.HISTORIC FEMALE COMPOSERS
While doing some random search during the concert-free period of 2020, I came across a movie called „Komponistinnen“, which highlights the biographies of Fanny Hensel, Emilie Mayer, Mel Bonis and Lili Boulanger. I found their biographies very moving and I found their creative output - in spite of many obstacles in society - tremendously impressive. And it seemed that in most cases their oeuvre had been forgotten after their deaths. I, personally, couldn’t think of many orchestral compositions by historic female composers that I had heard - let alone performed. Thus, I began to explore the orchestral repertoire of historic female composers, aiming at a greater variety of music to introduce to orchestras and audiences.
I believe that it requires multiple excellent performances and recordings in order to establish a composition in the repertoire. As a conductor, I hope to be able to make a contribution to building a podium for compositions which unfairly aren’t performed any more.
Below, I introduce historic female composers and some of their compositions which I would like to integrate into my program suggestions. This is very much „work in progress“ and I am very keen on learning your thoughts about that topic. Have you heard a fantastic piece which is not listed below? Is there a historic female composer you particularly like? I would be very grateful if you shared your suggestions.
Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
A child prodigy, Grazyna Bacewicz started composing at the age of 13. At the Warsaw conservatory, she studied philosophy, violin, piano and composition and later she continued her studies with Nadia Boulanger and Carl Flesch in Paris. Back in Poland, Bacewicz served as concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra, where she got to hear a lot of her own music. Before World War II, she traveled Europe giving concerts as a violinist, often accompanied by her brother. After the war, she took up a teaching position at the conservatoire in Lódź. In this time, she shifted her musical focus towards composition.
In 1954, Bacewicz suffered serious injuries from a car accident and composing became her major musical activity. She is one of the most important representatives of modern Polish music. In addition to composing, Bacewicz was a prolific writer.
Pensieri Notturni was composed in 1961, during a period at which Bacewicz concentrated on sonorist writing. The piece, which is not intended to be program music, is framed for chamber orchestra: single woodwinds (except three clarinets), single brass, percussion, harp, celeste and strings (5321). It is mainly characterized by flexible, volatile gestures, notes expanding and returning to their previous states. The sound material is not based on existing systems, except the concept of non-recurring notes. The instrumentation is extremely sophisticated, for example trombone, harp and guiro imitate gestures and create an image of a surreal, fantastic environment. The recurring use of the vibraphone gives the movement a sense of tranquility. What especially struck me was Bacewicz’s refined use of string techniques. Glissandi, flageolets, legno, ponticello, saltando, combined and overlapped, contribute to a unique sound world.
- Bacewicz Pensieri Notturni 8’ - Bartók Divertimento for String Orchestra 26’ - Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra 30'
- Bacewicz Pensieri Notturni 8’ - Mahler Symphony N°7 80'
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Although regarded as a Wunderkind, Amy Beach had to fight for her career as a pianist and composer, as at that time this was not considered socially acceptable. Her husband forbade her to appear as a soloist more than twice a year and even to teach piano. As a composer she was largely self-taught.
Amy Beach was barely 30 years old when her Gaelic Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was the first symphony composed by an American woman to gain public attention. The symphony is strongly influenced by Dvořák 9, featuring Irish, Scottish and Celtic folk music quotations - alongside quotations from her own songs. Critics were enthusiastic about the work. Like many other late 19th-century composers, Amy Beach was interested in folk music. She got exposed to melodies from the Balkan by a missionary.
- Dvorak Carnival Overture 9’ - Szymanowski Violin Concerto 1 22’ - Beach Gaelic Symphony 42’
- Carreño Serenade for Strings 20’ - Beach Piano Concerto 37’ - Samuel Barber Symphony 2 29’
Beach Variations on Balkan themes 20’ - Enescu Sinfonia Concertante 22’ (or Pejačević Sinfonie Concertante 15’) - Bartok Concerto for Orchestra 40’
Mélanie (Mel) Bonis (1858-1937)
Mélanie Bonis was fascinated by legendary women. She orchestrated three of her character pieces for piano: Le songe de Cléopatre, Ophélie and Salomé.
As a woman, Bonis had to fight her entire life to pursue a professional life as a musician. She chose the artist name „Mel“ so that people would assume she was a man. When she wanted to marry a musician, her parents made her stop her studies at the conservatoire and married her to a wealthy industrial widower, 20 years her senior. Bonis had an illegal daughter with her beloved one, who she had to hide.
