Women-Only Music History, part 2 (piano)

Happy International Women's Day! In celebration of the day, here's a continuation of my series of posts focusing on recognizing a missing part of music: the contribution of women composers.

I started this series in conjunction with my efforts to bring women on a level playing field in my music history class at the Boston Arts Academy. (You can support our innovative teaching methods at Boston's only public high school for the arts by making a tax-deductible donation here!)

For a substantial period of time, women composers were more or less relegated to writing vocal music or music for piano and/or small ensembles in salons.

Although they were largely limited to a smaller arena and away from the “manly” large works of orchestras and operas, the women who worked in the salons created spectacular works of art, especially for piano, which is what I'll be focusing on today. (And don't forget to sign up for the mailing list on the right sidebar for extended playlists, previews of works in progress, and more!)

Some thoughts on today's selections for the curious:

    • Marianna Martines (1744-1812) lived on the third floor of a house in Vienna, and at a young age started piano lessons with a young man who lived in the attic of the same building: Joseph Haydn. (The family who later employed him, the Esterházys, lived on the first floor.) She became such a fine player that Mozart later asked her to join him in performing duets, and she became well known as a composer in her own right, playing for Empress Maria Theresa on many occasions.

    • Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) will be returning at least one more time, but this is possibly my favorite piece of hers, a passionate, astonishingly gorgeous nocturne. She had a close relationship with her brother Felix and her family supported her music-making—but only in private. Felix was adamantly opposed to her publishing her pieces for quite a long time, almost until her premature death. Her father once wrote her that "Music will perhaps become [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament." Just as she broke through and started a public career with her husband’s support, she died of a stroke at age 41. Her brother wrote a string quartet in her honor and died later that year at age 38.

    • Clara Schumann (1819-1896) has one of the most fascinating life stories of anyone we discuss in BAA's music history classes. For now, I'll mention her crazy love story with her husband, composer Robert Schumann. They got engaged when she was 18 and he was 27, but her father didn't approve. This led to some great drama: the couple sued her dad, he demanded she return her piano and said all kinds of crap about her, she fired back in spectacular fashion and the judge ruled in her favor. Their joy lasted a few years before Robert slowly went insane. She wrote this set of variations on a theme of Robert's for the last birthday he spent with the family before passing away. She will return to this series.

    • The Venezuelan Teresa Carreño (1853-1917) was primarily a pianist, but also composed a fair number of pieces, especially for her instrument. She gained the moniker “the Walküre of the piano” for her fiery performances and personality. As English conductor Henry Wood put it, “It is difficult to express adequately what all musicians felt about this great women who looked like a queen… and played like a goddess.” (Of course, he then “complimented” her by remarking on the “masculine vigor of [her] tone and touch,” but so we go.) Other interesting bits include her Venusian crater, her collection of piano rolls, her several lively marriages, and that one time she turned down Liszt's offer to teach her piano.

    • The American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) was largely brought up on a mix of classical music and spirituals. Her Symphony No. 1 became the first piece by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra in 1933 (thanks Chicago), but that'll come up later. For now, here's a kickass piano fantasia on the spiritual “Sinner, please don't let this harvest pass.”

    • Next up is May Aufderheide (1888-1972), who I know next to nothing about, other than that she wrote a bunch of rags. (Apparently, most ragtime composers in Indiana were either black men or white women.) Her first rag was actually so successful it convinced her father to start a publishing company based around her music, so there's that.

    • Tania León was born in Havana, Cuba in 1943 and moved to NYC in the 60s, where she's been since then. She is of mixed Cuban, French, Spanish, Chinese, and African heritage, so I guess New York makes a lot of sense. Her music is dense and flies wildly between exhilarating and terrifying, which makes for great listening. “Ritual” is a prime example of this style.

     

    Music History: The Women-Only Version (part 1)

    In December, the New York Times published a women-only version of music history, highlighting 9 women composers in recognition of the Met's first performance of an opera by a woman in over a century (Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin"; I've discussed the Met's poor track record before).

    As nice as that article was, it requires a lot more than a one-off to recognize this almost-lost part of history. One of my goals this year for the senior music history class I teach at the Boston Arts Academy has been to bring women composers into the spotlight right alongside their male counterparts. (You too can support our innovative teaching methods at Boston's only public high school for the arts by making a tax-deductible donation here!)

    In that spirit, I'll be starting a new series this year highlighting a much more in-depth women-only version of music history via Spotify playlists. (Side note: Sign up for the mailing list on the right sidebar for extended playlists, previews of works in progress, and more!)

    Today I'm focusing on vocal music by composers from the 12th century until today. Check it out!

    Some thoughts on today's selections for the curious:

