Illuminate composer Angela Elizabeth Slater discusses her new work 'Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' for soprano and string quartet whilst at our Snape Maltings in August (2019). To hear this piece live please join us for our upcoming concerts:
4th November at St Michael's Near Northgate Oxford at 1.00pm
7th November at University Huddersfield at 1.00pm
8th November at University College Oxford at 7.30pm
9th November at Emmanuel College Cambridge at 7.30pm
Illuminate composer Blair Boyd discusses her new work 'Juncture'' for string quartet whilst at our Snape Maltings in August (2019). To hear this piece live please join us for our upcoming concerts:
4th November at St Michael's Near Northgate Oxford at 1.00pm
7th November at University Huddersfield at 1.00pm
8th November at University College Oxford at 7.30pm
9th November at Emmanuel College Cambridge at 7.30pm
For the past few years, I’ve felt an increasing uneasiness around how any kind of true feminism can fit within the ‘traditional’ model of composing. The existence of Illuminate, and other similar initiatives for the programming of music exclusively written by women, only serves to add further urgency to these questions; how can genuine feminist practice exist within a world which, generally speaking, relies on patriarchal (and capitalist) hierarchies? A traditional model of ‘composing’ — writing music, giving it to performers, having it played, with the attached notion of the ‘genius’, isolation and intellect of the composer — remains largely unchallenged within the academy today. (And, significantly, the legitimacy of composers is often verified by the academy, in the conferring of postgraduate degrees or faculty positions. I can’t think of many conventionally ‘successful’ composers in this country who have not gone through university or conservatoire education, many to PhD level.) Thinking outside of this traditional model is challenging — and has led me to deeper questions about what I’m writing, and why.
These traditional ideas about what composing is are built on patriarchal Western philosophies of creativity and of gender, so much so that it is difficult to even recognise: it is just the normal mode of thinking. Moreover, within traditional pedagogical models for composing, it is difficult to escape from the studying of ‘master works’ which exemplify different ways to intellectually construct a composition, largely within the parameters of a conventional score, or if not, at least a score which exists within a straightforward semiotic system which conveys the composer’s precise intentions to a performer. The locus of ‘creativity’, the generation of ideas, lies with the composer. Moreover, the way we think about composing suggests that the generation of ideas — thinking, logic, reasoning — is central to composition, and that ties it into very fundamental ideas about gender in the West. I summarised this in the opening paragraph of my undergraduate dissertation:
“Ever since the birth of the concept of ‘the composer’ in the Renaissance Christian Church, Western constructions of gender have had an impact on who has been allowed to compose. Genevieve Lloyd suggests that “from the beginnings of philosophical thought, femaleness was symbolically associated with what Reason left behind.” The concepts of reason and objectivity are gendered male: masculinity produces culture, whilst femininity is bound to nature. The Cartesian mind-body dualism of the seventeenth century further constructed mental capacity as a masculine trait, and femininity is therefore attached, in oppositional definition, to the body, and ‘feeling’. Western composition also, at this time, moved away from the home and into the public sphere, which reinforced ideological oppositions to women’s participation.”
Researching barriers to women being composers for this dissertation led me to much more profound questioning of my own compositional practice than I had expected. There are many societal factors which prevent women from accessing composing as a career; obvious and ubiquitous factors such as childcare, or the socialisation of women to be less confident or ‘pushy’, as well as deeper ideas about what being creative means and who can be creative.
However, the most challenging, nuanced and profound avenue of research was around the very definition of ‘composing’, and the radical change many thinkers have suggested is necessary to allow anyone (not just educated white men) to find a place in the world of‘composing’. One example of such thinking can be found in Sally Macarthur’s book Towards a 21st Century Feminist Politics of Music, which examines composing using an intellectual framework provided by Deleuze, a French poststructuralist. The irony of the esotericism inherent in her framework for exploring how to democratise composing is not lost on me. However, the actual practical ideas — focussing on collaboration, improvisation, pedagogical reform, removing the focal point of compositional practice from the academy, challenging conventional value judgements about structure and time in music, considering radical new contexts of reception for new musics — ultimately, how to compose in a genuinely ‘experimental’ way — seem tangible, achievable, and straightforwardly aligned with more broad feminist (as well as decolonial, and anti-capitalist) epistemologies. These ideas have helped form my compositional ideology, rooted in a self-definition as ‘experimental’. This label is not interested in genre definitions, focussing on a conceptual and methodological framework to define my practice, rather than an aesthetic end result, or any retrospectively analysable, intellectual ‘merit’. Thinking about composing in this way has become integral to how I understand my identity as a composer.
