The past few months have been crazy busy, since we adopted an adorable puppy and things have started opening back up! But now that little Eevee has settled into things, I’m back to blogging.
Photo Credit: Peter van Heesen
In the next few weeks and months, I’ll be releasing some blogs about Undine Smith Moore, Florence Price, Luise Greger, and several living composers whose works I’ve recently recorded. Stay tuned for some great information and a few tips about where you can hear music by women being performed, and how to choose the best repertoire for your recital or concert.
As always, let me know if you want to request a particular Topic Thursday or are curious about a specific composer!
Stay safe and healthy everyone, and I hope that you are all getting to enjoy this glorious summer weather 🙂
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, and that made me think that 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 choristers in the UK love, called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”.
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 while there, received several prestigious composition awards. 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 to 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, and in fact 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, for some festive fun we figured we would record it ourselves! 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.
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.
For centuries, women were restricted not only from publicly performing but also from playing specific instruments. These restrictions, like many for women throughout history, created a barrier that deliberately kept women at home.
Although many upper-class women were expected to know how to make music, they were only allowed to perform in private (or perhaps at a carefully organized house concert). They were expressly prohibited from joining the orchestras of the day. Although opera performances utilized female singers, they were usually viewed as low-brow and often faced accusations of impropriety.
So, what instruments were women allowed to play? Here’s a list of “permitted” instruments and some of the reasons others were discouraged. Of course, this is not an all-encompassing list, and there are always exceptions to the rule. These traditions mostly deal with the Western European classical music world.
Harpsichords, and eventually pianos, were great. Most well-to-do families had one in their parlor, and their daughters were expected to entertain guests with a cute, appropriate ditty. However, a professional career as a virtuoso pianist was not easily accessible to women. Clara Schumann is a clear exception, but she faced backlash even from her own husband as she supported the family with her piano tours.
Learning to play a keyboard instrument was essential for young women of standing for centuries. An ability to play well was essential to securing a husband. Pianos were also acceptable because you could play it delicately, with no inappropriate facial expressions, and the actual music production was not visible.
Composing for the public was discouraged, but some women kept at it despite this.
Fanny Hensel composed many pieces for the piano and held renowned concerts at her home in Berlin. She would perform her own works or have friends play with her. However, she shied away from giving public performances, partially because her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, believed she should keep her music in the home.
Another acceptable option was the lute and later guitar. These were considered feminine, and again, were suitable for parlor music. It was also easy to play the lute as an accompaniment to your singing, making it perfect for a house concert.
Many of Francesca Caccini’s pieces were written for lute and voice, with a simple accompaniment under florid singing.
Having a clear, in tune singing voice was a sign of a well-bred lady. Of course, she should never show this ability in public, only in the company of family or acquaintances. Mariana Martines pushed this idea further than many women in Vienna by having well-publicized home concerts that featured her performing her own music.
Other composers who used singing as an entry to compose include Caccini, Strozzi, and Boetzelaer. Strozzi, in particular, faced a lot of discrimination due to her status as a singer.
Yeap. That’s pretty much it. In Anna Beer’s book, Sounds and Sweet Airs, she talks about how the choice of instrument was gendered. Women were not allowed to play the violin because, although the instrument itself was considered “female,” the player uses a “phallic” bow to play the violin (or the woman). Therefore, it was entirely unacceptable for a woman to play a woman. How scandalous would that be? On the other hand, Menuhin (a famous 19th-century violinist who considered playing the violin the same as a master making love) believed a cello could be acceptable because it sits between a woman’s legs and somehow reduced her narcissism.
As we know today, these restrictions are utterly ridiculous. Instruments do not have a gender, and people of all backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, or class, can be an incredible musician on whatever instrument they choose when given the opportunity.
This way of thinking has also created a dramatic barrier for women in the classical orchestral industry. Until the 20th century, women were entirely excluded from professional orchestras. The Vienna Philharmonic didn’t allow women until 1997. In 2018, out of 20 orchestras examined, 69% of players were men, with some instruments played only by men (like the Tuba).