    • Hildegard of Bingen was a visionary (as in, she said she had visions) 12th-century German abbess who somehow found time to compose in between corresponding with popes and kings; writing books about theology, botany, philosophy, and medicine; founding a couple of abbeys; and inventing her own language, mixed with Latin in this particular song.
    • I don't know too much about Maddalena Casulana, but she worked in that weird late-Renaissance chromatic style that I enjoy so much, vaguely in the vein of the madman Carlo Gesualdo. This song is one of my favorites of hers.
    • Francesca Caccini wrote the first opera written by a woman in addition to a lot of harmonically beautiful songs, including this one. She was way more specific in her notation than most of her contemporaries, which is helpful for knowing how her music sounded but probably didn't go down so well with her contemporaries. This particular performance is absolutely stunning.
    • Barbara Strozzi was an illegitimate child who became such a renowned musician her aristocratic father legitimized her before dying. Granted, because of her sultry past (and out-of-wedlock procreation), she was followed throughout her life by rumors of a less palatable side career (if you catch my drift). (My students did an excellent video introduction of her.)
    • Amy Beach was a fellow New Englander (as part of the Second New England School) and one of the first American composers to be successful outside the country. This is a nice song of hers, but her true chops will show up later in her orchestral music.
    • Meredith Monk is a really strange human being and solidly one of my favorite composers, living or otherwise. She has an astonishing command of her voice and breathtaking creativity in the use of ensembles. Also do yourself a favor and check out her recent "Water/Sky Rant." She will return here for sure.
    • Vienna Teng (a.k.a., Cynthia Yih Shih) is a Taiwanese-American pianist and singer/songwriter who writes unexpectedly layered lyrics for her music. I'm not terribly familiar with her body of work, but her album Aims is great and this song, "Hymn of Acxiom," is particularly astonishing. Google around for the full story on the song; it's mind-blowing (which is why it's in our curriculum at BAA).

    Website updates

    As you can probably tell just from visiting, there have been a substantial number of changes to the site in the past couple of weeks. Some of the main highlights include:

    • a new/sleeker/friendlier logo (with color!)
    • a brand new jazz/pop/etc. page featuring my work outside of more "classical" music or media music (I say this as a genre agnostic)
      • this page also features a new music page design that will become the norm throughout the site over the next few weeks
    • several updated music listings (click through for the full list) (side note: there are no new recordings on this update, but there should be several over the next few weeks)
    • updated about and résumé pages
    • general design fixes all around (warmer vibe, easier navigation, etc.)

    To get updates, early access to news, and samples of works in progress, please sign up for the mailing list on the right!

    (Also, in case you missed it, I won a composition contest recently and will be traveling to Illinois soon.)

    Read More

    A look back at 2016

    Well, 2016 turned out to be quite an eventful year any way you slice it. Speaking just in terms of music, some highlights here from the past year include:

    January: The Music Department at the Boston Arts Academy held a music technology intersession, where I led a group of students in a film scoring session, at the end of which the students scored their own shorts.

    March: We debuted the new ethnomusicology curriculum for seniors at Boston Arts Academy, featuring a visit from renowned Silk Road Project tabla player Sandeep Das, a djembe drumming session, and an unexpected Arab techno saga.

    April: Soloists with the Mozart Society Orchestra premiered my violin quartet “Equinox” in Harvard's Paine Hall during their Eight Seasons concert.

    March: The Boston Arts Academy received a Grammy Signature Schools Enterprise Award, with a special mention for the music department.

    May: During the Boston 48 Hour Film Festival, I joined Hop and Pop Productions to write dessert-inspired music in “Beyond Cheesecake.”

    September: Scores become available for purchase on SMP Press.

    September: “Persefone's Breakfast” premiered at the Official Latino Short Film Festival in New York.

    December: I joined the Boston Arts Academy jazz choir and other local musicians for a performance with jazz legend Jacob Collier.

    Here's looking forward to even more adventures in 2017!

    Changing (Music) History at BAA

    “Many education leaders lament the current state of American high schools and say we need to redesign them.... But there’s a school in Boston that’s already doing that right now: Boston Arts Academy.”

    So begins a recent article on WBUR about the innovative, audacious public school where I'm lucky to teach. Although I've taught a number of subjects at the school, my main opportunity to collaborate and innovate has come in music history.

    One of the music history classes I teach is a seminar for junior musicians. Last year, we debuted a curriculum based on the idea that (a) our students should engage as musicians with the world around them, and (b) the best way to do so is to look at musicians past and present to learn how they addressed their realities. We decided to do this backwards, starting from today and moving to the 1800s, in order to show the roots of today's music step by step.

    Check out some of the music on our curriculum below and sign up for the email list (on the right sidebar) to get expanded playlists for this and other posts.

    You can support ground-breaking teaching at Boston's only public high school for the arts with a tax-deductible donation right here!

    Jacob Collier Performance

    This past weekend, I was lucky enough to take the Boston Arts Academy Jazz Choir to work with up-and-coming jazz legend Jacob Collier. We joined forces with the MIT Media Lab, the MIT Festival Jazz Band, and other local musicians to put on quite the show at MIT's Kresge Auditorium. Check out the performance of "Saviour" below! (I pop up around 5:30.)

    In addition to "Saviour", we performed Jacob's “Hideaway” and an improvised arrangement of the Mancini/Mercer standard “Moon River.”

    Scores available for purchase!

    I'm excited to announce a new set of pieces that are now available for purchase at SMP Press! This batch is focused on string pieces:


    • Letters from the War, for beginning intermediate string orchestra (written for the Northern Guilford Middle School orchestra);

    score – parts – score & parts

    • Sin Tregua, for string quartet (written at Harvard in response to the drug war in Mexico);

    score – parts – score & parts

    score – parts coming very soon!


     

    Look for the next batch of scores focusing on piano music soon!

    Short film updates

    I'm excited to announce that "Persefone's Breakfast" directed by my friend Sam Mendez (and one of several films of his I've scored) will be screening as part of for the Official Latino Short Film Festival on Saturday 17 September in NYC. Check out the trailer here!

    I've updated the entry for "Persefone's Breakfast" as well as for "A Bodega" (another Mendez production) and "Beyond Cheesecake"(see below) on the Film and Media page.

    In addition, I've uploaded a sample from that short as well as the soundtrack from the short film "Beyond Cheesecake", which I worked on this May as part of the Boston 48 Hour Film Festival. Hear both tracks below!