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Composing Women (Part 4)

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Beethoven, Mozart, and Verdi are amazing composers, and it’s natural that audiences and performers will gravitate to their work. But have you ever asked yourself why every opera company and orchestra seems to program the same pieces and composers every season? And why does it seem there are no women composers?

Part of our mission at Argyle Arts is to help our clients develop creative programming that will engage their audience and perhaps introduce them to something new. With that in mind, we’ve begun a series of blog posts focusing on composers who just happen to be women. We’ve already met 15 composers (if you missed those posts, you can check them out here). Today we add five more to the list.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)

Barbara grew up as the adopted (and probably illegitimate) daughter of poet Giulio Strozzi, who went to great lengths to encourage his daughter’s musical talent. Like many women of her era, few details are known about her life except what we read in contemporary gossip, but we do know that she published more secular vocal music than any other 17th-century Venetian composer.

Barbara Strozzi: In medio maris

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

This New Hampshire native started improvising counterpoint at the age of two, composing at four, and gave her first full piano recital (which included some of her own pieces) at age seven. Talent agents in the audience wanted to book her on tour, but her parents turned down that opportunity. At 16, she had her professional concert debut, performing Ignaz Moscheles’ Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Boston Music Hall.

Amy Cheney married Dr. Henry Beach in 1885. As part of her marriage vows, she agreed to restrict her activities to two recitals a year (on which she would be credited as “Mrs. H.H.A. Beech”), never to teach piano, and to act in a manner appropriate for one married to a man of his status. As absurd as these spousal restrictions may seem today, there was a silver lining for us— she redirected her energies into composition. Unfortunately, Dr. Beech thought it unseemly of her to study with a teacher, so she taught herself from books and study.

When she was 24, the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston premiered her Mass in E-flat major. The piece was a hit with critics, and she was soon spoken of in the same breath as Chadwick and MacDowell. Four years later, her Gaelic Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony; its publication made her the first female American to publish a symphony.

Amy Beach enjoyed a long and successful career which only accelerated after
she was widowed in 1910. By the time of her own death, she had written over a dozen chamber works, some 35 piano pieces, five orchestral works, an opera, and nearly 150 vocal and choral pieces.

Amy Beach: Gaelic Symphony, II. Alla siciliana

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

Lili’s older sister, Nadia, was a renowned composition teacher who instructed Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla, Elliott Carter, and literally hundreds of other composers from around the world.

So why didn’t this renowned pedagogue spend more time composing herself? Because she believed she could never measure up to her younger sister.

Born to a 77-year-old Paris Conservatoire professor and a Russian princess, Lili began studying composition at age five, when she would listen in on Nadia’s lessons.In 1913, she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, for her cantata Faust et Hélène. She also became an accomplished organist, studying with Louis Vierne.

Alas, this brilliant composer suffered from poor health her whole life, and she died at the age of 24. She had completed several orchestra works (most of which include vocal or chorus parts), three psalms and many other choral works, and several chamber pieces.

Lili Boulanger: Les sirènes

Pauline Oliveros (1932-1916)

Active as a composer, performer, and teacher, Pauline Oliveros was one of the giants of 20th-century experimental music. In her early career, she focused on various types of electronic music. Her works frequently focus on what would eventually be called “sonic awareness” or “Deep Listening”. This is an aesthetic that encourages both performer and audience to be fundamentally aware of every aspect of a performance— not just the sound, but the performance environment, background noise, and even the listener’s internal responses. Frequently, a Deep Listening experience involves interaction between the listener and the music, and improvisation often plays a significant role. Many of Oliveros’ pieces were written for performance in a specific location, ranging from caves to cathedrals.

Pauline Oliveros: Accordion improvisation

Pauline Oliveros: To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation

Rachel Portman (b. 1960)

English composer Rachel Portman is part of a long and proud tradition of musicians who divide their energy between film and stage. You may know her for her scores to “Mona Lisa Smile”, “Benny & Joon”, “Chocolat”, and “The Joy Luck Club”, but she has also written for opera (The Little Prince), musical theater (Little House on the Prairie), and the concert hall (The Water Diviner).

Rachel Portman: Excerpts from The Little Prince