piano technology).

During Martines’ lifetime, ideas about women and music were gradually changing – for the worse. By remaining so conservative, she was able to continue to have her music performed and was respected in the Viennese musical community. Some of her male counterparts, like Mozart and Haydn (and later Beethoven), were able to innovate more freely and push musical boundaries. If she had tried to do the same, it is likely that she would have been dismissed and ridiculed. Although she never wrote a symphony or an opera, she still succeeded in her own way by being a brilliant and talented composer whose works were performed all over Vienna in her lifetime.

Unfortunately, by the 1800s, the musical world was really starting to close its doors to women as new 19th-century stereotypes about gender and music came into play. (See my post on Clara Schumann for more information). Perhaps this is why her music has been slowly forgotten. She died in 1812, only two days after her last sister passed away, with no memorial.

Our livestream featured two works by Marianna – La Tempesta, a cantata set to a Metastasio libretto, and her Sonata in E Major. In La Tempesta, a shepherd boy is desperately in love with Nice, a beautiful shepherdess. He offers to help her protect her sheep from a looming storm, and by the end of the cantata, he realizes she loves him.

See below for the video of our livestream concert. Enjoy!

The information in this blog comes from Anna Beer’s absolutely fantastic book “Sounds and Sweet Airs” and the Grove Music Online article about Martines. If you want to perform La Tempesta or the Sonata, Dave has made a lovely edition from the original scores. Just shoot me a message for it.

Composer Bio

Josina van Boetzelaer

Josina Anna Petronella was born in the Hague in 1733 to the family van Aerssens, an old aristocratic family originally from Belgium. She soon became a lady-in-waiting to Princess Anna and eventually to Princess Anna’s daughter, Princess Caroline. Princess Anna, who came from England, was well-educated in music, having studied with Handel before she arrived in the Netherlands. In court, Josina was surrounded by music. She had the opportunity to hear the famous musicians of the day, including a young Mozart and later Beethoven. In addition, the Princess and her daughter hosted intimate chamber performances where it’s likely Josina participated as a singer, which explains why her works for soprano are so fiendishly difficult.

Interestingly, Josina did not marry until she was thirty-five. When she married Carl van Boetzelaer in 1768, a military man from another old aristocratic family, she was able to remain financially independent due to new inheritance laws. The couple had three children together, although only two survived into adulthood. It wasn’t until after she got married that Josina began to study composing. The records aren’t clear, but she likely started learning with Francesco Pasquale Ricci after the birth of her youngest daughter in 1775. Through him, she discovered the music of Maria Teresa Agnesi and Marianna Martines, contemporaries of hers from Milan and Vienna, respectively.

Ricci left the Netherlands in 1780 after dedicating a set of six ariettas to Josina. After his departure, Josina began to publish her works. In 1795, there was political upheaval in the Netherlands, and the family fled to IJsselstein, where Josina died at the age of 64 in 1797.

Unlike other Dutch women composers, Josina published her works, which preserved them. She published four opuses, several of which are for orchestra and voice. Unfortunately Op. 3 has been lost to time, but 1, 2, and 4 can be found in libraries in Bologna, Zurich, and Slovenia. She was also one of the few native Dutch composers of her time since the court attracted many talented foreign composers.

She set many of her arias to Metastasio libretti, which sets them apart as opera seria was not widely written in the Netherlands. She composed for relatively large-scale orchestras (for the time, at least), so it seems she was not restricted by later ideals of “women’s music,” which shackled Clara Schumann and her contemporaries to writing smaller-scale works. Although it appears that she did not organize performances of her pieces (unlike other aristocratic composers of the time – including Anna Amalia of Prussia), she received acknowledgment from critics of her own time.

