I am pleased to announce that this spring Noontime Concerts will launch a new series dedicated to featuring works by women composers. The series begins on March 5th with a concert that will bridge Black History Month and National Women’s History Month with music written by Amy Beach, Jacqueline Hairston, Margaret Bonds, Lena McLin, William Grant Still, Hall Johnson, and Robert L. Morris played and sung by pianist Carl Blake and sopranos Hope Briggs, and Shawnette Sulker.
In preparation for the Women Composers Take Center Stage series, I invited Carl Blake, a Bay-Area Pianist and Piano Teacher with Doctor of Musical Arts in Historical Performance from Cornell University, to provide the following background notes.
From Finland to France, Chile to China, and America to Australia, women composers have taken up the practice of their creative calling to musical composition. From antiquity to modern times, women have poured out their passion and embodied their creative energies which resulted in substantial contributions to the canon of Western classical music. Their works have gone unrecognized and under-appreciated for centuries. Sadly, there is nothing inherently inferior or distinctly unmusical about them that would deserve such neglect.
The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers details a chronology of 875 amazing women composers stretching from 7th century BC to 1994 (its publication date). This survey includes only women whose creative efforts are supported through documentation or publication. We can only speculate about the numbers and identities of composers whose creative progeny cannot be accounted for. How many composers passed off their works with male pseudonyms? How many women poured their hearts into works that were never published? How many composers might have discarded (burned or thrashed) good or mediocre works due to discouragement or dismissive critics? How many languished in silence or might have tried their hand at the art if they had received a little less rejection, condescension, and ridicule and a little more encouragement, proper instruction, on-the-job training, financial support, a measure of independence, or access to performance venues for the display of their craft?
Despite tremendous odds against them, namely traditional male supremacy and societal disapproval, women composers (performers, conductors, composers, and teachers as well) persevered by whatever, whenever, however, means they could. In addition to the awesome burden of creative calling, women were expected to fulfill the requirements that society (church, state, and social convention) traditionally assigned them as fundamentally female and feminine as characterized by their biology and matrimonial and social embellishment of male existence: child-bearing, child-rearing, domestic work, and sexual abstinence and/or consummation as was required. Traditional society only thought of women in these confined terms. In fact, society prescribed a woman’s fulfillment and destiny all-inclusive in terms of her biology. Taking up creative and intellectual pursuits was considered distinctly unladylike, unwomanly, and a manly aspiration. It was believed that women lacked the capacity for logic and reason and were too emotional to be able to harness logic, reason, and emotion into meaningful artistic expression. Composers who were women of color had to contend with prejudice and racism in addition to sexism.
Not only in the field of music as a composer, conductor, performer, and teacher, women generally suffered the same barriers of discrimination, prejudice, and repression in other professions of arts, sciences, humanities, medicine, law, politics, business, education, and sports.
Nevertheless, the enterprising spirit of women composers (many of whom had to self-serve as their own muse, performer, instructor, concert promoter, audience member and critic) managed to produce throughout the musical eras an extraordinary body of musical compositions that characterize the full spectrum of classical music genres: monody, choral poetry, Christian hymnody, madrigals, motets, oratorios, cantatas, sonatas, concertos, symphonies, operas, ballets, incidental and other theatrical pieces, art songs, spirituals, folk songs, instrumental and choral works, chamber music, avant-garde, electronic and abstract modernistic works, performance art and, of course, tons of keyboard pieces. The vast majority of women’s creations, however, tend toward smaller musical forms (solo and chamber music) often because home salons, smaller venues and fewer performers only were available to them.
The brightest luminaries among past women composers include Hildegard von Bingen (1098), Francesca Caccini (1587), Barbara Strozzi (1619), Marianne von Martinez (1744), Louise Farrenc (1804), Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805), Clara Schumann (1819), Ethel Smyth (1855), Cecile Chaminade (1857), Teresa Carreno (1863), Amy Beach (1867), Alma Mahler (1879), Rebecca Clarke (1886), Florence Price (1888), Germaine Tailleferre (1892), Lili Boulanger (1893), Vivian Fine (1913), Joan Tower (1938 ), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901), Margaret Bonds (1913), Pauline Oliveros (1932), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (1939), and Laurie Anderson (1945). Currently, women composers continue to proliferate nationally, internationally and even locally (in our own backyards).
So, it’s time to open the shutters to let in the light of the woman composer. If the massive repertoire of women composers could be expressed as a time function, nanoseconds would represent how much music we have heard or known. Noontime Concerts’ year-long celebration pays homage to the enigmatic and emblematic lives and prodigious production of WOMEN COMPOSERS of local, regional, national, and international stature. It is our hope that the too few musical offerings presented on Tuesdays and Sundays throughout this year will stimulate you and others naturally to seek out buried treasures waiting to be unearthed and enjoyed.
St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, lends her endorsement to this project.
I hope that Carl’s notes have piqued your interest and enthusiasm for Women Composers Take Center Stage and all of Noontime Concerts’ upcoming programs. The concert calendar and this website have details for each of the exceptional programs being presented by talented professional and emerging musical artists this spring season, including Sundays at the San Francisco Mint.
Each week Noontime Concerts provides the acoustically balanced physical space and world-class musicianship for you to experience its remarkable programs. I welcome with gratitude your continued support for our weekly programs and the talented artists and production staff who make them possible. When you make your contribution of just $50, $100, $250 or more to Noontime Concerts you are making an investment that will ensure that Noontime Concerts continues to thrive as a cultural steward of music and enrichment that enhances the cultural life of the Bay Area.
With Gratitude for the Gift of Music,
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NOONTIME CONCERTS is an independent 501 (c) (3) nonprofit arts organization, Federal Tax ID #94-3123314. We are supported by public donations; donations at concert time; grants and gifts from the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, Grants for the Arts; the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Helen von Ammon Fund for Emerging Artists and people like you!
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