From her „Suite orientale“, Mel Bonis only orchestrated the first two movements „Prelude“ and „Danse d’Almèes“ (Perhaps the third and longest movement „Ronde de nuit“ is still to be arranged for orchestra?). Mel Bonis put a lot of work into the „Suite en forme de Valses“, and she published it simultaneously in several different versions: an arrangement for a large symphony orchestra, one for piano “after the orchestral suite” and one for piano with four hands. The music, with its slight orientalist flavour, emanates an air of elegant nonchalance. The Ballabile has a very marked oriental dance character, Interlude et Valse lent has a melancholic introduction which is followed by a charming waltz. Scherzo-Valse combines two original and gracefully developed themes with lightness and elegance. It brings the suite to an end on a cheerful note.
- Bonis, "Suite orientale" 8’ - Liszt, Piano Concerto N°2, 21’ - Rimsky-Korsakow, "Shéhérazade", 45’
- Bonis, "Suite en forme de Valses", 12’ - Ravel, Piano Concerto in G, 22’ - Debussy, "La Mer" 27’ - Ravel, "La Valse", 12’
- Bonis, "Trois femmes de légende", 14’ - Prokofiev, Violin Concerto N°2, 28’ - Shostakovich, Symphony N°1, 33’
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Lili Boulanger became famous by winning the prestigious „Prix de Rome“ in 1913. That prize had been awarded to Berlioz, Bizet, Debussy, and Lili’s father, Ernest Boulanger. Gabriel Fauré was fascinated by her talent when she was a little child.
Her entire short life was overshadowed by a severe illness. Her working periods were often interrupted and she had to dictate her latest works to her older sister Nadia, who wrote them down for her.
Nadia always supported Lili, as she considered Lili to be the greater talent. She called Lili’s compositions „utile“ and her own compositions „inutile“. After Lili had died of tuberculosis in 1918, Nadia promoted Lili’s music and conducted many of her works and became one of the most influential music teachers in the world. Among her students were Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzolla. Nadia discontinued to compose by herself in her mid 30s.
Lili’s symphonic compositions were created between 1913 and 1918. „D’un Soir Triste“ and „D’un Matin de Printemps“ were the last compositions Lili was able to notate without the help of her sister Nadia. Both pieces form a dyptichon, perhaps displaying the two extreme facets of Lili’s personality. One is sad and fragile, culminating in desperate attempts to unsuccessfully battle the fatal illness, but then giving up. The other one is full of curiosity, wit, energy and sweetness.
A devoted Catholic, Lili composed music for the Psalms 24, 129 and 130. Written surrounded by the First World War, these psalms have been described as „3 prayers for piece“. The music is strong, harmonically daring, emphasizing mostly middle voices, brass and percussion.
Psalm 129 „Ils m’ont assez opprimé dès ma jeunesse“ has been seen as Lili’s most autobiographical statement. It can either be sung by a barytone or by a chorus (the tenors and basses singing in octaves, the female voices entering in the later part of the piece, with a vocalise which resembles music from beyond).
„Vielle Prière Bouddhique“ was premiered posthumously in 1921 and received enthusiastic critics pointing out the majestic architecture which resembles the „Temple of Angkor“ as well as the perfect balance between Western idiom and oriental flavor. The text of the prayer is about piece, redemption and tolerance. The prominent use of a solo flute recalls Debussy’s „Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune“ or Ravels „Daphnis et Chloe“.
By far the most epic of her Psalm compositions, Psalm 130 „Au fond de l’abîme“ was written with many interruptions between 1914 and 1917. Dedicated to her father, who passed away when she was six years old, this large scale composition can be seen as Lili’s most personal work, showing a great amount of compositional and spiritual maturity.
„Faust et Hélène“ is a cantata for mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone and orchestra, which Lili wrote aged 19 and with which the won the prestigious „Prix de Rome“. The libretto is by Eugène Adenis, based on Fausts encounter with Hélène in Faust II. The composition is dedicated to Nadia.
The piece is clearly written in the tradition of Liszt and Wagner. However, with emotional depth and compositorial finesse, she creates an intense operatic scene, which shines through lyrical beauty as well as through dramatic power and imagination.
