Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Featured Guest Blogger: Amy Zigler reviews “The Wreckers”

by Liane Curtis - July 29th, 2015

    Dr. Amy Zigler is Visiting AssistAmy Ziglerant Professor of Music at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC.  She specializes in music of the 19th and 20th centuries, with a focus on the cultural study of chamber music, the social history of music in Germany and Great Britain, and the study of gender and sexuality in music. She holds a doctorate in Musicology from the University of Florida; her dissertation explored the chamber works of Dame Ethel Smyth. Dr. Zigler is an active member of American Musicological Society, College Music Society, and North American British Music Studies Association.  As a pianist, Dr. Zigler performs as a soloist and collaborative artist, and has performed in Germany, Puerto Rico and across the United States. 

 

On Sunday July 26 I had the pleasure of attending Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, presented by Bard College’s SummerScape series. Under the direction of Maestro Leon Botstein, soloists and chorus joined the American Symphony in reviving this neglected work. Not only were the title roles sung with conviction, profundity, and insight, but the chorus was powerfully and expertly performed. Their performances were lifted by the exceptional playing of the American Symphony, whose performance brought the opera to life.

The Wreckers is British composer Ethel Smyth’s third opera, composed between 1902 and 1904 and first performed in Leipzig in 1906, followed by a London performance in 1909. The work is a collaboration between Smyth and French-American philosopher Henry Brewster (1850-1908). Inspired by trips to Cornwall’s jagged coast, Smyth created the opera by sending scene and plot ideas to Brewster and receiving dramatic text in return. Unfortunately, Brewster wrote the original libretto in French, which Smyth had translated to German for the premiere and then superimposed English text over the German manuscripts for the London premiere. Consequently, the biggest fault of the work is that, at times, the melody and text seem ill-suited for each other. Luckily, these moments are rare and do not detract from the overall composition or performance.

Unlike many historical operas performed today, The Wreckers is a thought-provoking tale with moral lessons for our own time. As Maestro Botstein astutely pointed out in his program notes, it is a story that questions the laws and morality of a society that believed itself justified in its actions because it represented the will of God. The ‘betrayers’ to the community turn out to be the only ones who believe murder is wrong and are willing to die (not kill) for their beliefs.

The Wreckers is set in 18th century England on the cliffs of Cornwall, a jagged seashore with treacherous waterways. An isolated religious community is led by Pascoe (played by baritone Louis Otey), their minister and moral authority. The story implies that for many generations, this community has put out the beacons on the shore, thus causing ships to crash. The community members – men, women, and children – then proceed to pillage and plunder the wreckage in order to survive. They justify their actions because they are God’s Chosen Ones and their deeds are done in His name. While most of the community does not question Pascoe or their livelihood, a few do. Pascoe’s young wife Thirza (played by mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner) refuses to participate in either “wrecking” or worshipping and says from the beginning that she disagrees with their actions. Mark (played by tenor Neal Cooper) is a fisherman in the village who pretends to go along with the community, but he has been secretly lighting beacons and having an affair with Thirza. The true catalyst for this love triangle and the broader plot, however, is Avis (played by soprano Sky Ingram), a young woman and the jilted former lover of Mark. She single-handedly raises suspicion about a traitor in the community, exposes Mark and Thirza’s affair, and reveals them to be the true betrayers to the community. Bucking traditional operatic convention, Smyth has switched the expected moral roles of the soprano and mezzo-soprano; Avis, the soprano, is a morally corrupt and conniving character, while Thirza, the mezzo-soprano, is the morally true heroine who dies for her love and her beliefs.

The chorus in this performance is deserving of its own praise. Smyth structured the opera in such a way that the chorus as community plays a prominent role in the narrative of the story as well as the anchor for most of the recitatives and arias. The first and third acts are dominated by the chorus, and the energy, ferocity, and musical talent of this group of individuals established the chorus as a main character. Whether singing their call to arms, “Wreckers, awake!” or any number of hymn-like numbers and sea chanties, the chorus brought out the gusto in Smyth’s music and performed it with sincerity. (the Chorus Master is James Bagwell).

