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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 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 spoke frequently 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 of 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.

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Topic Thursday

“Feminine” Instruments

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.

1. Harpsichord

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.

2. Lute/Guitar

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. 

3. 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.

That’s it.

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. 

Categories
Topic Thursday

Common Myths

Challenging the Myths About Women Who Composed

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.

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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.

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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.

Wrap-Up

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!