Other influential ways of thinking about musical contexts along similar lines include Pauline Oliveros’ notion of ‘deep listening’, re-imagining notions of directionality and structure which are so valued by conventional definitions of ‘composition’, as well as Suzanne Cusick’s pioneering thinking around queering conceptions of music, moving away from a patriarchal, gendered understanding of power in music, into a world where there is no force of pre-conceived ‘normality’. This kind of thinking relates all the way back to Sally Macarthur’s Deleuzian framework, in which it is reassuring to remember that a key idea in poststructuralist feminism is that we cannot know or control how the future will look.
During my studies I have also engaged with postcolonial writers, which definitely has come to influence how I feel about my own compositional practice, and the urgency and unavodability which I feel around constantly questioning and renewing my approach to creativity. Audre Lorde’s powerful, iconic essay The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle The Master’s House is ever-present in my mind, serving as a reminder that resistance to systems of oppression (i.e. patriarchy, and coloniality) cannot be achieved using those systems’ language. In the context of composing, this clearly aligns with the above suggestion that traditional aesthetics and processes cannot be used in a project of radical democratisation. This kind of thinking also allows my practice across being a creative musician — a performer, improviser, composer, and writer — to flow freely, allowing cross-pollination of ideas and breaking down boundaries about what I ‘should’ do for certain commissions or in specific situations.
Being a performer as well as a composer is integral to my artistic practice. Performing as well as composing, and seeing the two as a fluid overall creative practice, helps redefine ‘composition’ away from an intellectualised exercise with defined, score-based parameters of doing and of results. Performing using my voice also carries special feminist meaning to me. The fundamentally embodied nature of the voice, especially when harnessed towards experimental performance (which can often be visceral and unpredictable), helps counteract the intellectualisation of music which places composition in the masculine domain of the ‘mind’. Ultimately, the embodied nature of vocal performance links my practice to contemporary discourses rooted in the body, such as Judith Butler’s transformative ideas about performativity, and Sara Ahmed’s phenomenological explorations of the idea of ‘orientations’ — engaging my work with queering the definitions of ‘composition’ and ‘performance’.
I often look to other female composer-performers for a significant source of inspiration. Much as I obviously love and am interested in lots of the music made by non-female composers and peers too, I firmly believe that it’s really important be able to see yourself in those who inspire you. (One of the many reasons Illuminate is such an important project — demonstrably platforming female composers for the next generation of young women to see.) Women who have significantly shaped my current practice include Jennifer Walshe, Meredith Monk, Errollyn Wallen, Anna Meredith, and Claudia Molitor. These women all practice in different ways, making ideologically experimental music within a variety of aesthetics. I love to engage with the work of these composers primarily through performing and improvising with their work, and imagining my own methods and contexts to perform it, such as interactive performances, self-accompaniment, and layering and fragmenting their pieces.
Another important strand of influence for me is popular music. Popular music has provided radical contexts for creativity, political engagement, and expression for women; it is also standard practice for women to perform their own music, as classical music’s hierarchical divide between creator and performer does not exist. Popular music’s short-form nature, as well as its existence within the cultural mainstream, also means that it is heard by a wide audience, providing potential for everyday political engagement. These strands of the fabric of popular music are clearly really engaging, and influential, especially when trying to create a practice which moves away from the esotericism and gender-, race- and class-based exclusions which operate in the ‘classical music’ world. And lastly, I have already mentioned Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk; it is clear that the fundamental anti-teleological ideology of minimal music is an interesting thread with the creation of a new anti-conventional compositional practice. Beyond (or within?) the aesthetics of minimal music, I’ve been fascinated by reading explorations of how minimal music can be understood as anti-patriarchal, circular, and self-renewing, in a way which links to Cusick’s notions of queering power in music.
My piece for this Illuminate project, GRADIENT, draws on lots of these ideas. I have thought about breaking down structure and directionality, creating materials which are short, repetitive, cyclical, and can be re-ordered as the performers see fit. I have also used a small fragment of text over and over again, invoking the seemingly simple aesthetics of popular musics which belie a more nuanced conceptual basis, and removing the possibility of surface-level analysis of or links between text and music and instead making space for a flexible relationship between all of the performers. The score features faded, simple pastel-ish colours; this is heavily influenced by the work of Claudia Molitor. Her beautiful graphic scores are rich in colour, often in a ‘visually consonant’ way, and I have become fascinated by the potential of including colour in my own scores, whilst still using some conventional notation. Colour is not a conventional element of a traditional score, and not something which can be interpreted in any specific or direct way; the hope is that including colour adds a sense of playfulness and subjectivity, welcoming the performers to have a more fluid and interpretive relationship with the score. The voice is considered in the same way I do as a performer (as something which is textural and embodied), and tried to translate that into a score by using some non-conventional notations to encourage the singer to make the piece something which they can feel comfortable and empowered experimenting with. Ultimately, the piece is delicate, reflective, and small, constantly looping back on itself; I’m looking forward to hearing how the performance shifts and changes throughout the upcoming concerts, as the performers’ relationship with the score and each other shifts and changes too.
