Amplifying Women Composers of Song

The Underrepresented: Raising awareness of post-1800 female composers from around the globe


In the year 2021, after singing both professional, non-professional, and student gigs for over 20 years, I have given few recitals or concerts of music composed by 100% female identifying composers. Of course, the opposite is not true. I’ve given numerous recitals with 100% male identifying composers. I’ve been on many programs that contain a strong majority of male composers, and include one token female composer. Unfortunately, this weakens us all. It excludes voices and lived experiences of some populations, while giving a megaphone to others.


My anecdote is reflected in these statistics from a 2018 article published in “The Guardian” titled “Female composers largely ignored by concert line-up”. The Women in Music Project found that of 1445 classical orchestral concerts performed in 2018-2019, only 76 of these concerts included at least one piece by a female composer. Furthermore, of the 3,524 works programmed in these concerts, 3,442 (97.5%) were written by male composers and 82 (2.3%) were written by female composers. The Donne (Women) in Music Project has many great resources, and I encourage you to visit their site to learn more.


The statistic mentioned in the previous paragraph may or may not be a surprising to you. When we share these types of statistics with our students, many react with disgust or disbelief. In Spring 2021, one assignment for a graduate student tasked her to find 10-15 teaching pieces for varying voice types at specific levels. She came back and said, “this assignment was so hard. I can’t believe how difficult it was to find teaching pieces of marginalized composers.” Most of us have some reckoning to do with the histories and voices that are taught in the U.S., and those that are not. This topic has received a lot of energy and attention in the past year, and resources and repertoire are becoming more visible and accessible every day. There is still a lot of work to be done.


We are reminded daily that “POWER OVER” has been the mode of operating in American culture for centuries. There are several calling this out daily. How do we switch to a “power with” approach? I believe this is a small part of that process. We must ennoble the voices that have been left out, and place a value on all lived experiences. We recognize that this is not a perfect response. We hope that you will carry the phrase “An imperfect response is better than no response” as you travel your own journey.


The following program was developed as a collaboration of Kristín Jónína Taylor and Shelby VanNordstrand. We've presented many variations of this program at several conferences in 2021: Central Regional Collegiate Music Society Conference (online), Hawaii University Interdisciplinary Conference (Honolulu, HI), National Collegiate Music Society Conference (Rochester, NY), and a faculty recital at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. We also published an article about Agathe Backer-Grøndahl located here.






PROGRAM:

Mor synger, Op. 52 (Andreas Jynge) Agathe Backer-Grøndahl

1. Skumring

2. Ride, ride Ranke

3. Spaa mig, vesle Praestekrave

4. Efter en Sommerfugl

5. Mor synger

6. Skjaerer

7. Solstek

8. I Sol og Regn

Healing: lullaby for my younger self (Catarina Domenici), Catarina Domenici

Marielle presente (Catarina Domenici), Catarina Domenici

Never more will the wind (H.D.), Jodi Goble


Glugginn (Halldór Kiljan Laxness), Jórunn Viðar

Unglingurinn í skóginum (Halldór Kiljan Laxness), Jórunn Viðar

Night (Louise C. Wallace), Florence Price

Hold Fast to Dreams (Langston Hughes), Florence Price


PROGRAM NOTES and WRITING:


Agathe Backer-Grøndahl

Norwegian- concert pianist- composer


A letter to her teacher, after he told her he thought she should follow the “common path of women”:

“I do not understand how both you and my parents could object to the fact that I want to

become what one calls a female artist [. . .] It seems to me that a beautiful, independent

future for a woman can be found in the simple act of striving, if possible, to be able to

present an enjoyable experience to people, especially if that future included a way to

travel and to see a little of the world! But time will decide. I just feel that there is

something in me that will never give me peace, and which constantly drives me onward

[. . .] for I love art so much that the desire to master it is indescribable.”