Nadia Boulanger’s „Fantaisie Variée“ was premiered in 1912, when Nadia was already renowned as an organist and for her outstanding academic performance in harmony and counterpoint. The soloist for all performances was her mentor and lover, the famous Raoul Pugno, to whom Nadia dedicated the composition. The critics of the Paris premiere were enthusiastic, pointing out its free concept based on one theme only, its masterly development and picturesque vigor. Nadia’s music was considered to be „most promising“ and also „masculine“. The „Fantaisie variée“ is inspired by César Franck’s Symphonic Variations. The piece embraces impressionism, Wagnerian romantic and modernism.
- Boulanger, Psalm 130 "Du fond de l’abîme", 25’ - Brahms, "Ein Deutsches Requiem", 75’
- Boulanger, "D’un Soir Triste" 11’ and "D’un Matin de Printemps" 5’ - Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto, 28’ - Saint-Saens, Symphony N°1, 31’
- Boulanger, "Vieille Prière Bouddhique" 8’ - Tailleferre, Piano Concerto, 17’ - Berlioz, Te Deum 50’
- Boulanger, "Vielle Prière Bouddhique" 8’ - Milhaud, "La Création du Monde", 18’ - Ravel, "Daphnis et Chloe", 57’
- Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms 21’ - Honegger Symphonie Liturgique 30’ - Boulanger, Psalm 130 „Du fond de l’abime“ 25’
- Fauré, "Pelléas et Mélisande" 20’ - Nadia Boulanger, Fantaisie variée (piano), 20’ Boulanger, "Faust et Hélène" 30’
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Cécile Chaminade was a superstar. She had a great career as a pianist in France, later in England, where she played for Queen Victoria, and in the US. Postcards with her face were printed and one could find „Chaminade-Clubs“. Ambroise Thomas said she was not a young woman composing, but a composer. For Chaminade herself, gender was not a category in music.
As a child, she played for Bizet, who called her „my little Mozart“, later she studied privately with Debussy and Albéniz. Bizet suggested she should study at the Paris Conservatoire, but her father forbade it. More and more, her character-pieces that made her such a celebrity, wouldn’t suit the 20th century any more. Critics viewed her oeuvre as old-fashioned and „salon-music“. Chaminade gradually retired from public life.
Her ballet Callirhoë was played 200 times in 1888. The beautiful suite displays four characteristic dances. The beginning of the energetic Konzertstück op.40 may have been inspired by Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Throughout the composition, references to Liszt and Saint-Saens are audible, often featuring exotic harmonies. It’s a highly individual piece, which combines vigorous verve with lyrical melody.
Callirhoe Suite N°1, Prélude
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Moritz Gnann, conductor
Chaminade, Callirhoë Suite, 16’ - Unsuk Chin, Mannequin 20’ - Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker Act 2, 47’ (if a soloist is desired, Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto 22’ could replace Mannequin)
- Dukas, L’Apprentice Sorcier 14’ - Chaminade, Konzertstück op. 40 15’ - Stravinsky, Firebird (complete) 47’
- Fauré, Pelleas et Mélisande 19’ - Chaminade, Konzertstück op. 40, 15’- Franck. Symphony d minor. 40’
Ruth Crawford-Seeger (1901-1953)
Ruth Crawford-Seeger was a key figure in American modernist music and a well-known ethnomusicologist. She began taking piano lessons at the age of 11. Her teacher was a pupil of Scriabin, whose musical ideas she passed on to her students. Crawford-Seeger became associated with „ultramodernist“ composers like Edgar Varèse, studying serialism and dissonant counterpoint. She was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship in music composition to study in Europe. Among the composers she met there were Béla Bartók and Alban Berg. The majority of her compositions were written in the 1920s and early 1930s. She married her teacher Charles Seeger in 1932. Already around 1934, Crawford-Seeger stopped composing and devoted all her time to her work at the American folk-song-archive at the Library of Congress, where she worked together with her husband.
Music for Small Orchestra (1926) shows an experimental, formalist style. Consisting of two movements, the longer first one („Slow, pensive“) begins with an ostinate rhythm on a single note in the piano. A static chord of string and wind instruments slowly oscillates between changing notes in the middle voices and little dynamic fluctuation. The rather static exposition becomes more elastic as contrasting layers join in: wave-like quintuplets in the first cello and dissonant piano basses. Only about two minutes into the piece we become aware of two espressivo melodies by the flute and the bassoon, which mainly proceeds between two notes. The structural patterns slightly speed up, accompanied by a crescendo, then calming down again. New patterns get introduced in the next section, there is more movement, the dynamic development happens at a faster pace. A short flute cadenza builds the transition into a brief celestial episode with high flageolets until, in the final bars, we are reminiscent of the opening’s quintuplet section, this time accompanied by a widely stretched dissonant chord. The music fades off, the piano remains, finally, on a consonant fifth in the left hand.