Sources, and possibly interesting ideas for further reading:
Ahmed, Sara. Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press. 2006.
Barthes, Roland. Image-music-text. Macmillan. 1977.
Bikini Kill: The Riot Grrrl Manifesto, 1991. (https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/riotgrrrlmanifesto.html)
Cusick, Suzanne. “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight,” in Biddle, Ian D. Music and Identity Politics. Library of Essays on Music, Politics and Society. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.
Dell'Antonio, Andrew. Beyond Structural Listening?: Postmodern Modes of Hearing. Berkeley; London: U of California, 2004.
Fink, Robert. Repeating ourselves: American minimal music as cultural practice.Univ of California Press, 2005.
Green, Lucy. Music, gender, education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Hanoch-Roe, Galia. “Musical Space and Architectural Time: Open Scoring versus Linear Processes.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, vol. 34, no. 2 (2003): 145-160.
Lim, Liza. Luck, Grief, Hospitality – re-routing power relationships in music. Keynote for ‘Women in the Creative Arts’ conference, ANU, 11th August, 2017. (https://lizalimcomposer.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/1-final_lim_rerouting-power-anu-keynote.pdf)
Lloyd, Genevieve.The Man of Reason: 'male' and 'female' in Western Philosophy. London: Methuen, 1986.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press Feminist Series. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984.
Macarthur, Sally. "The woman composer, new music and neoliberalism." Musicology Australia 36, no. 1, (2014): 36-52.
__________. Towards a twenty-first-century feminist politics of music. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.
Scharff, Christina. Gender, subjectivity, and cultural work: The classical music profession. Routledge, 2017.
__________. “Blowing your own Trumpet: Exploring the Gendered Dynamics of Self-Promotion in the Classical Music Profession.” The Sociological Review, 63 (2015): 97-112.
Among the composers featured in Illuminate’s second concert series in 2019 will be Ailsa Dixon (1932-2017), whose Variations on Love Divine for string quartet will be played in Oxford on 8th November.
The performance history of Ailsa Dixon’s work offers a striking example of how women composers sidelined in musical history are now being rediscovered. A handful of performances during her most fertile period of composition in the 1980s and ’90s (notably by Ian Partridge, Lynne Dawson, and the Brindisi Quartet), were followed by several decades of almost complete neglect. Then in 2017 a work written thirty years earlier was chosen for premiere as part of the London Oriana Choir’s Five15 project highlighting the work of women composers. These things shall be received its first performance in the spectacular glass-roofed concert hall surrounding the keel of the Cutty Sark, just five weeks before she died.
With further performances at memorial events and in festivals and concerts around the UK, it is now showing signs of entering the choral repertoire. With its vision of a future when ‘New arts shall bloom’, it seems especially apt that this work came to light in the context of the enterprise to give due prominence to the work of women composers, and has stimulated a revival of interest in her music.
Ailsa Dixon’s compositions include an opera, chamber and instrumental music, a sonata for piano duet and many vocal works, but the string quartet was central to her writing from the outset. Her first serious work, completed while reading music at University in Durham in the 1950s, was a single movement for string quartet (now lost). When she returned to composition in the 1980s, embarking on her opera Letter to Philemon (performed in 1984), a string quartet was at the core of the instrumentation. In the years that followed, she wrote several further works for quartet.
Two years after Letter to Philemon, Dixon’s Nocturnal Scherzo was premiered in 1986 at the Little Missenden Festival by the Brindisi Quartet.
It was paired in performance with Shining Cold, a haunting vocalise exploring the different sonorities of the high soprano voice, strings (viola and cello) and the ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument, best known for its role in Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony).
A note accompanying the two scores in her archive sheds light on her compositional method:
'It seems to me that no music is truly abstract. Pieces which have no words or ‘programme’ must be a condensation either of past experience or of processes going on in the psyche. When I write music which intends to be abstract, an exposition of the main themes materialises before I feel any need to question what I am writing. Then I find it difficult to continue until I have asked myself what the themes seem to signify. Dream-like images emerge in my mind, and from that part of the process develop the ideas of how to use the themes.'