Mor Synger, Opus 52


Agathe Backer-Grøndahl’s Opus 52 “Mor synger” or “Mother sings” is a set of 8 songs with poems by Andreas Jynge, a Norwegian civil servant and writer. All of the songs have references to nature, many contain references to motherhood and love. The poems, while written by a male, are mostly centered around care for others. It is strange that we are so invested in the idea of care for others as a feminine characteristic.


Every part of these songs is carefully and expertly crafted, from the gorgeous harmonic progressions filled to the brim with secondary dominants, to the tuneful melodies which sometimes sound like folk songs on steroids. Ms. Backer Grøndahl truly created a clever interaction between singer and pianist. There are many moments of stop and go, requiring focused collaboration between the performers.


Skumring- Twilight

This song describes a twilight scene. The mother plays old beloved songs at the piano while her child sits next to her. The sun fades, and casts sunshine over all the memories.


Ride, Ride Ranke or Ride, Ride Ranke over the forest, meadow, and blue mountain. It is summer and the birds sing over the landscape dotted with flowers.

Spaa mig, vesle Praestekrave (Tell me, little plover bird )

In this song, the singer speaks to a plover bird, and asks what message they bring today. A message of a widower? Ah, it suits her. A Bachelor? No, she’s growing fearful. Oh, she has been there many times before.


________________________________________________________


Efter en sommerfugl

Or After a Butterfly Is a playful song about a child chasing a butterfly with red, brown, and blue wings. The child assures the butterfly that it sill not scare it, but only treasure it. Just before the child catches the butterfly, it flies away.


Mor synger

This poem encourages one to give your smile and love to those that need it, especially the little flowers that yearn for it, for after all, even April flowers can appear in harvest time.


Skjaerer (Magpies) is a story about two magpies in the cherry tree. The first magpie decorates the tree, and the other screeches, flutters their tale, and wraps their wing around the other’s waist in the cherry tree. They thrash, cackle, fight, chop, clip, tumble, seize… and their feathers go flying in the cherry tree!

________________________________________________________


Sulstek, or sunshine, is a song of playtime during a summer’s day. The mother and her child let their imaginations run wild as they traipse through the meadow, the forest, and the sunshine.

I sol og regn (In sun and rain)

When the sun is high in the sky, the rooster father struts and does his job, but when it begins to rain, he quickly abandons his post. He goes inside to rest on his comfortable perch, leaving his wife and children to strive against the wind. What a scoundrel!



Catarina Domenici

Healing, A Lullaby to My Younger Self and Marielle presente


Words from the composer Catarina Domenici, posted on her pubic facebook page on April 9, 2021:


“Both songs, “Healing: a lullaby for my younger self” and “Marielle presente” are, in a broad sense, about gender violence. “Healing” was created from my own experience as a sexual abuse survivor. Domestic violence against children, and especially against girls, is, even today, a kind of silent and invisible crime that goes unpunished and leaves life-long scars on the survivors. So, through this song I was able to tell my story with the intention of both raising awareness around this issue, and offering a glimpse of hope to survivors.” The inclusion of the names of prominent female political figures such as Manuela D’Avila, Luciana Genro, Maria do Rosário, Fernanda Melchionna, Sofia Cavedon is a way for me to acknowledge their importance and to express my solidarity and support. Maria da Penha is a leader of the Women’s rights movement in Brazil who became paraplegic after being assaulted countless times by her own husband. The law that protects women against domestic violence bears her name. I also included the names of victims of femicide and the names of my colleagues who were harassed by male colleagues in the work place. When I came to my university, a dear colleague of mine who was the Head of the Department at the time was pinned down against a wall and verbally abused by a male professor. From the political sphere, to the workplace, to the streets, and back home again. I included the name of my own mother among the victims of gender violence. If she was not capable of protecting me, she drilled into our minds (my own and my sisters’) the need for economic independence. She always said: “never be dependent upon any man for your own survival!” So, the phrase “Mulheres! Presente!” (Women! Present!) is a shout that demands the acknowledgment and respect for the feminine presence in the home, the workplace, politics, and society in general.