In the contrasting, short second movement („In roguish humor. Not fast.“) rhythmic patterns in piano, bassoon and cellos mark the background for playful, agile woodwind solos. The instruments change patterns and a fast intensification suddenly breaks off. A modified recapitulation starts, like a second attempt, which also breaks off suddenly after an even stronger culmination than the first time. The short third attempt fades out in a ritardando molto. The last bar is a big laugh.
Crawford-Seeger Music for Small Orchestra 10’ - Carter Clarinet Concerto 19’ - Bartók Concerto for Orchestra 40’
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)
Highly appreciated during her lifetime, both as a pianist and as a composer, Louise Farrenc was a very versatile and independent artist. Her teachers were Anton Reicha, Hummel and Moscheles. Schumann and Berlioz spoke highly of her compositions. She married the flutist and music publisher Aristide Farrenc, who later published some of her compositions. Farrenc was the first woman who got appointed professor at the the Paris Conservatoire, where she was one of the most respected teachers. In a time when orchestral music was not too fashionable in Paris, she composed three symphonies, two overtures and two concert variations for piano and orchestra.
Farrenc’s Symphony No.1 in C minor begins as if coming from nowhere. The strings open the slow introduction to the first movement, groping their way forward, soon to be joined by a sad clarinet melody. Abruptly, a decisive fortissimo, like an authoritarian order, calls us back to reality. Like the introduction, the Allegro starts in a searching manner, this time quick and agitated. The music relaxes in the bright second theme, a cheerful arietta played by the first horn and the first oboe. After an intense contrapuntal development section, the recapitulation ends with a Mendelssohnian storm, precipitating into a long diminished chord, which is followed by a long general pause. The cellos lead into a plaintive woodwind chant, followed by a dramatic ending. The songful, intimate „Adagio cantabile“ reminds me very much of Franz Schubert. The powerful third movement „Minuetto. Moderato“ appears to be a scherzo rather than a minuet. It is contrasted by a serene Trio in C major. Very softly, the tarantella-like fourth movement begin in 6/8, before repeating its original theme in fortissimo. A more serene episode in 2/4 leads into a majestic tutti section. A coda „Più Allegro“ brings the symphony to a dramatic ending in C minor.Her Symphony No.3, I believe, has the potential of taking a place in the standard repertoire. The first movement begins with a brief melancholic introduction. Very soon the string instruments mark an agitated motive, which quickly leads to a dramatic Allegro - perhaps a homage to Beethoven. The most beautiful song-like „Adagio Cantabile“ is founded on a steady pulse, like a calm march. The turbulent „Scherzo Vivace“ may have been inspired by Mendelssohn. The Finale is oscillates between sadness and hope, until the music is completely torn apart in the development section (Mozart KV 550 comes to mind) and builds to a wild, desperate culmination. Certainly no „female“ music…Comte Gallenberg (1783-1839) was a composer who mainly wrote ballets. He was ballet director in Naples under Napoleon, later in Vienna. Written in a „style brillante“, Louise Farrencs Variations remind me a bit of Chopin.
Schumann, Overture: Scherzo and Finale, 18’ - Farrenc, "Grandes Variations sur un thème de comte Gallenberg", 14’ - Brahms, Symphony N°2, 40’
Méhul, Overture: "Le jeune sage et le vieux fou", 7’ - Beethoven, Piano Concerto N°1 , 38’ - Farrenc, Symphony N°3, 34’
Farrenc, Overture in E-flat, 7’ - Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto 28’ - Berlioz, "Symphonie fantastique", 55’
Viteszlava Kaprálová (1915-1940)
Born in Brno, Kaprálová studied composition and conducting in Prague and conducted her own compositions. Bohuslav Martinů advised her to intensify her studies in Paris. There, she studied conducting with Charles Munch and took private conducting lessons with Martinů. Their artistic partnership led into a love affair. Besides Martinů, Kaprálová was particularly inspired by Bartók and Stravinsky. During the German siege of Tchechoslovakia, she stayed in Paris and married the writer Jiří Mucha in 1940. Very soon she fell ill with tuberculosis and passed away, aged only 25.