Che non mi disse un di

I’ve chosen the aria Che non mi disse un di from her Op. 4 to showcase. She chose a libretto from Metastasio‘s L’Olimpiade and dedicated this whole opus to the famous librettist. This aria is not only incredibly beautiful but highly virtuosic. The anger with which the singer describes her lover’s betrayal contrasts with her deep sadness at losing him again. I performed this aria as part of our livestream mini-concert on June 20. I hope you enjoy the performance, and if you’re interested in learning the piece, you can find music at Hildegard Publishing.

It was difficult to find much information about Josina. This article owes a lot of thanks to “Women Composers: Music through the Ages” and Oxford Music Online. For more information about the composer, check out Helen Metzlaar’s biography “An Unknown 18th-Century Dutch Woman Composer: Josina Boetzelaer (1733-1797)”.

Composer Bio

Amy Beach

This week’s composer is Amy Beach, née Cheney. She was a leading American composer in the late 1800s and early 1900s and wrote some incredible music.

Amy Cheney was born in New Hampshire in 1867 to an upper-class New England family. From an early age, it was clear she was a musical prodigy – she could supposedly sing 40 songs by age 1 and composed her own piano pieces by age four. Her mother, an amateur singer, encouraged her in her musical education. When she was 7, she gave her first piano concerts, including her own works.

After the family moved to Boston when she was 8, her parents were told she was good enough to study at a European conservatory. Perhaps if she had been born a man, she would have been sent to Europe, as many other American composers of the time were. However, she was a young woman, and her parents felt it was inappropriate for her to travel abroad. Her education was continued, but with private teachers. She continued to excel as a pianist and had her concert hall debut in Boston when she was only 16. At age 18, she debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which should have kickstarted her career as a solo pianist.


Unfortunately, Amy wasn’t allowed to continue her career as a performer. As a young upper-class woman, she was expected to marry early and well. Her parents married her off to Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a doctor 24 years her senior and well-known in the Boston upper-class circles. He declared that no wife of his would work for money and limited her to performing for charity only once or twice per year.

Although Amy had always considered herself a pianist first and foremost, she changed her focus to composition after marriage. Because she couldn’t study at a traditional conservatory, she had one year of study with a private teacher. After that, as her husband wasn’t comfortable with her studying with a man, she taught herself composition by reading books and studying the works of other composers.

Despite all of the obstacles in her path, Amy went on to become a leading composer of her day – and a prolific one. In 1896, she became the first American woman to have a symphony published. Her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony received widespread praise after its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Traveling The World

In 1910, Amy’s husband died. Her mother followed him soon after. She decided to finally travel to Europe, where she spent the next few years performing her works. She performed in Italy and Germany, where she also attended several performances of her symphony. European critics were impressed with her music, calling her a “leading American composer.” She had to return to the United States in 1914 after the outbreak of WWI but continued her performance tour across the country. She eventually settled at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, a haven for composers and artists, where she continued composing, eventually writing nearly 300 works, half of which were art songs.

Amy’s Impact

Why am I talking about Amy Beach so early in my blog? There are many other fantastic women composers to choose from who, unlike Beach, received little to no recognition in their lifetime. I think she is important because not only did she continue to pursue music in spite of the roadblocks in her path, including her lack of musical education and her husband’s restrictions on her musical activities, she eventually became a strong and vocal proponent of women learning composition. Although her husband stopped her from teaching piano, Amy wrote many articles, including “To the girl who wants to compose.”

Amy became president and co-founder of the Society of American Women Composers, along with Ruth Crawford Seeger and 17 others, and served as president of several other national music education organizations. In addition, she actively worked to have her music performed, sending off new pieces to performers as soon as she finished them.

Aside from the fact that I absolutely love her music, I believe that her support of other young women composers is incredibly important. Even though she was quite popular in her own time, her popularity diminished as soon as she was no longer promoting herself. I had not heard of her until I started my journey into learning more about women composers. About 1/3 of her works have not yet been recorded, although that will hopefully change as more groups begin promoting and performing her music. There are no recent or widely available commercial recordings of her song “Ye banks and braes,” which you can hear below.

