Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Grieving and healing: Julia Perry’s “Stabat Mater”

by Liane Curtis - June 30th, 2015

The U.S. continues to mourn the massacre of nine African Americans in a South Carolina church.  At the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral service, President Barack Obama drew on the healing power of words melded with music, as he sang “Amazing Grace.”  This was a remarkable moment – I can’t remember another President turning to music in this way.  The effect was evocative, as the President grasped what was needed and brought people together through this simple musical expression.

I had my own thoughts about a musical work that would be effective as a response to this tragic event, a work expressing pain, anguish, despair, anger, and some sense of resolve and perhaps healing: the “Stabat Mater” (1951) by Julia Perry (1924-1979).

That women composers do experience sexism is a given in our blog, and Perry as an African-American lived with an additional set of hurdles, those of racism; and racism has been so clearly present in many tragic events in recent months.  To my ear, the “Stabat Mater” is such a monumental and moving work that its absence from the performing canon must surely result from some combination of the factors of racism and sexism.  Perry had a long struggle with ill health before dying at age 55, which also was a factor.  Women composers often lacked the support network that might have helped them in such situations – male composers were much more likely to have a wife or female relative who would be devoted to working to promote their music, even after their death (I discuss this issue, with several examples, here).

“Stabat Mater,” at least, was recorded and also published.  Very few works by Perry have been recorded, and many have been lost (including her Viola Sonata, which received a prize from the American Academy at Fontainebleau in 1952.)   The recording of the “Stabat Mater” (issued in 1960 on CRI) has been reissued (without re-mastering) by New World Records.  The original  notes that accompany that recording might illustrate some of the prejudice that Julia Perry encountered.  The recording features music by two composers, Perry and Douglas Moore.  The notes refer to “Miss Perry,” which contrasts distinctly with “Dr. Moore,” and strike me as as casting a condescending tone. Interestingly, another CRI recording with music by Moore, along with works by Charles Ruggles and Robert Ward, does not use any titles in referring to the composers.  On the original LP of the “Stabat Mater,”  Moore andPerry each had their piece on their own side of the record.  Yet in the note, the discussion of Moore is nearly twice the length  of Perry’s.  While much younger than Moore, Perry did have her own achievements by that time which are not mentioned: publications and awards (including two Guggenheims!)   Moore had the benefit of several opportunities that were not available to Perry, including Ivy League education – two degrees from Yale — and a tenured position at another Ivy League institution, Columbia.  Some oft hese may seem like small, but they do represent the pervasive chilly climate that women and African-Americans faced (and often continue to face).

Unfortunately, despite the very promising start to her career, Perry later had difficulty finding performances of her works.  The most detailed study available, in Helen Walker-Hill’s From Spirituals to Symphonies, reports that nothing she wrote after 1963 appears to have been performed. Given her very poor health, the determination she had to continue to compose and work to promote her music is awe-inspiring.  For instance, following a stroke she was unable to write with her right hand, and she painstakingly learned to write with her left hand, (although unfortunately many of the works she wrote from that period are difficult to decipher).

Composed by an African-American woman, on a traditional Catholic text, the “Stabat Mater” is a profoundly universal expression, a deeply human meditation.  Beyond that, it is an expression of anger. The section beginning at 6:30,  with the cascading string lines and muscular leaps at the end of the vocal phrases, conveys anger in the face of injustice, rage at the death of an innocent. It is anger which we – Americans grieving a senseless slaughter — have the right to feel.  At 8:08 we turn to a simple compassion for the grieving mother, as the unison strings follow the voice.

Written for string orchestra and mezzo-soprano soloist, the string playing  (in this recording) is very sensitive, but the singer is lacking in nuance and focus (and is sometimes shrill).  In spite of this flaw, the work does come across.  A solo violin often echos the voice part, and a rich variety of contrapuntal textures are employed with (for instance) craggy melodies over repeating kernels of ostinato.  While, at the conclusion, we do perceive a shimmer of the glory of heaven, a ray of hope, it is layered over the broader mood of sorrow and even despondency.  The grief and anguish are respected and illiminated as our shared emotions. The “Stabat Mater” is an effective, sorrowful, but cathartic healing process.