Like her contemporaries Debussy, Strauss, and Puccini, Smyth emphasizes the through-composed nature of the opera, with songs woven into the ongoing action and leitmotivs returning to serve as clues to the audience and providing further commentary on the story.  This avoidance of literal strophic repetition propels the narrative forward in a way that is exciting even for modern audiences. Musically, she does draw upon her predecessors and contemporaries, but as Botstein noted in the pre-concert talk, Smyth “revels in that eclecticism and makes it her own.” The work contains expert English choral writing, imaginative orchestrations, and at times highly chromatic harmonies, yet it succeeds in presenting a cohesive musical work that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Performances of the work continue through August 2nd at Bard College’s Fisher Performing Arts Center. I highly encourage all readers to see this monumental work. Maestro Botstein and the American Symphony have done much to bring attention to Smyth’s music, but like all musical works it must be heard (and in this case seen) to be appreciated.

 

The Wreckers: An Opera for our Time

by Liane Curtis - July 23rd, 2015

Ethel Smyth’s “The Wreckers” (1906) will receive its’ first staged US performance Friday night (July 24) at Bard Summerscape (total of 5 performances).  NPR’s All Things Considered aired a feature (available here)  about this historic performance (Musicologist Elizabeth Wood and Music Director Leon Botstein were interviewed).

The first sentence of Music Director Leon Bottstein’s program note is certainly one to invite debate:  “It is hard to imagine an opera whose argument is more pertinent to our times than Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers.”   Botstein continues

 “…The human predicaments that evolve on stage transcend the personal, and the music turns the spectacle of opera into an experience of ethical and political recognition that contests the confines of narrow aesthetic criteria.”

The plot concerns villagers whose belief in themselves as appointed by God to do his work, leads them to sanctify their own habitual practice of murder and theft  (and of course there is love interest as well, intersecting triangles…).  BTW, at the bottom of the page with the program note is a link for the entire libretto.

Botstein (in the note) makes a strong case for “The Wreckers” as  both a work of political and philosophical significance and also as an artistic triumph, using a wide palette of musical approaches to convey the layers of meaning in powerful and convincing ways. Let’s hope the performance supports that assertion! I am inclined to think it will — musically it is a compelling piece (the 1994 performance at London’s Proms was released as a commercial recording; I have been told the Bard performance will also be made available on MP3 format).  The Summerscape webpage includes three short videos about the production, including this insightful one with the Producer Thaddeus Strassberger and Bottstein, and this exciting one with scenes from rehearsals.

Botstein’s commitment to Smyth’s opera (“The Wreckers” is her most monumental of her six works in that genre) is impressive: he conducted a concert performance of the work in New York City in 2007.   Here’s wishing this exciting premiere great success!

And here is the evocative Prelude to Act II, “On the Cliffs of Cornwall”

Portrait of the Composer as a Young Woman

by Liane Curtis - June 5th, 2015

BARS-Logo-RGB-300-Square_400x400As noted earlier, I’m performing in the BARS Concert June 6. I’ve written the program notes for the concert, and here they are!

The three pieces on our program today are linked, as our title suggests, by all being composed when their creators were young women, and, as works that served to launch these composers into the world as ambitious artists, working in the monumental arena of the orchestral work.  These pieces, although very different in character and artistic vocabulary, can all be recognized as brilliant artistic successes. We wouldn’t be performing them for you if we were not completely convinced of that!  But another factor links them – despite this brilliance (and all had successful premieres) – none of them entered the canon of the “standard” orchestral repertory.  We are offering you precious rarities that are seldom performed.  Our performance of  Kaprálová’s Partita is the U.S. West Coast premiere. Both the Clara Schumann and the Smyth works were given groundbreaking premieres by The Women’s Philharmonic (their recording of the Concerto is still available), but unfortunately the pieces have not been embraced by other orchestras – today’s performance by BARS of the Smyth Serenade is certainly only the second U.S. performance.  The work has been newly edited and engraved by Odaline de la Martinez and we hope that more ensembles will now take up this music!

