Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Monday Link Round Up: August 20, 2018

by sarah - August 20th, 2018

News and music to start your week!

The Philadelphia Orchestra is collaborating with American Composers Orchestra to offer a closed reading session for six up-and-coming women composers.  Though not open to the public, the ensemble will perform and critique each work with the composer and administration from other ensembles in an effort to have more widespread knowledge of the composers.  Learn more about this unique new venture at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As we approach the start of the new school year, the timely article at Musicology Now addresses issues of accessibility in the music history classroom.  Written by Kimberly Francis, Michael Accinno and Meagan Troop, the writers offer thoughtful observations and creative solutions – and an excellent reminder about the different needs that can all too often be ignored.

At Brass Chicks (for Women Who Kick Brass), Chloe Louise Swindler – a Boston-based trumpet player – shares her experiences in an article titled, How My Ethnicity Has Shaped Me as a Musician.  She discusses her experience not only of recognizing early on the lack of women in the brass world, but also the lack of diversity in classical music more generally – and how she plans to move on from here.

At The Telegraph, two of the composers being heard at this year’s Proms (Roxanna Panufnik and Anna Meredith) discuss with reporter Ivan Hewett about the changes that are happening at The Proms when it comes to representation and diversity in programming.

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra is performing Amy Beach’s Bal Masqué on Aug. 22, as part of a lively (and free) program celebrating dance.  They will use our new edition of the work — learn more about Bal Masqué.

AND — help spread the word about our Performance Grants!

Let us know what we missed!  Email  [email protected]

Beach’s Bal Masqué in Boston Performance

by Liane Curtis - August 19th, 2018

Amy Beach’s delightful waltz, Bal Masqué, op. 22, is part of this week’s concert by Boston’s Landmark Orchestra.  Titled “Symphonic Dances” the Aug. 22 event features “music to move by” with professional and community dancers.  Directed by Christopher Wilkins, the concert is free to all.

Bal Masqué is unique in Beach’s output as a single-movement orchestral work.  It is handy for programming, and thus this lovely waltz was performed in 2000 by the Boston Pops (directed by Keith Lockhart) at the concert where the addition of Beach’s name to the composers’ names on  Boston’s Hatch Shell was unveiled (described in detail here).  Like most of her orchestral music, the performance materials were never engraved – hand-copied score and parts served as the performance materials.  Thus Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy undertook the editing and engraving of the score and parts as part of our celebration of Beach’s 150th birth anniversary last year (engraved and edited by Chris A. Trotman).  We hoped that this new edition would encourage performances, and we are happy to say that is happening!  😀

Bal Masqué is Beach’s orchestral version of the piano work of the same title, published in 1894.  But the melodies in Bal Masqué are found in two of her other works.  The song, “Wouldn’t That be Queer,” part of the set of opus 26 published in the same year, shares melodic content with the “A” part of the Bal Masqué’s tripartite ABA form.  Presumably the song predates the instrumental version, since reading a poem (in this case one by Elsie J. Cooley) usually suggests a melody to a composer.

The middle “B” section of Bal Masqué is an arrangement of mvt. 4, “Pierrot and Pierrette” from Beach’s Children’s Carnival, Op. 25, for solo piano.  Was the lilting melody extracted from Op. 22 to make a movement for the children’s suite?  Or did she create the melody as a separate movement and then later decide to frame it with the tune of “Wouldn’t that be Queer” to form a longer, multi-section waltz?  As yet, there is no definitive answer to this question.

In a further recycling Beach would later arrange “Wouldn’t that be queer” for women’s three-part chorus and piano (published 1919).  Beach’s self-borrowings are many, and are a rich topic of study.  Clearly, she wanted her striking melodic ideas to be put to a wide use and be heard in a range of contexts.

Here’s a recording of the orchestral Bal Masqué


Monday Link Round Up: June 11, 2018

by sarah - June 11th, 2018

News and music to start your week!

The Library of Congress blog, In the Muse, highlights Women Composers Hiding in Plain Sight. Written by Music Reference Specialist Melissa E. Wertheimer, she discusses a fantastic photograph she found, and the backstory she uncovered, in the Library of Congress archives!  (Spoiler: the photograph and story features one of our favorite composers, Amy Beach, as well as an early example of women composers coming together to organize and support each other!)

On An Overgrown Path discusses the institutional discrimination faced by conductors – and specifically the case of Rudolph Dunbar, the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic whose career was limited because of the color of his skin.

The Women Composers Festival of Hartford, which has been highlighting the work of women in music since 2001, has just announced the opportunity to support the organization in a new way.  Supporting WCFH by becoming a member means you will receive advanced, and reduced, ticket prices to the annual Festival, and your name (and website) will be listed on the Festival website.