The note goes on to explain the dream sequence underlying the Nocturnal Scherzo and its symbolic significance, representing the contest and reconciliation of two halves of the psyche:
‘From a ‘sleep’ theme a slow rising motif suddenly erupts into action. Out of a jack-in-the-box bursts Pierrot, with his white face, his funny gait and his sad little song. He is swept off stage by the macho man whose theme in the cello verges on the bombastic. Pierrot climbs the stage curtains and swings up there, mocking the macho man. Eventually he responds to the macho’s angry call, not to assume unfair advantage, but to come down. They try on each other’s themes, like hats. Scarcely has a harmonious contrapuntal synthesis of their themes developed before the ‘sleep’ theme calls and the lid of the box slowly and gently closes down on them.’
This vignette, combining an apparently trivial piece of commedia dell’arte with a deeper psychological meaning, gives an insight into the emotional significance she attached to the contrapuntal interplay and resolution of musical themes.
The Nocturnal Scherzo was performed again in 1992 by the all-female De Beauvoir Quartet, alongside the premiere of Dixon’s next work for quartet, Sohrab and Rustum, written in 1987-8. This was a more ambitious undertaking: a substantial through-composed single movement, inspired by Matthew Arnold’s poem about the tragic encounter between an estranged father and son on opposite sides of a battle between the Tartar and Persian armies. The music is a vivid response to the poem’s human drama and atmosphere. Listeners will not easily forget the opening sequence evoking the river Oxus rising in the starlit mountains. A long, searing high E in the first violin over a deep chord from the lower strings gives way to an eerie chromatic oscillating motif between the two violins, like the scintillation of light on water. Through a gradual crescendo it turns into a fast falling motif as the river gathers momentum, tumbling towards the plain where the drama will take place. A leaping phrase ending with a trill, marked ‘brillante’ and passed between the players, brings the action to life, and gradually the story unfolds as the warriors come face to face. At the close of the piece, its human tragedy played out, the armies light their evening fires and the river pours out into a calm sea under the stars.
Ailsa Dixon’s final work for string quartet, the Variations on Love Divine written in 1991-2, represents an unusual foray into religious chamber music. A possible source of inspiration may have been Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, suggested in the penultimate variation’s echo of the final tremolando earthquake. In a thought-provoking essay on the use of hymn tunes in classical music, Simon Brackenborough placed the Variations in a long tradition of composers’ engagement with hymns, and likened the work to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune, albeit on a smaller instrumental scale.
Woven around Stainer’s familiar melody, the Variations offer a musical exploration of the meanings of divine love in a series of scenes from the incarnation to the ascension and a culminating vision of heavenly joy. The work has yet to be performed in concert, but a recording was made by the Rasumovsky Quartet in the mid-1990s.
On the recording, the titles or short texts which precede each variation are spoken (by the viola player Christopher Wellington), allowing the meaning to be followed by the listener in a kind of musical meditation. This spiritual journey takes us through a sound-world that is by turns mysterious, lyrical, dramatic, poignant, and finally exultant in ‘The Song of Praise and the Dance of Joy’.
Simon Brackenborough comments on the paradox of the work’s scope, at once conceptually expansive and minutely concentrated on a single melody:
'There is something quietly thought-provoking about Dixon’s insistence on using this modest, contented-sounding tune to cover such large theological ground… [suggesting] that a whole world of religious meaning can be revealed through even the smallest means.'
He observes the change in her treatment of the theme at the incarnation, when the hymn tune, hitherto buried or splintered into hesitant half-phrases, is heard distinctly for the first time. Elsewhere it is subject to fragmentation, dissonance, and various techniques in the string writing, from pizzicato for the trotting donkey on the journey to Bethlehem, jabbing and martelé attack for the hammering of the nails at the crucifixion, and knocking on the wood for the disciples’ house-to-house calling. Harmonic effects lend much to the work’s emotional impact: the sagging and distorted chords pulling the melody out of tune evoke the wrenching sadness of the disciples watching as Jesus is led away. Reflecting the strong impulse towards redemption underlying the work’s theological scheme, there is elsewhere a yearning for tonal resolution that draws the music from dissonance into a harmonic sweetness at significant moments, such as the centurion’s revelation that ‘truly this was the son of God’.
Much of Ailsa Dixon’s music went unheard in her lifetime. Research in her archive has uncovered new works for performance, including a sonata for piano duet, Airs of the Seasons, premiered posthumously in 2018. A set of three songs for soprano and string quartet, The Spirit of Love, dating from 1987-88, will be premiered on 20th February 2020 at St George’s Bristol, by Lucinda Cox and the Villiers Quartet.