So what are the obstacles kept these works out of the canon, and what might have happened had those obstacles not been there? In the case of Vítězlava Kaprálová, the question might be most easily answered.  Surely to die at age 25 near the beginning of a cataclysmic World War is not great for one’s legacy.  But to my mind there is sexism in orchestras’ insistence on ignoring Kaprálová’s work.  With other (male) composers who have big anniversaries (this is Kaprálová’s centennial!) we spend the year being beat over the head with their music. Yet, in this year of Kaprálová’s centennial we are hard pressed to find any performances of her works. Too many orchestral Music Directors maintain deep-set prejudices against the concept of women being composers.  Had Kaprálová lived longer, she would have written more amazing music.  But that might have not helped her be recognized as a great composer or to have her works performed.  As an aside (and speaking of unfulfilled potential), Kapralova was romantically involved with her teacher, Bohuslav Martinů, and then she married another man just two months before her death. But those of us who admire how fabulous she looks in a tux, can also observe that she left much personal potential unfulfilled as well as artistic.

What about Clara Schumann? Her name is one of the most widely recognized of any woman composer, and many pianists know pieces by her.  Yet, despite its brilliance, her Piano Concerto is little known, and she herself stopped performing it with her marriage.  And following the death of her husband, in 1856, Clara gave up composing entirely.

What might have been? The societal forces that work against women (then and to some extent now), were of course in place, but we must recognize the role of her father in training her. It is hard not to ask, could she have learned discipline and dedication to her art without the harsh treatment of Friedrich Wieck – her only teacher?  The personal cost of this training was great, and emotional damage was done.  That abusive father, in his determination to produce a piano virtuoso, subjected her to the worst kinds of thought control—for instance, at the age of seven, he started a diary for her, in which she wrote in daily under his supervision, and in which he wrote, adopting the first person, thus taking over her personal identity.  She was docile to his domination, but eventually rebelled in order to give herself to another owner, her husband Robert.  Had she been encouraged to have more self-confidence and personal autonomy, she might have been able to compose more, rather than always viewing her work as secondary to her husband’s, and abandoning composition when he died.  Isolated from other creative women, and not knowing of the female composers that wrote throughout music history, she found it difficult to sustain her composer identity. In 1839 she wrote “I once believed I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose – there was never one able to do it. … May Robert always create; that must always make me happy.”  Her concerto is a brilliant first large work – and a monument to creative potential largely unfulfilled.

And what about Ethel Smyth, as prolific as a composer, and so outspoken in promoting her own works? She has some recognition as a historic figure but her music is not played.  The era that Smyth grew up in dictated “separate spheres” — behaviors which were expected from men were unacceptable for women.  Those who transgressed these values experienced many forms of backlash and ostracism – in Smyth’s case being remembered as an outspoken and cartoonish eccentric, rather than as a great composer of monumental orchestral works and operas.  This judgement is the result of the sexism so prevalent in her era, and pervasively lingering in our own. Homophobia of course is also a factor in Smyth’s exile from music history (we could read “eccentric” as a euphemism for “lesbian”) but were sexism not the stronger factor we would see her having some of the status of Benjamin Britten as gay icon and founder of modern British opera.

Music history is constantly changing and being reevaluated.  If the music ensembles of today will finally turn to performing historic music by women — in outstanding, polished performances — we may have a chance to consider what place these works deserve both in music history and in living repertory.  And that is the important work that BARS is engaged in today.

— Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology; President, Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy; and proud BARS cellist).

 

Vítězlava Kaprálová (Brno [now Czech Republic], 1915 – Montpellier, France, 1940) — Partita, for Piano and strings, op. 20 (1939)

While we imagine that few in our audience will have heard of Vítězlava Kaprálová (today’s performance of the Partita is a premiere for the western U.S.), we guarantee that having heard her music, you will find its artistry unforgettable.  Despite her death at age 25 from a rare and acute form of tuberculosis, she left behind more that 40 works of a singular brilliance. The website of the Kaprálová Society (www.kapralova.org) offers a wealth of information about the composer.  BARS is particularly proud to be recognizing Kaprálová in the year of her centennial anniversary.