Káprálová had been impressed by Stravinsky’s „Pétrouchka“ from an early age. In the first movement of „Suita Rustica“, she uses stravinskyan folk music elements, which build a contrast to a dissonant and rhythmic environment. The second movement is reminiscent of Dvořák and Smetana, whereas the third movement is again dominated by rhythmic elements.
Kaprálová, Suite en miniature, 9’ - Mozart, Flute Concerto in D, 20’ - Suk, "Asrael Symphony", 60’
Kaprálová, Suita Rustica, 15’ - Dvořák, Cello Concerto, 42’- Stravinsky, "Pétrouchka", 35’
Dvořák, Wind Serenade, 25’ - Kaprálová, Partita for piano and strings ,19’ - Brahms, Serenade N°2, 30’
Marianna von Martines (1744-1812)
Marianna von Martines was one of the most important female composers in Vienna during the Mozart-era. A protegé of Pietro Metastasio, she developed her profile as a pianist, singer and composer at a very early stage. The young Joseph Haydn was one of her teachers. Especially her cantatas and harpsichord concertos immediately caught my attention.
- Martines, Overture in C , 11’ - Haydn, Symphony No.52 in c, 27’- Martines, Cembalo Concerto in E, 17’ - Haydn, Symphony N°102, 23’
- Mozart, Symphony N°25, 23’ - Martines, "Berenice Ah che fai", 12’ - Martines, "Il Primo Amore“ 11’ - Mozart, Jupiter Symphony, 35’
- Martines Overture in C 11’ - CPE Bach Oboe Concerto in E-flat 23’ - CPE Bach Symphony Wq 182 in b minor 11’ - Haydn Symphony No.101 „Clock“ 27’
Emilie Mayer (1812-1883)
Emilie Mayer was highly respected by the music world in her lifetime. However, on her death performances of her compositions ceased and her works remained unperformed for many years. An incredibly prolific composer, especially for orchestra, Emilie Mayer composed eight symphonies, numerous overtures and a piano concerto. Furthermore she left behind an extensive oeuvre of chamber music, Lieder and piano music.
Her prolificness as a symphonic composer inspired some to see her as a „female Beethoven“. Her Symphony No.1 in c-minor may still be influenced by her studies with Carl Loewe, yet it conveys a compelling dramatic narrative. Her Piano Concerto is of a classical lightness and elegance, reminiscent of the early Beethoven, whereas her Faust-Overture follows a more romantic idiom with its variety of expressive contrasts.
Already at the first listen, I found Emilie Mayer’s Symphony No.5 in F minor really fascinating, as it is full of surprises and beautiful musical ideas. Emilie Mayer puts us right in the middle of an emotional storm at the beginning of this symphony. The sensitive second theme - a really catchy tune! - brings some comfort. The development section is staggeringly wild with awkward syncopations and many interruptions. In the peaceful Adagio, horns and low strings evoke the timbre of a male chorus. A really enchanting movement, which is entirely loving and gracious. The Scherzo, with its interesting form A-B-A-B-Coda, struck me because of its untamed manner and savage accents, which are even emphasized in the recapitulation. The movement ends very abruptly and a cheerful Allegro Vivace follows. At least it seems so… Although the movement starts in F major, with a jolly marching tune, followed by a tender, Schubert-like episode in D-flat major, the development section introduces new ideas and leads to a recapitulation in F minor. After a sudden halt, a dramatic coda follows and the symphony ends in F minor. What an extraordinary dramaturgy for a final movement!
- Mayer, Symphony N°1, 35’ - Brahms, Violin Concerto N°4, 2’ (or Beethoven, Piano Concerto N°5 , 38’)
- Carl Loewe, Overture in d-minor : "Das Märchen im Traum", 9’ (or Schubert, Rosamunde Overture 11’) Mayer, Piano Concerto, 30’ - Beethoven, Symphonie nº 3 "Eroica", 50’
- Mayer, Faust: Overture 12’ - Beethoven, Piano Concerto N°2, 31’ - Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, 34’
Dora Pejačević (1885-1923)
Perhaps the most famous Croatian composer (alongside Franz von Suppé), Dora Pejačević was born in Budapest before moving to the family’s castle in Našice. Her parents were both of noble descent and Dora grew up in a luxurious environment which supported her artistic education. An excellent pianist and violinist, she started composing at the age of 12. She later studied in Zagreb, Dresden and Munich. In Dresden, Pejačević got acquainted with the music of Richard Strauss, whose world premiere of Elektra she witnessed. During World War I, she volunteered to take care of wounded soldiers in her home town Našice. Passing away at age 37 due to complications related to the birth of her first son, she left a grand oeuvre of compositions for piano, chamber ensembles, voice and orchestra.
