Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

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!

In Honor of Women’s Suffrage!

by sarah - March 5th, 2013

The Library of Congress blog reminded me today of the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage March on Washington. Please do read the full post about the important history that helped propel the nation forward. Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy would like to remember the important milestone with an old favorite—Dame Ethel Smyth’s “March of the Women” written for the British suffrage movement. March on!



NPR’s “Biggest Badass Composers”

by sarah - July 6th, 2011

NPR’s Deceptive Cadence picked up on a twitter feed recently questioning which composer is the “biggest badass”, with qualifications to include drugs, sex, guts and politics.

The list of composers included (surprise!!!) no women. Though the list, which was compiled here, did include Carlo Gesualdo, a late Renaissance composer who is remembered for his madrigals, chromaticism, and having murdered his wife and her lover and placing their bodies on display. (Interesting that instead of being remembered as a murderer he is praised as being “badass”…)

But this omission of women must have been an oversight – especially considering all of the badass women composers that have lived. My short list includes:

Hildegard von Bingen (who was included in the comments on the NPR story – thanks to Christine Beard)
She was an abbess, mystic and prophet who stood up to every authority in the Medieval Church, including the Pope himself, and lived to tell about it. She was also the first composer to so fastidiously document their work and sign their name to it – unheard of for even men at the time.

Dame Ethel Smyth
How much more badass can you get than being arrested for the cause you are fighting for (British women’s suffrage) – and continue to lead your followers even from behind prison bars? (Who doesn’t know the story of Smyth conducing her “March for Woman” from her cell window with a toothbrush??)

Nadia Boulanger
Forced to work at a young age due to the death of her father, Nadia took on jobs performing and teaching music to support her family. She took on the Prix de Rome by force and ruffled feathers along the way. Though she didn’t win (second place isn’t shabby either), she certainly paved the way for other women, including sister Lili. Nadia was also the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her students included Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzola, and seemingly countless others, and her work continues to live on through the next generations.

Wendy Carlos
Wendy’s work with the Moog synthesizer, most notably her album Switched-On Bach re-introduced classical music to the masses. That album, first released in 1968, was one of the first classical LPs to sell 500,000 copies – eventually going gold and platinum. The album also brought home three Grammy awards: Album of the Year (Classical), Best Classical Performance, and Best Engineered Recording (Classical).

Clara Wieck Schumann
A child prodigy who defied her father to marry Robert, Clara also completely changed the format and standard repertoire of piano recitals. She took care of an often-ailing Robert and raised seven children while traveling and performing to make sure that they and continuing to travel and perform to share Robert’s music and bring home a paycheck. She out lived four of her eight children (one died in infancy) as well as her husband, and cared for her grandchildren when necessary. She continued to advocate for Robert’s works, including taking the lead roles of editor and interpreter until her death.

But this is just five of certainly dozens of women composers and musicians who fought the odds and managed to make a place in history for themselves (even if it is often forgotten in text books and in online polls).

Who else should be on this list???

Remembering Phyllis Tate

by sarah - May 6th, 2011

A post at The Overgrown Path gave a passing mention to the work of British composer Phyllis Tate. The specific reference was that she, among other British composers, were often neglected due to the fame that Benjamin Britten carried throughout his lifetime. In reading the brief article I was glad to be reminded of the life and work of a composer who continues to be neglected.

Phyllis Tate (1911-1987) was a British composer whose works often fell in the avant-garde category. She had very auspicious beginnings, reportedly being kicked out of grade school for singing bawdy songs, and later teaching herself how to play the ukulele. Though she did continue to the Royal Academy of Music for formal training and was a prolific composer. During her lifetime she had several commissions, including several from the BBC.

She primarily wrote chamber pieces with unorthodox instrumentation and was extremely critical of her earliest works; she destroyed all of works she composed before 1940. Her works were well received in her lifetime. In fact, after hearing her play Dame Ethel Smyth was said to declare, “At least I have a heard a real woman composer!” (More on that anecdote found here.)

Here is an example of her work – Sonata for Cello and Clarinet (1947):

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