Beach was very interested in folk music, and many of her songs and larger works are based around that theme. One of my favorites is her reworking of the Scottish folk song “Ye Banks and Braes o’ bonnie doon” by Robert Burns. Unlike many who set folk tunes, she didn’t just write a new accompaniment to the traditional tune – she wrote an entirely new piece. I hope you all enjoy this recording of it, recorded live by David Wishart and me during our first-ever Livestream Mini-Concert. (Yes, we’re going a little stir-crazy in Quarantine – who isn’t?).

From the livestreamed Mini-Concert on 14 April 2020

Looking for more information about Amy Beach? Check out the Amy Beach Foundation. I also found information from Oxford Music Online and an article from ClassicFM and Wikipedia. Emma Kirby has recorded many of her songs, which are available on Spotify.

Looking to perform some of her music? Many of her works are available on IMSLP. Furore Verlag and Hildegard Publishing also have selected works available for purchase.

Composer Bio

Clara Schumann

Composer, Performer, Mother and Wife

Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was a complicated woman. She was a composer, a world-renowned concert pianist, a mother of 8, and a wife to the troubled composer Robert Schumann. She was born in Leipzig in 1819 to a talented musical family and received intensive training in music, languages, composing, and piano from a very early age from her father.

Perhaps because of her father’s incredibly strict and even cruel ways, she debuted at the Leipzig Gewandhaus when she was just 11 years old. Clara’s performing career continued under the stern and controlling eye of her father throughout Germany and abroad, with her first performance in Paris at the ripe age of 12.

Her father controlled every aspect of her life. He even wrote many of her diary entries. When her younger half-brother died before a performance, her father forced her to travel to Dresden the next day to perform. She became an expert at performing through illness, violence, pain, and despair. There is no question that her father’s intense and authoritarian teaching style paved the way for her to balance motherhood, performing, and taking care of Robert.

In 1828, when she was merely 8 years old, Robert Schumann entered her life as a live-in student of her father’s. By the time she was 13, they were in love. Although he became a proponent of her composing, her was also her harshest critic. He never truly believed that she was a “full artistic genius” or that she could succeed as an composer on her own. Instead, Robert insisted that Clara dedicate herself, both emotionally and musically, to him. She followed this idea completely – even going so far as to legally challenge her father for the right to marry Robert in 1840.

After her marriage, it became difficult for her to find the time to compose – or even to practice. Robert’s composition was the most important thing to him. Clara was of course responsible for raising their eight children, keeping house, and cooking. She also took on the burden of financially supporting the family. He was not happy when she went on extended tours to keep the family in the black, but it was unavoidable. Robert believed that “the creative artist had higher status than the performer” (Sounds and Sweet airs, p 225).

Despite everything, Clara continued to be a pillar of support to Robert and his music, even to the detriment of her own piano playing and composing. After his death, she dedicated herself to the interpretation of others’ music and to preserving his legacy, only composing one piece herself.

Clara found it difficult even at the best of times to compose, so perhaps it is no surprise that she did not publish much music. However, as she grew older and the societal view of women’s role in music in Germany became more close-minded, she too came to believe that women should not create music, writing that “a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it”. In my opinion, this belief that became pervasive in the 19th century was an incredibly destructive one; we have lost so much music because it was never allowed to become an idea, let alone be published. We should celebrate what little music exists today from these women – and I believe Clara Schumann’s music is worth celebrating.

Some of my favorite music of hers is from her 6 Lieder, Op. 13. Here is my recording of Liebeszauber (Love’s Magic), excerpted from our first livestream mini-concert. You can find the whole concert over in the Livestream section of the blog.


Op. 13, Clara Schumann

Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano

David Wishart, pianist

Sources I used for this blog post include Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs, and the article on Clara Schumann in Oxford Music Online. Much of her sheet music is available on IMSLP – please go and sing and play as much of it as you can!