Her Symphony op. 41 received high critical acclaim at the world premiere in Dresden in 1917. A critic compared her with Tchaikovsky. Artur Nikisch, who had heard of the successful premiere, had planned to perform the composition with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, which sadly couldn’t happen due to his sudden passing. Only in 2022, 100 years after Nikisch’s death, the Gewandhausorchester performed the symphony under the baton of Andris Nelsons. Pejačević’s symphony in F-sharp minor is a highly original composition, embracing an extended, cyclic symphonic formal concept, Richard Strauss’ harmonic language and a slavonic idiom. The introduction of the first movement starts with a voluptuous diminished chord, perhaps a fate motive inspired by the devastation caused by World War I and Pejačević’s frequent encounter with wounded soldiers: a desperate appoggiatura continued by a decisive fanfare motive, which is to play an important role during the entire movement. The first subject is a beautiful, gently flowing melodic gesture, but Pejačević attributes more significance to the expansive second subject (maestoso), dominated by the sound of the horns. More and more enthusiastically, this motive develops into a grand culmination. A forceful stretta comes to a sudden halt when the tutti (fff) intones the desperate fate motive, which had opened the movement. The cor anglais opens the slow second movement with a lonely prayer in a russian idiom. Its theme is then continued as a passacaglia through various instruments, before a lamenting episode seems to be building a bridge to the dramatic ending of the first movement. The middle section consists of an agile, wave-figured melody, perhaps resuscitating joyful memories from childhood, before developing into a dramatic outburst. The third section of the movement combines elements of the first two sections, ending in a somber tone with trombones and timpani: memento mori. In the humorous third movement, Pejačević makes use of percussion instruments (xylophone, glockenspiel, piatti). A lot of rubato is happening and sudden, unexpected shifts of mood. The joyful opening of the scherzo with syncopated accents evokes the image of a happy village dance, the idiom may be inspired by Dvořák. In the Trio, mysterious woodwind-figures add a surreal touch before violins and cellos sing a beautiful melody. Per aspera ad astra, the last movement is characterized by a mostly heroic expression. Pejačević asks for six horns. An energetic first theme with its prominent rhythm initiates the movement. In the development section, reminiscences of the previous movements appear and are from here on interwoven in the movement. Mostly the main theme from the second movement becomes prominent and joins forces with the energetic theme from the finale, concluding in a brilliant apotheosis, although in a minor key.
Pejačević Symphony op. 41 47’ - Dvořák Cello Concerto 42’
Pejačević Symphony op. 41 47’ - Elgar Enigma Variations 32’
Mozart Piano Concerto KV 482 32’ - Pejačević Symphony op. 41 47’
Julia Amanda Perry (1924-79)
Julia Amanda Perry was a very prolific composer, having written twelve symphonies, three operas, two concertos and some smaller pieces. As a child, she studied voice and violin. Later on, she attended classes at the Juillard School and at the Tanglewood music center before spending half a decade in Europe, where she expanded her training as a composer with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence. After a stroke paralyzed her right side, she learned to write with the left hand in order to complete her last compositions in hospital.
Her „Short Piece for Orchestra“ became the first composition by a woman of color to be performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1965. A wild, sudden uprising in unison opens the piece. the music seems to be torn apart by marked syncopations and harsh interruptions. In the following Andante lento solo winds, later horn and solo violin articulate an expressive chant in a wide range of large intervals, commented by low strings in fourths. That bass line builds the bridge into a varied recapitulation of the opening music. A wild ride follows, on top of which the horns and later the first violins sing a warm melody. Warning signals in high winds and trumpet fanfares appear before we are led back again to the initial music. The dramatic scenery seems to vanish and we find ourselves in a lonely atmosphere, reminiscent of Shostakovich. When only a low bass note is remaining and we think the piece has come to a sad end, Perry surprises us with a short and effective stretta.