Thea Musgrave, foreground; Queen Elizabeth, right; Judith Weir, left in background

Celebrations for Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday are continuing, with many eager to extend birthday well wishes – including Queen Elizabeth II!  Musgrave was awarded the Queen’s medal for music as the 13th recipient since it was founded in 2005.  Read on here.

It was just announced that the Welsh National Opera is beginning a new program that will award one aspiring woman, age 19 to 35, a conducting residency.  With the intention of working to rebalance the gender divide in the classical music world, the residency with include mentoring and opportunities to work with the WNO Orchestra with different styles of repertoire over 18 months.  More information is available here.

Beach’s Work to be Performed in Colorado

by sarah - April 27th, 2018


This weekend the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs in Colorado Springs, Colorado will be presenting their final concert of their season titled Timeless Voices and will feature the work of Mozart, Beethoven, and Amy Beach’s symphony.

Beach’s work, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic”, is the first symphony we know of composed by an American woman – and is considered by some to be one of the greatest American symphonies of the period.  It is an important and impressive work that has been gaining in popularity in recent years – thanks in part to the new edition available through Women’s Philharmonic Publishing, and the 150th anniversary of Amy Beach’s birth.

The Program Notes offered by the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs provide excellent insight to the history of the work, and the challenges that Beach faced at the time:

Whatever the world lost by Beach abandoning her performing career, it gained by Beach concentrating on composition. But her success was hard-won. Though her husband was enormously supportive of her creative work, his support was conditional: He did not allow her to have a professional composition teacher, out of concern that her individuality might be overwhelmed. (Not to mention that, in an age when female composers were almost unheard-of, such a teacher would have been male, a possible source of concern for a middle-aged man with a very young wife.) No other composer of Beach’s era had so little contact with her peers, or had to figure out so much on her own.

Nevertheless, she persisted, and by 1893 was so well-respected in Boston that she was one of a group of American musicians invited to respond in the Boston Herald to Antonin Dvořák’s call for an American music based on African American melodies. No, she wrote; composers should look to their own heritage for their material: “We of the North should be far more likely to be influenced by the old English, Scotch, or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors.”

Read the full program notes online here – and don’t miss the preview interview with Music Director Thomas Wilson:


The Chamber Orchestra of the Springs will perform Timeless Voices on Saturday, April 28 and Sunday April 29.  Find out more information, and get your tickets in advance, here.


the 44th Annual SAM Conference (part 1): Three Operas

by Liane Curtis - March 26th, 2018

Our reporter Tim Diovanni continues his report from the Society for American Music 44th Annual Conference.  (Read his Introduction here)

Operas by Beach, Smyth, and Higdon: Compelling Opportunities for Diversification

In this first installment of the series, I concentrate on three operas—Cabildo (composed 1932, premiered 1945), Der Wald (1902), and Cold Mountain (2015)—by Amy Beach, Ethel Smyth, and Jennifer Higdon, respectively. These works present enticing productive and historical opportunities for musicians, researchers, and institutions that allow them to diversify their efforts, an argument that I will support throughout this piece.

Opera Composers: Beach, Smyth, Higdon

Amy Beach: Cabildo

In the early part of the 20th century, American composers tried to develop a distinctly national style of opera. They generally used American stories and themes, and set English texts. When Amy Beach considered a plot for such an opera, she decided that it needed to have the “necessary haze of romance,” meaning it must be sufficiently in the past. Following this belief, she reached back to a story that takes place in New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. The work begins in a prison, called Cabildo, where a couple is taking a tour of the facility. It then flashes back to the war time, in which a romantic relationship unfolds between two of the characters.

To create a historically and regionally appropriate sound for the opera, librettist Nan Bagby Stevens sent Beach creole folk tunes. These were appealing for Beach’s project, as she considered creole music essentially American. By harmonizing and adapting these, Beach connected her opera with both the region and nation.

Beach strengthens this connection in three passages. A choral anthem advocates for the preservation of America, and two solos map the defense of Louisiana onto the protection of America. Beach thus created an American work through musical and textual methods.

After a string of complications, the one-act opera—succinctly titled Cabildo—premiered on February 27, 1945 at the University of Georgia, just two months after Beach’s death. The performance, given by students, alumni, and faculty of the university, was hailed by a critic from the Atlanta Constitution as “epoch-making.” Despite such praise, the opera has been performed only about seven times since its premiere.

Although Cabildo has had little critical and musical attention, as Nicole Powlison indicated in her presentation, it presents exciting opportunities for scholars and musicians alike that could alter this reception. Researchers could analyze the opera to understand how composers attempted to represent American identity—specifically nationhood—through music and drama in the early part of the 20th century. The opera’s simple stage machinery and manageable production demands, such as the small instrumentation and cast, give community opera companies the chance to execute the work on a limited budget, funds for which they could procure from arts administrations, citing the work’s broad appeal and limited requirements. (An abstract of Powlison’s 2017 dissertation on Cabildo is here).