Monday Link Round Up: June 29

by sarah - June 29th, 2015

Some news worth reading:

Alex Ross wrote about the 2015 Ojai Music Festival, which took place earlier in June, in the July 6 edition of The New Yorker.  Featured composers at this year’s festival included Anna Thorvaldsdottir.  The International Contemporary Ensemble performed “In the Light of Air.”  Read more here.

Orchestra Iowa has hired a new concertmaster.  Award winning violinist Dawn Gingrich will begin her tenure in the 2015-2016 season.  Read more here.

Tom Service of The Guardian discusses the history and continued relevance of the role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata.  Read about the ways in which the role, and the misogyny that Violetta experiences, continues to speak to today’s audiences.

The Blue Streak Ensemble, which was founded by composer Margaret Brouwer, has two upcoming concerts featuring the work of Brouwer and Chen Yi among other contemporary composers.  Learn more at the Blue Streak Ensemble website.


What did we miss?  Let us know in the comments below.

Happy Birthday to Mildred Hill

by sarah - June 26th, 2015


Mildred Hill

Mildred Hill

Happy Birthday to Mildred Hill, born June 27, 1859.

Though her name isn’t familiar, Mildred Hill (1859-1916) composed what is arguably the most popular and recognizable melody sung today.

A musicologist, educator, and songwriter, Hill, along with her sister, Patty, composed a simple melody for teachers to use when welcoming their students to the classroom titled “Good Morning to All.”  The lyrics were then changed to, “Happy Birthday to You” and the Hill Sister’s melody goes down in history – though, it is largely forgotten that the melody sung countless times each day throughout the United States, and the world, was composed by two women.

Even though melody is a staple of birthday celebrations, this tune is one example of Mildred Hill’s work, and doesn’t reflect the tremendous influence that she has had in the canon of Western art music.

As a musicologist she studied Black Spirituals and published her findings under the name Johann Tonsor.  One article in particular made a great impact on approaches to American music – including greatly influencing Dvořák.  Michael Beckerman spoke of the evidence her influence in an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2002.  You can also read more in Beckerman’s book, New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life.  (Read a preview here.)  Though Dvořák’s interpretation of “American” music is not always seen favorably (which Beckerman addresses), what is clear is that he first began experimenting after reading Hill’s (Tonsor’s) article – a copy of which is included with his papers today.

So, Happy Birthday, Mildred Hill!  And thank you for a timeless tune and for important musicological work that demonstrates the value and importance of the inclusion of diverse musical traditions.


2015 Summer Festivals

by sarah - June 24th, 2015

Summer is official upon us – and so, too, is the summer festival season.  Here are some highlights of works by women that can be heard this year.

The Aspen Music Festival will include works by Nina C. Young (winner of the 2014 Jacob Druckman Prize), Judith Shatin, Jennifer Higdon, Shulamit Ran, and Galina Ustvolskaya.

Bard SummerScape will be offering the first fully staged performance Ethel Smyths The Wreckers to happen in the United States with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein.  Read the press release for more information about this work and this historic, and long overdue, performance.

Bravo!Vail will include Jennifer Higdon as performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra, and Roomful of Teeth performing Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices.

The Cabrillo Festival will hear works by Ana Lara, Hannah Lash, and Missy Mazzoli.

The Santa Fe Opera will give the world premiere of Cold Mountain, the new opera by Jennifer Higdon based on the book by Charles Frazier.  Watch the video below for a preview and discussion of the work:

What festivals are happening in your communities?  Leave a comment to let us know what we missed, and where works by women are being performed this summer.

Monday Link Round Up: June 22

by sarah - June 22nd, 2015

Some stories that caught our eye over the weekend:

Composers Now has announced that Jin Hi Kim and Peter Van Zandt Lane have been awarded the second annual Composers Now Creative Residencies.  The residencies will take place in November 2015 and each composer will work on a project of their choosing.  Read more about Jin Hi Kim’s work and music here.

WQXR, NYC’s classical station, highlights five young opera composers, including Missy Mazzoli, and Anna Clyne.

I was heartened to see this letter to the editor in the Daily Astorian calling for more inclusion of works by women composers in local programming.  A perfect example of the advocacy that we can all take part in to inspire change.

Related to pop music, but still relevant – CBC News ran an article noting the lack of representation of women in music festivals this season.  Another example of the systemic problem, and the usual response from organizers including that it was, “Likely just a coincidence.”

What did we miss?  Leave a comment and let us know!

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