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Portrait of the Composer as a Young Woman

by Liane Curtis - June 5th, 2015.
Filed under: concerts, music history, recordings, women composers. Tagged as: , , .

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

 

 

 

 

 

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