Healing- contains quotations from “Dido’s lament” and Meine ruh ist hin (Gretchen am Spinnrade, by Schubert)


Jodi Goble

Nevermore will the wind

Nevermore will the wind, is an elegy from the song cycle “Heart of World”, a cycle of 6 songs by Jodi Goble with poems by imagist poets. This cycle exists as a duet cycle for soprano and mezzo-soprano, or as a solo song cycle.


We have witnessed horrible acts of de-valuing humanity, specifically the lives of marginalized populations, and offer this elegy as the meaning of the word is defined: a poem of serious reflection as a lament for the dead.


Jodi Goble is a lecturer/collaborative pianist at Iowa State University and a dear friend. As a collaborative pianist, she has spent her life working with singers and the classical vocal repertoire. As such, I find her music incredibly singer-friendly.


Jórunn Viðar

was born 1937 and lived to the age of 99 years old. She studied at Music Academy in Berlin as well as composition at Juilliard. When she returned to Iceland, she worked as pianist and collaborative pianist. As a composer, she wrote a number of compositions based on Icelandic folk songs as well as film music, orchestral works, piano solo works, a piano concerto, chamber music, and works for voice and piano. She is considered one of the pioneer women in Icelandic music-making, and in fact, was the only woman in the Icelandic Composer’s Association for MANY years. It should be noted that she did set poetry by both male and female poets, all of them Icelandic.


Gluginn and Unglingurinn i skóginn

Both of the songs performed in this program are on texts by Iceland’s most recognized author, Nobel Prize winner Halldór Kiljan Laxness. The first, Glugginn, or The Window, is from his work Sjömeistarasögu (Seven Master Saga) and examines the function of a window, how it is not just a place to look out, but something where one can see a more positive future. The second work, Unglingurinn í skóginn (The Youth in the Forest), is about one’s encounter with a supernatural youth in a dream.


Florence Price

Night, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Hold Fast to Dreams

is perhaps the best known composer on this program, and is considered to be the first Black woman to win aplomb as a composer in the United States. She was an incredible composer and musician. She entered the New England Conservatory at the age of fourteen, majoring in piano and organ. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony in E minor in 1933. Her output includes works for orchestra, chamber groupings, art songs, solo violin works, and piano and organ solos.


CONCLUSION

This program includes marginalized composers of varying intersectionalities with the acknowledgement that there are many that are missing from this program, including many additional underrepresented countries and cultures, sexual identity, ableism, and other communities.


We’ve focused on the performance aspects of presenting music by women composers in this presentation, but also, it is important to connect this to the crucial need of including this repertoire in our teaching studio, as well. In our mutual discussions in preparation for this presentation, we both noted that there is the potential for multi-layered approaches one can pursue in the teaching studio. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Music History viewpoint

  • Music Theory viewpoint

  • Viewpoint that involves the difficulties of studying music by underrepresented groups (due to race, sex, religion, or even country)

This last point is especially intriguing, as it also involves many difficulties one has to overcome. These include:

  • Difficulty of obtaining and finding music

  • Lack of current publishing accessibility

  • Difficulty finding information on the composer

Womxn composers are unique in these difficulties…

  • In that they are stereotyped as writing “small works,” or "simplistic works"

  • In that the poetry or libretto set is often not by womxn or not told from a womxn’s perspective

  • The perception of women's role as caretakers, thus celebrating their position as teachers while downplaying their significance as composers.

  • Other status quo micro-aggressions (i.e. referring to male composers by their last name "Mozart wrote..." and female composers by their first names "Jorunn wrote...")


Students may feel it should be normal for the music of all genders, races, and cultures to be taught and played. We agree! This is not the world we are currently living in, and definitely not the one we inherited. We have much to do to educate ourselves as well as our students in matters of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, and to shift our own studios towards teaching more diverse repertoires and lived experiences.





23 views0 comments