Most of her scores remain in manuscript, but are now being digitised as part of a project in Finland to rescue the works of neglected women composers. Plans are underway for a recording of her complete works for string quartet by the Villiers Quartet. Meanwhile, the original performances made available on her YouTube channel offer a fascinating insight into her compositional language, hailed in a recent review as ‘most definitely’ that of ‘a British composer with an original musical vision’.
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Illuminate composer Sarah Westwood discusses her new work 'Things you don't yet know you feel' for string quartet and soprano whilst at our Snape Maltings in August (2019). To hear this piece live please join us for our upcoming concerts:
4th November at St Michael's Near Northgate Oxford at 1.00pm
7th November at University Huddersfield at 1.00pm
8th November at University College Oxford at 7.30pm
9th November at Emmanuel College Cambridge at 7.30pm
Blog written by Kendra Preston Leonard
Vivian Fine (1913-2000) was a child piano prodigy who turned to composition as she entered her teens, studying with Djane Lavoie-Herz and Ruth Crawford. As a performer, Fine premiered numerous works by her colleagues, including those of Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, and Dane Rudhyar; as a composer, she wrote for both established genres, including string quartet, voice and piano, and orchestra, as well as more novel ones, such as percussion ensemble, cello quartet, and mixed ensembles. Many of her works combine voice and strings, including her Four Songs, written for soprano and string quartet when she was 19 and published in 1933.
Rachel Lumsden has analyzed the Crawford’s influence on Fine, noting that Fine cited the older woman as “her first significant musical mentor.” Crawford not only helped Fine to understand that women could be equal to men in composition, but that women did not have to compose using the conservative musical language that had often been deemed appropriate for women composers in the decades before. Crawford encouraged Fine to find a compositional approach that mixed dissonance and consonance and that allowed Fine to express her emotions in such a way that resonated with musical cognoscenti and lay audiences. (Lumsden 2017)
The Four Songs are an example of Fine discovering that balance: the New York Times called the work “a particularly pristine, angst-free distillation of Alban Berg—spare, contrapuntal music that is angular but always singable.” (Page 1986) Like other composers of her generation, Fine used freely adapted serial techniques with the frequent occurrence of tonal centricity in her works from this period. While Fine would experiment with more traditionally tonal approaches in the 1930s and 40s, it was an idiom similar to this, first used in her 20s, that Fine would implement throughout her career. She later described her works by saying “most of my other pieces, while not atonal, are freely atonal and freely tonal at the same time.” (Duffie 1986)
For her texts for the Four Songs, Fine chose a lyric from an anonymous sixteenth century poet; “Comfort to a Youth that had Lost his Love,” by seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick (best known for his “To the Virgins to make much of Time”); and two pieces by James Joyce, “She Weeps Over Rahoon,” and “Tilly.” None of the texts are long, and Fine sets them without repeating any phrases or words, and the result is short but intense miniatures. “When the text is used up,” she once said, “there’s no more text” and therefore no more music. (Duffie 1986)
Fine titles the first of these songs “The Lover in Winter Pineth For The Spring,” but the text she uses is normally referred to as “Westron Wynde” or “Western Wind.” The verse, its spelling modernized, is brief: “Western wind, when wilt thou blow,/That small rain down can rain./ Christ, if my love were in my arms/And I in my bed again.” (Anon.) Scored for voice and viola alone, this first song includes both serial elements and musical palindromes. While the ostensible meter is 4/4, Fine makes it clear that the real meter is fluid, as indicated by the slurs in the viola line hat group pitches irregularly, in twos, threes, and fours. Fine begins the song with a viola line that states a twelve-tone row that completes in bar 4, and then begins to repeat the row, shifting into a new form of the row after three notes. However, Fine soon departs from the row to emphasize half step, major third, and perfect fifth relationships that widen into larger and larger intervals, spanning a major tenth at the largest. The vocal line also initially hints at serialism, but close examination of its phrases reveals that the end of the second phrase is an almost exact palindrome of the beginning of the first phrase. Throughout, the voice is rhythmically positioned in complex groupings against the steady quarter notes of the viola, and Fine creates further counterpoint between the two through contrary motion and very deliberate range extremes, placing the viola’s line high when the singer is reaching the lowest pitches of the line and vice versa. These contrasts, the use of repeated, albeit fragmented, pitch class sets, and the palindromes of opening and ending make this song feel complete and whole and deeply satisfying despite its brevity.