Perry Short Piece for Orchestra 7’ - Sibelius Violin Concerto 34’ - Bruch Symphony 3 32’
Florence Price (1887-1953)
Florence Price’s „Symphony in e“ was the first composition by a black female composer to be performed by a major American orchestra. The premiere happened at the 1933 Chicago World Fair with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of a concert dedicated to „The Negro in Music“. However, after its premiere it was rarely performed. The symphony wasn’t published till 2008.
Price was a student at New England Conservatory, when her teacher George Chadwick introduced her to the style of Dvořák, whose main endeavor in America was to engage in „American music“. In Dvořák’s opinion, African-American and Native-American music should be key columns of an own national style of music.
The first movement of the Symphony in e is very much inspired by Dvořák 9. The second movement is to a large part built on a brass-hymn (perhaps imitating a spiritual), accompanied by drums. In the concise „Juba Dance“, that Price was particularly fond of, African drums slap rhythms as the strings play an upbeat melody. The Juba Dance was brought from West Africa to America by slaves, who were not allowed to play instruments and thus played body-percussion instead. In the short Finale, tarantella-like figures oscillate in pentatonic scales, which are also used in Jazz and Blues. Florence Price’s Symphony No.3 in C minor starts with a slow introduction, a dark, very dissonant, dirge-like brass chorale. The first movement's „masculine“ first theme is introduced by the lower strings, often interrupted and commented by higher instruments. A peaceful, pentatonic, „feminine“ second theme occupies almost half the exposition. The second movement is of pastoral gentility, the key of A-flat major is never abandoned. There are three simple themes, each of them displayed in expansive episodes. In the third movement, a Juba Dance, fast and slow sections alternate in an A-B-A-B-A form. The syncopated fast sections are written in ragtime style whereas the slow section is mainly characterized by a bluesy melody, which is initially played by a muted trumpet and later by a xylophone. The movement ends in a surprisingly shy way and is followed by a rather short „Scherzo-Finale“. In the course of the last movement, we get surprised by an extensive, wild coda. A very brief quotation of the symphonies opening chorale, followed by a series of lamenting C minor chords, finishes the composition.
II. Andante: His Resignation and Faith.
III. Allegro: His Adaptation, a fusion of his native and acquired impulses.
- Price, "Ethiopia’s Shadow in America", 14’ - B.A. Zimmermann, Trumpet Concerto "Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen" , 14’ - Dvorak, Symphony N°9, 44’ (or Copland, Symphony N°3, 42’, Appalachian Spring (complete), 38’)
- Prokofiev, American Overture, 7’ - Prokofiev, Piano Concerto N°3, 28’ - Price, Symphony N°1 38‘
Gershwin, An American in Paris, 19’ - Schönberg, 5 Orchesterstücke op.16, 16’ - Price, Symphony N°1, 38’
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Dame Ethel Smyth was described to be a rebel, fighting for the suffragette movement in the UK. She studied in Leipzig, where she was part of a musical circle including Clara Schumann and Brahms and also met Tchaikovsky and Grieg. Her opera „Der Wald“ was the first opera by a female composer given at the Met for 100 years. „The Wreckers“ was her most successful opera, performed in Leipzig, Prague and in London (Thomas Beecham). Conductors who supported her music, were Thomas Beecham, Arthur Nikisch and Bruno Walter. The Concerto for violin, horn and piano was premiered in 1927 and still embraces a romantic style. It is very inventive and colorfully orchestrated. Due to a hearing loss, Smyth gave up composing in 1939.
Smyth, Overture: "The Wreckers", 10’ - Britten, "Les Illuminations", 23’ - Smyth, "On the Cliffs of Cornwall", (Prelude to Act 2 of The Wreckers) 8’ - Mendelssohn, Symphonie nº 3 "Scottish", 38’
Mendelsohn, "Calm sea and prosperous voyage", 13’ - Smyth, Concerto for violin, horn and orchestra 26’ - Elgar, Variations on an Original Theme Op. 36 "Enigma Variations", 33’ -
Smyth, Mass in D , 70’ This piece is considered to be her masterpiece. G.B.Shaw was a great admirer.
Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)
The ballet „Le Marchand d’oiseaux“ was premiered by Ballets Suédois in 1923 at Théâtre des Champs Elysées. It was performed more often than any avant-garde ballet, and it increased in popularity from its premiere in 1923 to the company’s disbanding in 1925. The numbers speak for themselves: Le marchand d’oiseaux was relatively more popular and more lucrative than ballets by Tailleferre’s mentor, Satie, and by her colleagues in Les Six.
The joyful and optimistic „Concertino pour harp et orchestre“ (1927) was dedicated to her first husband, the NYC based caricaturist Ralph Barton. A critic wrote „Tailleferre remains faithful to the subtle harmonies that bathe in a clearly debussyan orchestral light. We find there her slightly mocking mischievousness, her lively grace and also this modern illogicality, that makes her associate the most daring dissonances with the most classical wisdom.“
It is rumored that the night of the work’s premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, Barton yelled at Tailleferre that he didn’t want to be seen as „Mr. Tailleferre“. The marriage didn’t last long, neither did her second one to the French lawyer Jean Lageat. Her Ballade pour piano et orchestre (1922) starts with an athmospheric introduction which reminds me of Ravel’s „Jeux d’eau“ before the piano takes on the melodic line and carries us into a light Valse in 5/4 meter, which soon develops into a lively 3/4 dance. The Coda leads us back to the calm tonal spheres of the introduction.
- Tailleferre, "Le marchand d’oiseaux", 19’ - Haydn, Cello concerto in C, 25’ - Bartok, "Miraculous mandarin", complete 33’
- Tailleferre, "Le Marchand d’Oiseaux", 19’ - Ravel, Piano concerto for the left hand, 19’ - Saint-Saens, Organ symphony, 38’
- Milhaud, "Le Boeuf sur le toit", 18’ - Tailleferre, Concertino pour harpe et orchestre, 17’ - Rachmaninov, Symphony n°3 , 42’
- Milhaud, "La création du monde", 18’ - Tailleferre, Ballade pour piano et orchestre 15’ - Holst, "The Planets ", 50’
Ruth Zechlin (1926-2007)
Ruth Zechlin started playing the piano at the age of five and composed her first piece at the age of seven. She studied composition, choral conducting and organ at the Leipzig Musikhochschule. From 1950 she became a professor at the newly founded „Hanns Eisler“ Musikhochschule in Berlin. Zechlin was friends with Hans Werner Henze and Witold Lutoslawski. She was a member of the Akademie der Künste of the German Democratic Republic and became one of the most influential composers of the GDR. Zechlin wrote more than 300 compositions of all genres. Her idol was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music she had frequently heard at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. She searched an imaginary dialogue with Bach, sometimes quoting his music and continuing it in her own way. Zechlin created her own tonal language, using dodecaphony, aleatoric music, cluster and collage. Alongside her activities as a composer and teacher, she was a concert cembalist for many decades.
Her Music for Orchestra (1880) starts on a very soft high violin note, gradually developing downwards into a pulsating cluster. The dynamic remains pp, the basses join in molto cantabile. A sudden warning signal by the woodwinds creates tension. Again, a softly downward moving cluster in the strings, again contrasted by woodwind signals, later by brass fanfares. The situation seems to become dangerous, a long and menacing cluster builds up from the low brass with an accelerating rhythm and the first use of a military drum. The music is torn apart between high strings and low strings. A solo oboe and 4 violins contemplate the sadness, but they get overpowered by merciless, loud, repeated brass chords. A big culmination, orchestrated by a long crescendo in piatti and gran cassa, leads to a touching bass clarinet solo lamenting over a very soft, sustained tam-tam and double bass note. This entire dramaturgy reminds me of Shostakovich. After the lament, there seems to be a bit of hope. „Con calore, poco a poco“, trombones and horns are singing in consonance over string carpets. A peaceful episode, played by flutes, violins, vibraphone and glass plates makes us believe we have escaped the threat experienced earlier. A solo violin cadenza ends on a high note that makes all other violins join in. Dolce espressivo, legato molto, the music indulges in a pastoral way, a crescendo suddenly drops to pianissimo to give way to a beautiful violin solo. Like the piece had started on a single high note, it ends in unison on a high note, this time with everybody playing accelerated notes in a big crescendo, suddenly cutting off.
Zechlin Music for Orchestra 13’ - Henze Ariosi 27’ - Schumann Symphony 2 38’
Weber Euryanthe Overture 9’ - Bruch Violin Concerto 1 25’ - Zechlin Music for Orchestra 13’ - Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis 21’