From a musical family (her father was a composer who had studied with Janácek, and her mother was a voice teacher), Kaprálová had graduated from the Brno Conservatory in 1935, concluding her studies by conducting her own Piano Concerto.  She left Czechoslovakia in 1937, to study on a scholarship in France.  When her country was invaded by the Nazis in March 1939, she became an exile.  Throughout this time, she composed feverishly.  The three-movement Partita for Piano and Strings was one of her central accomplishments during this difficult period; she worked on it for almost a year.  During that time, she worked closely with her mentor Bohuslav Martinů. In this instance Kaprálová shared his interest in reviving Baroque stylistic elements in a 20th-century context (neo-classicism), and in that “simple speech” that Martinů referred to in an article as the supreme goal of the artist.

The motifs of Kaprálová’s Partita really “speak”: they are terse and pithy and their development eminently logical. The first movement pulses with rhythmic energy as soloistic episodes alternate with tutti ritornelli passages in concerto-grosso fashion. We find techniques of the baroque, such as melody spun out from a short motive, and extended through the use of repetition at different pitch levels.  The piano soloist plays a role that is both melodic and percussive.  In one distinctive passage two violins take center stage.

The second movement evokes a poignant lyricism; the delicacy of texture creates a unique and remarkable feeling of intimacy and warmth; there is also excited and mysterious “B” section.  The jubilant last movement begins with a traditional Czech folk-dance flavor, enriched by contemporary harmonies. The two “trio” sections, in slower tempo, are more impressionistic in tone.  The conclusion, based on the “trio” material, is majestic and grandiose, drawing on some lush modal harmonies, and ending the work with a majestic and grandiose statement.

The premiere of the Partita took place in November 1941, more than a year after Kaprálová’s death, in a concert organized in part by the Union of Czech Musicians in Brno.

— Peter Laki, ed. L. Curtis, with material by Judith Mabary from A Kaprálová Companion

Clara Wieck Schumann  (1819-1896) — Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 7 (1836)

On January 13, 1833, thirteen-year-old Clara Wieck wrote in her diary, “I have begun to compose a concerto.”  This was no childish fancy: a piano prodigy and published composer, the girl had performed in her native Leipzig many times, astounded the aristocratic music-lovers at the royal court in Dresden, and impressed audiences from Weimar to Paris on a concert tour across Europe. Some ten months after her original diary entry, she noted, “I have finished my Concerto now and Schumann will orchestrate it so I can play it at my concert.” The Schumann she referred to was, of course, Robert Schumann, the composer she married in 1840. By 1833, a creative partnership between Clara and Robert had already been established. At twelve she was the major interpreter of his keyboard works and by the time she was thirteen, the two had exchanged musical ideas, even themes, as each paid tribute to the other in their compositions.  The Concerto orchestrated by Robert Schumann was a one-movement piece for piano and orchestra which eventually became the third movement of Clara Wieck’s Concerto in A Minor, op. 7.  The young girl went on to compose and orchestrate the first and second movements and premiered the entire concerto in November 1835, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra.

The Concerto, the first large piece by the composer who had previously mostly written small piano solos, was frequently played by Clara on her tours throughout Germany and Austria before her marriage. Although Robert Schumann was at first enthusiastic about the work (he gushed about it in his “Eusebius” persona in his Neue Zeitschrift), we might wonder if jealousy later changed his mind.  In November 1837 he asked Clara if it was always her decision to program the work.  Her retort was defensive: “You ask if I always play it by my own wish.  Certainly I do, for it has been well-received everywhere and has given satisfaction to connoisseurs and to the public in general.”  Despite this defense, Clara would never perform the work again; unfortunately, Robert did sometimes undermine her self-confidence as a composer.  Clara Wieck’s Concerto was printed and reprinted by the publisher throughout the nineteenth century, attesting to its popularity.