Although this is changing, I believe this barrier is partially due to the long-term belief that women should only play specific instruments or risk losing their femininity. Hopefully, this gap will close as we move further into the 21st century.
Today’s Topic Thursday is about one of the most well-known piano pieces of all time. No, I’m not talking about Claire de lune or Moonlight Sonata. I’m talking about Chopsticks.
If you ever had a music class in school, you probably tried this easy ditty out, and if you had a piano at home, you likely drove your parents mad by playing it over and over.
But… did you know Chopsticks was written by a woman? Although it was published under a male pseudonym, Euphemia Allen, a Glaswegian, wrote “The Chop Waltz” as a 16-year-old.
Euphemia Amelia Nightingale Allen was born in 1861 in Glasgow to a musical family. Her father was a highly regarded dance instructor and her brother, Mozart Allen, went on to become a music publisher.
In 1877, Euphemia composed “The Chop Waltz”, at the tender age of 16. She published two versions to allow for solo playing or a duet. It earned the title chopsticks because she instructed players to hit the keys with a chopping motion.
Euphemia went on to become a piano teacher and a music publisher, but never published another piece of her own.
Chopsticks is probably one of the most widely known piano pieces. I had no idea who it was by, let alone that a woman wrote it, until a few weeks ago. It’s been featured in other composers’ works, movies, TV shows, and pop music. From Sesame Street to Bugs Bunny, Chopsticks is everywhere.
Next time you hear someone say “but if women wrote good music, it’d be well-known” send them a recording of Chopsticks.
Women of color have long been excluded from the classical music world. Much of the current literature focuses on white women. However, there is a wealth of music out there written by women of color across the world.
As I’m starting to do more research on this subject, I’ve found a few websites and books that I’m really excited to delve into. Since my last Topic Thursday, which included resources for finding sheet music, was pretty popular, I thought people might appreciate a round-up of resources for learning more about black women composers.
There are tons of incredible pieces out there, and I’ve only skimmed the surface so far. Through these resources, I’ve found many more recordings that I can’t wait to listen to.
African Diaspora Music Project
This fantastic project, led by Dr. Louise Toppin and Videmus, has compiled a huge list of black composers. They’ve got biographies and a search function to help you find songs appropriate to your voice and concert repertoire.
Dr. Louise Toppin is a soprano and professor who has specialized in contemporary music and has also spent years promoting the performance and research of music by black composers. Her organization Videmus is dedicated to performing under-represented composers, including composers of color and female composers.
Music By Black Composers
Music by Black Composers has a massive directory of all known historic black composers and a separate one for living composers. They’ve also published several anthologies (at the moment, for violin, but more works are coming) and a blog that often features biographies of historic black composers.
Women’s Philharmonic Initiative
Although not entirely focused on black composers, the Women’s Philharmonic Initiative is a fantastic organization. They provide grants to orchestras in the US who would like to perform music by women. Past grant winners include the Louisiana Philarhomic Orchestra (2015), San Jose Chamber Orchestra (2012), and the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, 2020 grants are on hold.
If you’re an orchestral ensemble looking to perform music by black women composers, check out their list here. They also have parts available on request, which makes life a lot easier.
African American Composer Initiative (AACI)
Founded in 2009 in San Francisco, the AACI performs a wide variety of music by black composers, including Florence Price and Duke Ellington. They’ve got tons of recordings and performances up on their website and a list of composers performed with links to sheet music.
Chamber Music America
This organization exists to promote chamber music of all types, including classical and jazz, across the United States. They have a Composers Equity Project, which has a massive list of composers of color, women, and gender non-conforming composers with links to their websites.
Most of these seem to be living composers, so if you’re looking for composers from previous eras, you might want to check out another site.
Black Women’s Music Database
This database is dedicated to researching music by black women across genres. They’ve got a huge PDF, which is a fantastic resource whether you’re interested in classical music, jazz, blues, theater, opera – seriously, they have all the art bases covered.
This music deserves to be performed just as much as the standard existing canon, and all of these organizations are doing fantastic work getting it out there. Whether you’re a musician looking for new rep, a teacher wanting to include more diverse composers in your materials, or just want to listen to some seriously underappreciated music, you should check out these websites.