Like the first song in the cycle, “Comfort to a Youth” is also highly contrapuntal. Fine scores this setting of Herrick’s six-verse lament for voice, violin, and viola and assigns each a very specific texture. The text, which speculates about the afterlife, provides Fine with the opportunity to create different planes mirroring those the narrator cites in the poem.
What needs complaints,
When she a place
Has with the race
In endless mirth
She thinks not on
What ’s said or done
She sees no tears,
Or any tone
Of thy deep groan
Nor does she mind
Or think on’t now,
That ever thou
But changed above,
She likes not there,
As she did here,
And lull asleep
Thy woes, and weep
No more. (Herrick 1648)
The violin line, with its high, sustained notes, serves as the heaven in which the beloved now resides, while the viola’s part is lower, more complex, more hesitant, more earthy and befitting of a less perfect realm. Finally, the syllabic setting of the poem, with large jumps and numerous sighs (in the form of descending minor seconds), is that of a mourner speaking to another struck by the same grief. Fine also develops interest through her use of irregular and frequently changing meter. Moving freely from 6/8 to 5/8 and 7/8, Fine rejects the poem’s straightforward rhyming iambs and instead captures the manner in which someone who has just lost a loved one would speak of them. In bar 7, for example, Fine sets line 6 in 7/16 meter [misprinted in some scores as 7/8], giving “thinks” and “not” dotted quavers, that descend from a D on “thinks” to a B-flat on “not.” She then indicates a breath mark before the line continues with “on”—a semiquaver that then rushes on, as if the singer cannot pause again without breaking down, to the “What’s” of the following text line, also set as a semiquaver. Accompanying this emotional vocal line, the violin sustains an E for a dotted crochet for the duration of “thinks not” before rising to a quaver F-sharp as the voice finishes the line and begins the next with “on. What’s.” During this bar the viola plays only a semiquaver with a grace note, a D leading to a C-sharp, on the second half of the third sixteenth of the bar, accented and staccato, a reminder of the mortal world below.
At the very end of the song, in the last four bars, the violin and viola come together, playing the same rhythms. Beginning an octave apart on C, they then spread apart to an F-sharp (violin) and G (viola), then move to an E-flat and D, respectively, finally coming to rest on an E-natural and C-sharp. Above this slow, dissonant cadence, the vocal line moves mostly in semitones and minor thirds. Fine employs the same method to setting the text here as she did at the beginning: we hear the difficulty of the narrator to get the words out and to breathe. In the final bar, “weep. No more” begins on a G, jumps an augmented fourth to C-sharp, and then resolves to the D below the C-sharp, and painful and exhausted end.
Fine turns to James Joyce for her final two songs in this set. Joyce’s “She Weeps Over Rahoon” had already been set to music several times before Fine composed her version for voice and string quartet, but the wealth of settings of this poem speaks to its popularity, at least among the white, middle-and upper-class audiences who are interested in art song. Like the first two songs in Fine’s Four Songs, it speaks to loss and longing for an absent person.
Rain on Rahoon falls softly, softly falling
Where my dark lover lies.
Sad is his voice that calls me, sadly calling
At grey moonrise.
Love, hear thou
How soft, how sad his voice isever calling,
Ever unanswered—and the dark rain falling
Then as now.
Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie, and cold
As his sad heart has lain
Under the moon-grey nettles, the black mould
And muttering rain. (Joyce, 1927)
“She Weeps Over Rahoon” is the only song in the set that uses all four of the instruments from the string quartet with voice, and the texture of the song is much more dense than the previous two. Throughout, the first and second violins have parallel rhythms, usually long, sustained notes separated most frequently by a minor ninth. Both violins’ lines are set in a very high tessitura, perhaps evoking the height of the sky or the moon or the ineffable pain the narrator is experiencing, or, as in “Comfort to Youth”, an afterlife.
Against this persistent and very quiet dissonance, the viola and cello have a solo interlude each and a duet. The viola first enters after the voice has sung the poem’s first two lines: in a series of quavers, slurred like the crochets in the firs song to indicate phrasing and metrical beginnings and ends, the viola line moves chromatically, focusing on semitone and whole tone relationships. This seems to prepare for the change drastic change in the vocal line that begins at bar 22. For the first section of the song, the voice is almost static, reciting the text on an A or B. dropping to G# at the end of the first stanza. In bar 22, however, the voice becomes louder and much more active, anxious and chromatic for 3 bars, before returning to a drone, albeit higher pitched, for 3 bars. With the higher drone, the cello enters for the first time with a plaintive solo that rapidly expands into counterpoint with itself, requiring the performer to maintain two melodic lines at the same time. As the voice and cello parts before more complex—the voice again becoming active—the viola returns to add yet another contrapuntal line, repeating some of the previous gestures from its quaver passage but with different rhythmic values. Finally, the viola and cello lines slow and become simple, and the voice returns to the drone, this time on an A-flat, again.