The Concerto was an innovative work which placed her in the ranks of the “new-romantic school,” a group which included Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. According to musicologist  Stephan D. Lindeman,  “The construction of Opus 7 breaks the mold of conventional concerto form and places her conception of the genre among the most radical of the time.” Clara wrote the piano part to showcase her virtuosity, which was on its way to being legendary.  The first movement avoids the repetitive formal structures that had been the norm in concertos; instead a compressed and intense Exposition is shared by orchestra and soloist.  The harmonic language is highly adventurous.  There are no breaks between the movements, an unusual feature at that time; and the upward motion of the thematic material in each movement contributes to the “poetic unity” (as one early critic put it) which marks the concerto. After the opening movement with its impressive brilliance, we hear a lovely, graceful Romanze, in which the piano plays alone and is then joined by the solo cello in a song-like duet. This unique instrumentation would influence Robert Schumann in his Piano Concerto and also Johannes Brahms in his second Piano Concerto.  At the conclusion of the Romanze, the intimate duet fades away, and the rolls of the timpani portend a change in mood; the pace quickens, the trumpets herald the entrance of the piano, and we are caught up in a Finale in which the energetic polonaise-like motive propels us through a vigorous and expansive rondo.  Clara Wieck’s imaginative design and innovative  technique have created a compelling and enduring work.

Nancy B. Reich, ed. by L. Curtis

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) — Serenade in D major (1890)

Ethel Smyth is one of the most important British composers to have overlapped the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her operatic output alone is enough to solidly imprint her name on musical history, and yet since her death her work has been sadly neglected. Most likely because of Smyth’s close association with Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women Suffragists between 1910 and 1912, the political aspect of her life has diverted attention from her position as a truly outstanding composer. Born not far from London to the family of a high-ranking Artillery Officer, Smyth decided at the tender age of twelve to study music at the Leipzig Conservatory. Her father’s reaction to this was negative, however. Yet her ability to wear him down over a period of years taught her a valuable life lesson — never to give up. At the age of nineteen Ethel Smyth finally went to study in Leipzig at the Conservatory.  She left the Conservatory after her first year because she felt she wasn’t being taught properly, but she remained in town studying composition privately.  In the 1880s, Leipzig was a truly important cultural center and living there was a phenomenal education in itself.  The concerts at the Gewandhaus, the operas, the musical personalities such as Brahms, Clara Schumann and Tchaikovsky all fed her tremendous musical appetite.

Smyth’s output through 1888 consisted of instrumental and vocal chamber music.  Two events in the summer of 1889 opened to her the possibility of writing larger works. One was her new friendship with August Manns, conductor of the Crystal Palace concerts in London; Manns had seen and thought highly of one of her string quartets, and hinted that he would program an orchestral work of hers in the spring 1890 season. The other was a conversation with Tchaikovsky, in which she later wrote that he

earnestly begged me to turn my attention at once to the orchestra and not be prudish about using the medium for all it is worth. “What happens,” he asked, “in ordinary conversation? If you have to do with really alive people, listen to the inflections in the voices…there’s instrumentation for you.” And I followed his advice on the spot… and ever since have been at least as much interested in sounds as in sense, considering the two things indivisible.

Smyth sent her Serenade in D to Manns, and was pleased and surprised when he programmed it on the April 1890 program.  So for Smyth the Serenade was the work with which she “stepped out” into the London musical scene.

The choice of title as Serenade may suggest a reference to the 18th century (and earlier) use of the term as a musical means by which a lover (traditionally male) attempts to woo a beloved (traditionally female).  Was this Serenade the persuasive musical offering by which Smyth attempted to woo a musical public?  The work was well received and the public and press alike were astonished that a woman could write such muscular and monumental music. Smyth’s productive career was off and running.

The Serenade is unusual in its conception.  Consisting of four movements, the two outer ones are orchestrated for the complete symphonic forces. The inner ones are more chamber-like with no trumpets in the second, and going further in the third by removing the horns and timpani as well. But this “chamber effect” proves magical as the rhythmic excitement of the Finale interrupts the gentle pizzicato ending of the third movement. The character of the first movement is warm and joyous but full of dramatic interjections. The second opens with a fugal idea followed by a lighthearted trio and ending with an accelerating coda.  Its character remains playful, light and airy, almost fairy-like in quality. The third movement begins with a most wonderful melody in the lower and middle clarinet registers, which is in turn taken over by the other wind and strings. The powerful non-yielding energy of the Finale overwhelms us as the character of the music changes from bold to graceful and back to bold again. This work is the voice of a composer fully confident in her technique and musicality, a piece where the range of human emotions — from extreme gentleness to intense passion — light up the canvas. In the years following, Smyth wrote her Mass in D, six operas, choral music, and many other works for orchestra.