For those wanting to listen, here are a few Spotify playlists:
One of the most challenging things I found when I started learning about music by women was finding sheet music. I’m one of those people who prefer listening along with the score – especially if I’m considering singing the piece. Unfortunately, it can be hard to get your hands on a lof these scores, especially if they’re from the Baroque or Classical period.
I’ve made a list of the places I go to check for music, but I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface. Please leave comments/message me on Instagram if you have other avenues! I’m always looking for new composers to get to know.
This one might be obvious, but there are loads of women composers on IMSLP! Hundreds of Cécil Chaminade and Amy Beach songs are there, plus lots of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn.
This should definitely be your first stop when looking for scores. Also, each composer’s Wikipedia site usually has a list of pieces composed linked to IMSLP. For a lot of these more popular and well-known composers, the editions are actually quite nice. However, some of the uploads are borderline illegible, including bad scans of original scores. There are also some composers with minimal pieces available, partially due to lost originals.
If you hear a recording and fall in love with the piece, sometimes (if you’re me), you spend hours looking for the sheet music. Although Hildegard Publishing doesn’t have everything, they have a LOT. Every piece they publish was composed by a woman.
My favorite thing about Hildegard is their anthologies. Unlike music in the canon, where we’re more familiar with the composers, many people interested in learning pieces composed by women don’t know where to start. An anthology is perfect because it usually includes works from early Baroque through the Romantic era in multiple languages.
Their newest anthology, a collaboration with A Modern Reveal, is 24 Italian Songs & Arias by Women Composers. It’s ideal for someone interested in learning new pieces or a young singer. All singers are familiar, perhaps too familiar, with the traditional 24 Italian Songs & Arias. However, every single piece in the original is by a man. This anthology features works by Strozzi, Caccini, Colbran, and Viardot – all fantastic composers.
Like Hildegard, Furore Verlag is another publishing company that only produces scores by women composers. This company is invaluable particularly for orchestras, choirs, and opera companies looking to include more diverse composers in their upcoming seasons.
Furore Verlag has hundreds of composers and offers vocal scores and full scores. They also provide a small biography about each composer, in both English and German, and each work has a difficulty rating. Especially if you’re looking for pieces for your youth choir or orchestra, Furor Verlag is a fantastic resource.
They also have multiple Anthologies (I know I keep going on about them, but really – they’re a great way to discover composers).
Archiv Frau und Musik
This is another fantastic resource, based in Frankfurt, Germany. They do amazing research into music by women, have an online category, and have a huge list of online and real-life resources.
Search for any composer you want, to learn about their songs, where you can find their music, and get some information about them. Song Helix has an incredible variety of composers, and you can narrow your search to only include black women composers, or Jewish composers, or LGBT (among other options). You can also search by topic of song instead, which is great for people planning recitals.
If you’re in deep, like me, you’ll notice that some pieces that just haven’t been published yet. About a year ago now, I decided to submit an application for an early music competition consisting entirely of music by women. In my search to find appropriate sheet music, I came across a book series entitled Women Composers: Music Through the Ages. It’s a multi-book series that features composers and includes excerpts of their sheet music.
In Germany, at least, one book in the series was nearly 1200EUR on Amazon, and as a freelance singer, I couldn’t really spring for that. Luckily, the Humboldt Library had the whole series in Berlin. If you want to learn more about unknown composers, this is the series for you, and if you’re lucky, a library near you will have it.
Libraries also have some original scores. The National Austrian Library has digitalized most of Mariana Martines’ original scores and has other composers as well. If you’re interested in a particular composer, Wikipedia often lists where their original scores are kept. Although in COVID times, a library visit may be difficult, it’s worth checking online and calling them to see if they have a copy of the score.
Although it can be frustrating to want a specific score, and not be able to source it, be open to the process. I’ve discovered pieces that I love while searching for something else. If you want recommendations or are having trouble finding a specific piece, shoot me a message, and I’ll do what I can.
If you have other resources you’d like to recommend, please let me know!