Fine’s setting captures the varying moods of grief. The unfeeling, numb, or trudging sensation is represented by the drones, where each syllable is clearly articulated, but where there is no or little melodic interest. At the other extreme is the highly chromatic and intense declamation of a more restless state, the panicked loss of control of grief. The contrasts between the highest and lowest instruments in the string quartet enhance the sense of disparity: the high dissonance of the violins is an unemotional heaven beneath which the earthier timbres and complicated writing of the lower voices suggest the living seeking meaning and resolution.
Fine chose as her final text for the Four Songs another Joyce poem, “Tilly.” The title refers not to a person, but references the meaning of the word as something that is “a little bit extra.” The first two stanzas suggest a rustic and not unpleasant scene, the drover moving his cattle in a familiar pattern and state. But the final stanza breaks away from this form to refocus on the poem’s creator, unhappy, injured, and alone. (O’Grady 2010)
He travels after a winter sun,
Urging the cattle along a cold red road,
Calling to them, a voice they know,
He drives his beasts above Cabra.
The voice tells them home is warm.
They moo and make brute music with their hoofs.
He drives them with a flowering branch before him,
Smoke pluming their foreheads.
Boor, bond of the herd,
Tonight stretch full by the fire!
I bleed by the black stream
For my torn bough!
Ultimately, this poem too is about grief and mourning: the narrator mourns for themself.
Fine embraces the poem’s binary by composing contrasting textures and time signatures for the first two stanzas and the last. Her setting is for the two violins and cello of the string quartet, and begins in 6/8 with the first violin and cello in octaves playing a repeated figure of G-sharp crochet-C-sharp quaver, F-sharp quaver-F-natural crochet, a seesawing gesture that could represent the movement of the cows or the drover’s calls to them. The vocal line, which moves from time signature to time signature independently from the strings, nods to the descending fifth of the string figure by descending from E to A on “He travels” before asserting its own melodic identity. Twice, for lines 2 and 4, Fine uses a short tone row: D F E-flat A-flat C-flat D-flat in the same rhythm to create musical a rhyme.
As the second stanza begins, the first violin and cello have begun to diverge, and the second violin enters just after the voice, setting the stage for the texture of the final stanza with sustained double-stops mostly in major and minor ninths. The vocal line becomes more fluid and less speech-like, with large jumps between notes and less correlation between syllables and note length. The first violin’s line is a carefully constructed improvisation-like variation on the crochet-quaver, quaver-crochet motif from the song’s beginning, while in the cello, a similar exploration moves radically away from its origins into chromatic triplet and quintuplets played pizzicato.
Both improvisatory passages come to an end with the last lines of the second stanza, and the second violin alone holds an E-flat-D double-stop as the tempo slows slightly for the third stanza. Fine sets the stanza in the free and chromatic style as the previous text-setting, still emphasizing major and minor seconds and fifths. The last two lines of the text are marked lento, and the second violin drops the double-stop and moves to a very high G-sharp as the singer descends from G-sharp to C-sharp to A.
Fine’s Four Songs are small but exquisitely detailed, short but rich, and packed full of meaning, emotion, and interest. Fine shows her mastery of creating musical puzzles and solutions, using established methods in conjunction with the free spirit of improvisation, and in setting text in meaningful and multiply fascinating ways. In these four pieces about grief and loss and mourning, there is text and music to touch any listener.
Anonymous. c. 1515-1540. “Westron wynde”. British Library ms Royal Appendix (RA) 58.
Duffie, Bruce. 1986. Interview with Vivian Fine. November 8. http://www.bruceduffie.com/fine.html
Joyce, James. 1927. “She Weeps Over Rahoon”. From Pomes Penyeach(Paris: Shakespeare and Company).
