IN: Reviews

Women Composers: Out of the Shadows


In a recent New Yorker piece, music critic Alex Ross spoke of the ongoing controversy about “women composers.” Do they still need affirmative action or special pleading? Are women composers and their music “served by segregation, even if it’s well intended?” He continued, “To pursue a career as a composer, you must not only write music but also set institutional gears in motion, win over the reluctant, promote yourself, bend reality to your vision.”

The four composers performed by the Cappella Clausura on Sunday, all overlooked women, were fortunate to have conductor and scholar Amelia Le Clair do the dirty work for them: searching for their music and presenting it in  performances that invariably win over the reluctant, including this listener.

Cappella Clausura gave its first concert in May of 2004 with Le Clair and, yes, paid singers.  When she was told that women composers didn’t exist, Le Clair determined to be the first, studying composition until she began finding music by women. That changed her career path. Her programming and sense of theater, she has stated in interviews, is modeled on what Joel Cohen used to do with the Boston Camerata, and her conducting model is her teacher, Simon Carrington. “I love his gestures,” she remarked, “which I have totally copped.” She is a superb choral conductor.  What are her favorite finds? “Everything has been gratifying, because each find negates the words I grew up with: There are no women composers.”

For this concert in Church of the Messiah in Auburndale (where they are in residence), Cappella Clausura assembled an orchestra of classical period instruments, playing at A=430. The singers included several I had heard in Le Clair’s Vermilion Ensemble; all ten had solo turns. All were exceptional.

The concert began with the seven-movement “Dixit Dominus” (Psalm 109, King James 110) by Marianna von Martines (1744-1812), published, finally, in 1997 by A-R Editions Inc. under their “Recent Researches in the Music of the Classical Era.” An aristocrat, Von Martines had a chain of helpers.  First, she had the backing of Pietro Metastasio, the imperial court poet and successful librettist, her foster father and patron. He brought her to the attention of Padre Biovanni Batista Martinai who sponsored her candidacy to the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna. She wrote “Dixit Dominus” to commemorate her election as its first woman. The performance revealed several vocal solos with flutes which were quite lovely, and many moments of delightful music making.

The happy surprises of the evening were two gorgeous a cappella pieces by British composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), known best for her Viola Sonata (1919), which has become a staple of the viola repertoire. “My Spirit Like a Charmed Bark Doth Float,” text by Percy Bysse Shelly, which he described as a fragment, and “Come, O Come, My Life’s Delight” to words of Thomas Campion. Both got beautiful readings from Cappela Clausura, whose sensitivity to each musical nuance matched Clarke’s keen attention to word painting, bringing the texts to life with lovely melodies and harmonies familiar to those who know Anglican choral singing. I would be interested in hearing her other eleven choral works—with Le Clair conducting—none of which was performed in her lifetime.

Another find was Erna Woll (1917-2005), a German composer all but unknown in the United States, here represented by her “Deutsches Properium von Gründunnerstag” (German Propers for Maundy Thursday). Le Clair learned about Woll from conductor Jane Ring Frank, and was immediately taken by how Woll’s setting  so well  illuminated its text. Le Clair had the inspired idea of  breaking up the movements of the Propers, which would not have been heard together, by interspersing them with three Phantasias for solo lute by David Kellner (1670-1748), here played by Catherine Lidell. Alas, lutes are fussy about temperature change, and a string immediately broke so only two of these pieces were heard.

Feminist scholars have touted the brilliance of Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), née Fanny Mendelssohn, best known as Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister. She does not benefit though from being compared with her genius brother. According to the program notes, Felix and her family were adamant that she not publish or perform in public. Both were child prodigies, and very close. At the age of 14, Hensel, a brilliant pianist, played the 24 Preludes from Well Tempered Clavier by heart. She later wrote cadenzas for Beethoven piano concertos and played his “Hammerklavier,” no mean feat, but despite early brilliance and an encouraging husband, she remained creatively isolated in her adult years.

The influence and love of Bach come through in her two pieces in this concert. In terms of harmony, she often goes far beyond her brother Felix… “What makes one sit up and take notice is the unerring feel for spoken language,” Le Clair writes.  Both of the pieces performed on this concert waited almost 150 years after Hensel’s death years to be published. She actually wrote some 450 compositions, most of which remained only in archives after her death.

Hensel’s Song of Praise, Meine Seele ist stille, a five-movement cantata for soprano, alto, mixed choir and orchestra (1831) got an excellent performance from Cappella Clausura’s singers.  Mezzo-soprano Susan Paxson sang the Recitatif stunningly, and soprano Adriana Repetto added to the beauty of the Aria. Throughout the concert, Andrea LeBlanc’s and Na’ama Lion’s flutes were excellent.

Hensel’s three-movement Hiob, Cantata for Solo, Choir and Orchestra (1831) was rousing. The Arioso, sung by a quartet, received especially lovely performances by soprano Teri Kowiak and tenor Alexander Nishibun. The first and third movements were done energetically and enthusiastically—a wonderful way to end this evening of musical restitution. Brava to Capella Clausura and its terrific and tireless conductor Amelia Le Clair, without whom Sunday’s audience would have never heard this delightful, often deeply moving music.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Susan Miron’s review of the Cappella Clausura’s concert this week is informative and well done. I would like to mention two things if there are still people out there who don’t know that female composers exist and have always existed.

    The first is that at the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) at Brandeis University, we have hanging a large attractive chart listing hundreds of names of women composers organized by birthdate.

    The other is that Amelia LeClair is one of many Scholars at the WSRC who are working on reviving music by women. One is Dr. Liane Curtis, who has done a great deal for the recognition of Rebecca Clarke, a composer played at the Capella Clausura concert. Others include Laury Gutierrez ( La Donna Musicale), Jane Ring Frank (the Boston Secession), Vivian Montgomery (harpsichordist), Dana Maiben (composer), Suzanne Hanser (also a music therapist), Ruth Lomon (composer) and others.

    Comment by Shulamit Reinharz — April 30, 2013 at 11:08 am

  2. Thank you Shulamit! Your contribution is a perfect addition to the review. I know the WSRC at Brandeis very well, and am thrilled by the research being done there.

    Comment by Susan Miron — April 30, 2013 at 12:54 pm

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