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Today’s Topic Thursday is all about how women who composed and made music were perceived by their contemporaries. Although the specifics varied between eras and countries, one of the unfortunate mainstays was the sexualization of female musicians. In Anna Beer’s Sound and Sweet Airs, she refers to this phenomenon as the “shadow of the courtesan” and shows time and again how it affected women who composed.
Today I’ll look at why this stereotype followed all women in music to an extent, why it developed, and how it influenced women’s lives.
When Did This Start?
Anna Beer argues that the shadow of the courtesan goes all the way back to the Book of Samuel, where it states that “listening to a women’s voice is sexual enticement.” Even today, women are not allowed to sing in Orthodox synagogues, partially due to this line.
The Catholic Church stayed on the same track. Nuns were only permitted to sing certain types of music, and never in front of men. Even in areas where Lutherism or other Protestant religions replaced the Catholic Church, the story remained the same. Women’s compositions and performances have always been viewed in terms of their sex. Many composers received reviews complimenting their pieces, saying they almost sounded like a man wrote them.
For much of western history, the reputation of a woman – and the intactness of her virginity – were decisive factors in her ability to function in society. With the increase of distinct noble families and national structures in the Middle Ages and beyond, virginity and purity became a large factor in women’s marriageability status. Marriage was a key instrument in connecting families and making alliances in Europe. To expand their power, influence, or rise in rank, families used tactical marriages. A “spoiled” daughter was of no use to them.
Aside from the often intrusive examinations and extensive bedding ceremonies, which included a next-morning check for bloody sheets, women could also lose purity through reputation alone. Through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, powerful men in nobility and the Church structured society so that it favored them and used the threat of ostracisation to restrict women’s movements. Women couldn’t be alone with a man (what if people talk!), couldn’t use their creativity (what if they enticed a man sexually?!), and above all, couldn’t perform in front of men. In Shakespeare’s time, all the women’s parts onstage were played by men because of this societal restriction.
Women in music in the 1600 and 1700s suffered from these strict societal rules. Some women were able to participate in music by only performing in private concerts for female royalty. Many princesses and queens, including Princess Anne, in whose court Josina van Boetzelaer worked, asked their ladies-in-waiting to perform for them. (Netflix and chill wasn’t an option for entertainment yet).
Other women braved the reputation hit and performed in the open royal court for both men and women. However, there were limited options for them. Many performed as young children and were taken under the protective wing of a lady of the court, like Jaquet de la Guerre or Francesca Caccini, and they were rarely if ever, offered the position of court composer. A notable exception to this rule was, in fact, Caccini, who became the highest-paid member of the Medici Court under Maria Magdalena.
Choices for Women
For much of western history, and in some cases, until women received the right to vote, the choice for women has been the convent or marriage. Some talented musicians chose the church, joining particular convents renowned (and often denigrated) for their music writing and singing. If a woman wanted to pursue music outside the Church, she would either have to hope that her husband allowed it or remain unmarried.
Unfortunately, many of these unmarried singers were pressured into relationships with their benefactors, like Barbara Strozzi. Others chose this route as the best option that allowed them some semblance of independence outside the rigid social structure. In some areas, there was more leeway for courtesans. If a woman gained a noble’s attention, she could become influential, like Madame de Montespan in France. As the mistress of Louis XIV, she had enormous influence over the court. She often influenced his decision when choosing musicians for the court and composers for his official events.
In the 1800s, the acceptance of courtesans had waned in polite society. Composers like Mariana Martines and Clara Wieck-Schumann had to navigate a new world where music-making was delineated by gender lines. Men wrote symphonies and operas, while women remained in the home concert sphere, writing songs and small chamber pieces.
Even in the 1900s, Amy Beach struggled against society. She wasn’t permitted to study abroad, and her husband forbade her from performing in public more than twice a year (for charity, of course!). It wasn’t until the death of her husband that she was able to travel to Europe.
Even today, the shadow of the courtesan lingers. Perhaps our reputations aren’t affected by our interactions with men, but singers continue to experience harassment, even on the biggest stages in opera. #MeToo hit the opera world hard. If we haven’t experienced this type of harassment ourselves, we have a friend who has.