Ethel Smyth: Der Wald

In December 2016, the Metropolitan Opera produced L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho. This was only the second time in the company’s 128-year history that it staged a work by a woman composer. The auspicious moment made scholars, audiences, and critics reevaluate the first such instance at the Met: Der Wald, by the British composer Ethel Smyth, in 1903. To foster a better understanding of why it took so long for the institution to produce another opera by a woman composer, Amy Zigler addressed Der Wald’s gendered reception. In her research, Zigler examined 47 press clippings from American newspapers. She divided these into three categories: 1) reviews of the music, 2) articles that described her appearance, and 3) written responses that commented on her social connections.

35 percent of these articles described either Smyth’s appearance, a technique rarely if never used in pieces on male composers, or both her appearance and connections in society. One critic called her a “dainty little woman” and another described the black gown that she wore to the Met premiere of Der Wald in acute and overblown detail in the New York Times fashion section. This focus demonstrated that Smyth’s looks provided part of the concert-going experience for these writers.

Smyth’s femininity stood in marked and anxiety-inducing contrast to her “masculine style” as a composer. One writer classified her opera by its “errant masculinity;” another asserted that Smyth exerted “masculine energy” in her work. These responses underscored a pernicious double standard; her work did not sound like the product of a woman, which made it errant and poor, and, if it had, critics would have still disliked it.

Some newspapers grouped Smyth with the other women composers of the time. This classification placed Smyth into a separate and decidedly unequal category. At their worst, critics accused the Metropolitan Opera of wasting its resources on a work so inadequate to repay them. Zigler’s research, however, demonstrated that Der Wald in fact brought in the greatest revenue of the season, a fact that stabs at the heart of these critic’s assessments.

Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Opera may have become wary of premiering new work, especially one by a woman, or, for that matter, fearful of producing any work by a woman, because of these criticisms.

For her part, Smyth cared more about her audiences than about her critics. Concert-goers evidently liked Der Wald, as evidenced by their enthusiastic responses, which were duly recorded by the critics. In any case, Smyth felt that she had to defend her opera. “I feel I must fight for Der Wald because…I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea. Now I am neither afraid nor a pauper, and in my way I am an explorer who believes supremely in this bit of pioneering.”

Der Wald’s reception provides helpful insights into why Saariaho’s opera was only the second by a woman composer at the Metropolitan Opera, what is widely considered America’s most-respected and storied opera company. With such understandings, the opera community can ensure that the next work by a woman at this institution comes much sooner than it did before.

Jennifer Higdon: Cold Mountain

The last opera analyzed in this session was Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain. This differs from the others in its age—it premiered in 2015 at the Santa Fe Opera—and relative proliferation—the opera has already enjoyed stateside productions at Opera Philadelphia and North Carolina Opera, in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and was tentatively planned for a production at the Minnesota Opera in the 2018-2019 season (it is currently not on their online schedule.).

Cold Mountain is based on the 1997 book of the same name (by Charles Frazier), which takes place in the South during the Civil War. In her adaptation, Higdon (with librettist Gene Scheer) expands the role and significance of a runaway slave named Lucinda. As Sharon Mirchandani argued, Lucinda exerts power and individualism through music, adds a much-needed black role in opera, and encourages diversity in casting.

To support her interpretation, Mirchandani focused on a scene noted for its poignant effect. In this, Lucinda finds a white man— the male lead, Inman—shackled in a chain gang, left to die. Lucinda, gun in hand, swears that she would kill all the white people in the world if she could. Even though Inman urges her to begin her revenge with him, she decides to set him free. Musically, Lucinda’s voice expresses emotional pain with a dramatic and moving vibrancy that creates an impactful and impassioned experience.

Lucinda expands the typical restricted position of a Civil-War-era slave by claiming dramatic authority. As Higdon explained in an e-mail correspondence with Mirchandani, the scene presents an ironic twist on the white-frees-black narrative, in essence, flipping it on its head. The composer’s reconsideration of agency in opera highlights shifting perspectives and emerging voices, especially those previously silenced, in contemporary American society.


Cabildo and Der Wald demonstrate that women have written operas that practices of critical reception and organizational decision-making have excluded from the concert hall. Moving in a positive direction, Cold Mountain underscores the slow expansion of opportunities for women composers in opera, as demonstrated by the size, scope, and success of Higdon’s efforts. Viewed as a group, these works provide institutions exciting and compelling narratives, and stirring and captivating music. Thus, the case for diversity in the opera house accretes its definitive, meaningful, and tangible support.

I thank Nicole Powlison, Amy Zigler, and Sharon Mirchandani for answering my e-mails with detailed and helpful responses.