May 18, 2012 / Opportunity

What is going on with our classic channels? What about our opera and concert programs?


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

“Female representation.” -­‐ This concept seams foreign to classic music programmers.

If I turn on the local classic channels (and I do have choices here in the Washington Metropolitan area), chances are 99 to 1, that I will not hear music written by a woman. Maybe the stations play it safe during rush hour and stick to composers everyone knows. Yet would my chance of hearing a piece composed by a woman fare better during the day? I went to programming and WBJC91.5 playlists for many days and found a 99.9 percent chance of finding music exclusively written by male composers.

Well, maybe there is just so much more music written by men? Maybe female composers have had a short period of creativity before caring for children overwhelmed their lives, as we have been told about Clara Schumann?

Many people probably think as once I did, that conditions for women in the past were hard and thus did not allow the female development of creativity, and therefore assume our steady advancement into the future.

Since I have started collecting material for my Componistin newsletter series on female composers it has become obvious that there is no such continuous curve to show advancement for female creativity. Rather, there were conditions allowing women to compose even in the “dark” Middle Ages, interrupted by strong forces against that endeavor and that these ever changing conditions of ups and downs continue into modern times.

Another myth has been quickly disproven when I looked into women composers. An enormous variety of splendid female compositions is available, and yet, female composers are very rarely played. In fact, classic music lovers who are not musicians and even some who studied music are not aware of the works, or the beauty and the scale of productions. There is ample material of operas, masses, oratorios, symphonies, chamber music, sacred as well as secular choir music and songs of the highest quality. Women composers have had titles bestowed on them: there is a Dame, Dame Ethel Smyth, not by birth but knighted for her work and forgotten, or another Amy Beach, who was invited to the White House in honor of her compositions and forgotten afterwards. I cite here from Diane Ambache, who revived some of the works with her superb orchestra:

“My involvement with music by women arose quite by chance, when I came across a description about Germaine Tailleferre’s Piano Concerto in a book on French music. Only then (aged 36) did it occur to me that I’d never heard anything written by a women composer. It’s shocking to think that I had never questioned it before. Curiosity got the better of me, and I went looking for the music. With some difficulty, I got hold of the Tailleferre score, and discovered an utterly delightful work from Paris in the 1920s. Then I simply couldn’t turn my back on the injustice. Why did we know nothing about music by women? What else was there that I’d never heard of? I had to find out and then help to set the record straight. So I went looking in libraries; the more I dug, the more I found, and the more I saw how this music has been neglected.”

Diane Ambache’s twenty‐four years of work to put this music back on the map may be accessed at this site.

You can join my monthly newsletter and receive an email presenting one of the female composers each month, with links to their works, at YOU-­‐tube, audio clips and CD collections. At times there are even movies and pictures. Very soon, the newsletter will also feature a “Kids Corner.” We have a growing permanent birthday calendar of female composers, and concert calendar, including all the dates and times of any work played, that comes to our attention.

This month the featured composer is Amy Beach. Here is an excerpt from the newsletter following a brief summary.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach
1867 to 1944 Birthday September 5

Amy a girl child genius presented a problem. She was confined to a normal childhood. Finally, when allowed
to show her talents in her debuts in Boston at age 16 and 17, one with the Boston symphony, she was told to self-­‐study composition and not to attend one of the renowned German universities. Instead, she accepted a marriage contract with a famous Boston surgeon of her father’s age, who encouraged composing but limited her concert appearance to one a year. She had to change her name. She became a prolific composer which several large-­‐scale works, and was accepted by her peers as “one of the boys” (fellow composer Chadwick). When husband Henry died after 25 years, she left the confinement of her house, traveled to Europe,started her concert career and kept composing, took care of the financially difficult situation. The husband did not leave her a wealthy widow. Eventually her royalties and concert fees had paid most of the mortgage and she sold the house. She found circles of family members and friends who became family to her. She had played her own works with famous orchestras and was well received by the audiences in the US and Europe. She had composed 300 works, secular and sacred, choir songs, chamber works, symphony, opera, mass and a multitude of songs. Her style was from late romantic to expressionistic. She incorporated folk tunes as in her Gaelic Symphony (an early work), Inuit melodies during mid to late career and felt driven by the Macedonian rebellion against the Turkish rulers to compose the variations on Balkan Themes, a topic of continued interest which she reworked late in her life. Her opera incorporates Creole tunes. She also listened to songbirds and used their melodies in some of her most famous works The Hermit Thrush at morn and the Hermit Thrush at eve. You can listen to them here.

Or if you want to listen to Rachel Barton talking about Maude Powell and play Amy Beach’s Romance listen here.

Amy Beach was a great networker, a member of the PEN women’s composer unit and the American Women’s composer’s society, for whom she served as president. She loved children, created “Beach clubs,” which encouraged children to play for each other and listen to Amy playing the piano for them. She supported many young female composers and other artists, the most prominent is her significant contribution to the MacDowell artist colony, which exists to this day and provides quiet and solitude for artists. She was invited and played at the White House for presidents Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was called the dean of American composers. Mrs. Coolidge was a composer herself and Eleanor Roosevelt was a fellow PEN woman. And still, she is a stranger to most of us.

To read more write to Below is a small excerpt from the May issue.

Amy Cheney spent her first years in Henniker, a small town in New Hampshire. Her genius was obvious and recognized early on by her parents. She could recall 40 melodies at age one, even before she could speak. She was very sensitive (auditory), which showed when drops of rain reminded her of tears or when she could not tolerate to listen to the sadness produced by a minor key. At age two, she could intuitively compose harmonies to songs. She strongly objected when a melody was sung in a different key than the one she had first heard it. She threw tantrums and commanded the song should be played clean.

Yet her parents fully aware of her gift wanted her to have a normal childhood. She was not allowed to touch the piano. This restriction was lifted on her fourth birthday when her aunt Franc visited and sat her down at the piano. Then her mother Clara started with piano instruction.

At age five, she played piano pieces for other families, realized the piano did not sound right, and transposed the piece to adjust for the off tuned piano. That incident alerted her parents and they had her tested. It was confirmed that she had perfect pitch. She composed her first piano pieces at age five one of them: “Mama’s Waltz” which has 180 measures and moves through several keys. She named the different keys by colors knowing them before she could write notes. The major keys were coded as C – white, E – yellow, G – red, A – green, A flat –blue, D flat – violet, E flat pink, and the minor keys F sharp and G sharp black.

Yet her parents did not want her to become a child protégé. With the exception of choir singing, she spend most of her time at home, being home schooled by her mother for most of her childhood and youth with the exceptions of two years of high school, when the family moved to Boston.

At age eighteen, she married the surgeon Dr. H.H.A. Beach, who had admired her for years since she had her debut at age 16 and played with the Boston symphony. He was a few years senior to her father. The marriage contract spelled out:

    • Reduction of her concert career to one annual public piano recital with proceeds for charity.
    • Change of her name to Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.

Her husband encouraged her to compose. Although she missed the concert stage, this arrangement allowed her to concentrate on composing. She read as many books on the subject as were available. She studied the effects of instrumentation by following the scores during concerts. Her annual recitals included her own works and played to sold out audiences, although smaller in size than the orchestra halls. She lived in a multistory house, and had live‐in servants. Her husband’s office was in house, her music room on the 1st floor, her workspace for 25 years. Her husband died when Amy was in her early 40s.

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