Why am I talking about singers? Because most women who composed throughout history were singers first. The idea of a composer, and not a performer, is a relatively new one (although that’s a whole other post).
I could write a whole book on this. In fact, Anna Beer has. The shadow of the courtesan has informed women’s decisions throughout history. How many talented women didn’t pursue music because their husbands forbade it? Or wrote fantastic pieces only for small groups of friends without publishing it?
And how many composers have been forgotten because they were merely courtesans?
Unfortunately, we can’t know the answer to this, but many talented researchers are searching for more composers from every era. The great thing is that we do have many composers who broke the mold and shared their talent with the world. I think we owe it to them to perform it.
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Welcome to the first Topic Thursday! I thought I would start with a quick breakdown of all the things I’ve heard from people when I said I’m performing music by women. I’ve heard everything, from “Oh, how interesting” to a confused look followed by “but why?”. There are many misconceptions out there about these composers, their music, and why it’s not more regularly performed.
1. “There isn’t enough repertoire”
This is one of my biggest pet peeves. When you ask an orchestra or an opera house why they don’t program more music by women, their excuse is often that there just isn’t enough quality repertoire available. This is categorically untrue. Women have composed music since the western classical music tradition began. From Hildegard Bingham and Isabella Leonard in the early 1600s to Maria Teresa Agnesi in the Baroque period, Pauline Viardot in the 19th century, and finally living composers like Libby Larsen, there are examples of women who composed amazing music in every era and every country.
2. “No one will come”
This is another common refrain that many in the field of new music hear as well. While it’s true that well-known repertoire draws in crowds like nothing else, that doesn’t mean you have to fill your entire season with crowd favorites. Instead of scheduling a fourth Mozart symphony, why not present a piece by Mariana Martines? Or pair an evening of Dvorak with Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony?
I’m not saying ditch all the favorites and present a season entirely of new-to-the-audience repertoire. (Well, not that I wouldn’t love that). But, I strongly believe that if orchestras and theaters present this music alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Wagner, people will come. And they will love it.
3. “There’s a reason it’s not in the canon”
Well, yes, you’re absolutely right. But the reason isn’t because women are inherently worse composers than men, or that their works aren’t good enough to grace our concert halls. The reason these composers are not in our classical music canon is because they were often discouraged or barred from filling traditional of responsibility and power in the music industry. Men in these positions had their pieces performed regularly and were able to publish their music. And they developed a following who preserved their pieces after death.
As we saw with composers like Martines, C Schumann, and Beach, many of these women gained recognition on a national or international scale while they were performing. However, they were usually the driving force behind their fame, and had to organize their own performances and in some cases, their own publishing outside the traditional institutions that men had access to. Once they passed, they tended to be forgotten.
Another uncomfortable fact for many is that women simply did not have access to the same opportunities as men for most of human history to compose. If a woman wanted to become a singer, often she ran the risk of tarnishing her reputation. Throughout the years, a relative constant has been the association between courtesans and performers. If a woman performed in public, she often developed a ‘reputation.’ In the late 19th century, this problem intensified, creating a situation where there was a stark divide between ‘men’s music’ and ‘women’s music.’ Men belonged on the stage, writing symphonies and operas, while women were sidelined, restricted to house concerts.
Despite all of this, women continued to compose throughout history, receiving recognition and accolades. In the 19th century, some even received the highest compliment of the time – that their music sounded manly.
So yes, there are reasons it’s not in the canon. Mainly, the patriarchy. Which, in my humble opinion, is a terrible reason to exclude fantastic music from the canon.
While these are just the top 3 things I’ve heard, there are tons of other misconceptions out there. The bottom line is that women have been composing this whole time. They just did it without the recognition that some of their male counterparts received. Instead of rehashing the same Schubert songs, why not throw in some Fanny Hensel pieces? Or if you’re looking for a new piano piece, look at the works of Cécil Chaminade. String quartets could add a Machonchy quartet to their repertoire instead of another Beethoven.
Do you have any burning questions about music by women? Or are you looking for repertoire for your next performance (or something to do in lockdown)? Comment on this page or send me a message on Instagram and I’ll answer them next blog!