— Odaline de la Martinez, ed. by L. Curtis with materials from Robyn Bramhall

 

 

 

 

 

Honoring Women’s Day with Ethel Smyth

by sarah - March 3rd, 2014

The Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy Indiegogo campaign is being featured this week in celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8 with other campaigns that “amplify opportunities for women.”  And, for today only, Indiegogo will donate $1.00 for every $25 raised—so if you’ve been waiting to donate, today is a great day to give!

For today’s composer you need to know, I’d like to remember one of my personal favorites: Ethel Smyth.  We’ve discussed  her before—from her wonderful Mass to the theme of the British suffrage movement—but for today, here is one of her most famous works, the overture to her opera, The Wreckers.

More on Ethel Smyth’s Mass

by Liane Curtis - April 4th, 2013

In anticipation of the April 14 performance of Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D Major, Liz Wood (musicologist and widely published author) gave an illuminating talk about Smyth and the origins of her Mass.  Virginia Woolf described Smyth’s vigorous character, calling her a pioneer and a courageous window-breaker (referring to her role in the Suffrage movement).  The image we get of Smyth is close to that of the dread-naught,  the largest and most-feared of the British warships.  It’s true that Smyth’s personality could be overpowering. But also her musical ability and creative powers reveal a composer of monumental stature, and her personality should not distract us from that.

Smyth, in her period of study in Leipzig, was introduced to Brahms and Clara Schumann, and became very friendly with Grieg and his wife.  But a focal point of Wood’s presentation was the role of Tchaikovsky.  He not only praised her chamber works (in particular the Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op. 7), but also he emphatically urged her to turn to writing for orchestra, so that the grand scope of her musical vision could be better realized.  “Listen to the voices of people in intelligent conversation,” he urged her, “to engage with the nuances of tone color and articulation.”  Smyth took him very seriously, and threw herself into the study of orchestration, by following that unorthodox advice, and also by the more time-honored practice of attending symphonic concerts and turning her ear to the use of the orchestra.

Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth

Another central issue in Wood’s presentation was Smyth’s turning to religion, in the face of personal crisis.  Smyth was overwhelmed by confusion after she was rejected by a lover, and consequentially also lost  her artistic supports and mainstays—the circle who had previously encouraged and nurtured her during her study in Leipzig.   To understand the intersecting love triangles/quadrangles one would surely need some kind of chart.   Then her emotional upheaval continued as she experienced death—of her mother, and then of the love interest who had spurned her.  The turmoil left her reeling and confused.  She turned to religion and the Mass is the result.  “That’s the answer,” she wrote to a friend, with a sense of revelation, “Angus dei, qui tollis pecata mundi, dona nobis pacem.”    After writing the Mass— and its successful premiere in 1893—Smyth returned to her secular belief system and wrote no more religious music.

Concerning her placing of the Gloria movement last, this allowed her to have a conclusion that was jubilant and triumphant.  It was also is (as Wood pointed out) a feature of the Anglican liturgy.

Chatting with the Cecilia Chorus’ music director Mark Shapiro, after Prof. Wood’s presentation, he was eager to express his enthusiasm and commitment to the work.  It will be his second time to conducting it—he led the Monmouth Civic Chorus (New Jersey) in it just over 20 years ago (celebrating the centennial of its premiere), and he is thrilled to have this opportunity to bring a new level of insight and experience to this piece, which he sees as a profound expression of the human soul.   Some of the chorus members (who were excited to be able to attend the talk and learn more about Smyth) also commented on how impressed they were with the Mass, and how happy they are to bring this great work it to New York and Carnegie Hall. 

In short—looks like it’s the place to be on April 14, tickets available here!

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