Lumsden, Rachel. 2017. “‘You Too Can Compose’: Ruth Crawford’s Mentoring of Vivian Fine”. MTO23, no. 2 (June 2017), 2. http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.17.23.2/mto.17.23.2.lumsden.html
Herrick, Robert. 1648. Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine. Early English Books Online. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A43441.0001.001/1:5.1035?rgn=div2;view=fulltext
O’Grady, Thomas. 2010. “Poetry and Grief: James Joyce’s ‘Tilly’”. The Boston Irish Reporter21, No. 10 (October), 18. http://irishmatters.blogspot.com/2010/10/poetry-and-grief-james-joyces-tilly.html
Page, Tim. 1986. “Music: Song Cycles of 20’s and 30’s”. The New York Times(September 30), 15. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/09/30/arts/music-song-cycles-of-20-s-and-30-s.html
As a composer and fine artist my musical writing is influenced by visual concepts and finding ways to express these ideas in music as well as creating artistic/musical works together. Recently my focus has centred around achieving this primarily through live painting with music and using my personal sense of synaesthesia to inform my practice. In specific, “chromaesthesia,” the sense of simultaneously seeing and hearing sound. This can be experienced as a physical sense in which one sees colour with their physical eyes, or in the mind’s eye. For me, I “see” music in my minds eye as bursts of moving shapes and colour. One of the best examples found in nature that compares to synaesthesia (as I personally experience it) is the Northern Lights, which resembles the overall sound of many stringed instruments playing together. The chromaesthesiac moving image is dependant on much more than single notes but instrument type, intervals, timbre, dynamics and rhythm. Many instruments playing together forms an extensive, moving image made up of smaller gestures. This is impossible to capture entirely with live painting however I strive to create a representation of this experience for the audience. Currently I am working towards live painting with my own compositions and also experimenting with “encoding” specific visual gestures within the music that will produce pre-planned results in the painting. Excerpts of live-painting with music can be seen here: : https://www.carolinebordignon.com/livepaintingandmusic
In 2018 the premiere of my work, “Iridescent Flares,” for orchestra was performed at the Royal Northern College of Music featuring moving image and digital projection with the orchestra. This work was based off of the idea of bursts of light on crystal and the iridescent colour world produced. Above the orchestra still images of colourful brush strokes were projected in fast sequences with the performance to create a more immersive experience. A video recording of the piece can be seen here:
In future performances of this work I would like to experiment with painting live alongside the orchestra.
Ultraviolet, for soprano and string quartet is a wordless piece written for season II of the Illuminate Women's Music concert series and was inspired by the concept of ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light is beyond the spectrum of light that can be perceived by the human eye, however many animals and insects see ultraviolet light and elements of the world most people do not perceive. It is possible in very rare cases for females to have a gene mutation that allows for an extra, fourth cone to exist in the eye, resulting in the perception of ultraviolet light. This condition is also known as “tetrachromacy”. This can occur because of the presence of two X chromosomes found only in females that allows for a greater genetic diversity and the potential for such a mutation. Research suggests that 12% of women have this condition. I am interested in the ways in which hidden realities that exist yet are largely unperceived can be expressed through musical composition. Through continued research and collaborative projects I hope to expose these colourful worlds to a broader audience.
Support Illuminate Season II activities and future years:
In recent years, and growing alongside my enthralment with creating quarter-tonal soundworlds, I have been fascinated with psychology and with different ways of expressing and connecting to emotions using music.
Most of my pieces now have a relatively complex story behind them of various characters with different traits, all reacting to one another, creating the structure (or journey) of the piece. At the same time as building these big characters and stories inside my head, the music representing them has gotten more and more minimal, focused, and more importantly – vulnerable. It’s like every single melodic fragment represents somebody’s whole world, their entire outlook on life. The pain they try to hide, now fully visible in musical form, encompassing what they have been through and who they are now.
In this time of seemingly perfect social media lives, with many of us rebelling by sharing honestly about our struggles with mental health and career setbacks, I want to believe that this type of vulnerability in music is necessary. To be able to admit our pain and connect deeply with our emotions rather than run away from them is what makes us stronger. To connect to it in music is cathartic.
The first piece I wrote which represents this type of approach is Postlude, for viola and cello, written in 2014 at the Dartington advanced composition course. To express this emotional rawness using quarter-tones felt so liberating that I knew I had found my voice.
In contrast, Together, alone is about staying still while everyone around you finds their own voice, their own journey - making you feel more and more lonely, even when surrounded by people. It was written during a difficult time in my life when I was struggling with finding my own identity outside of music.
I hope that the emotional vulnerability in this and my other pieces inspires others to be honest about their own emotions and struggles, so that we all feel a little less alone.
An awful lot seems to have happened since Dr Angela Elizabeth Slater asked me to publish the first-ever composer blog about Morfydd Owen for the Illuminate Women’s Music website on 3 January 2018.As Illuminate moves into a second year with performances of Morfydd’s 1915 ‘Piano Trio’ taking place in the USA and UK, it’s a pleasure to reflect on events that marked the centenary of the composer’s death last September and to preview some of those to come.
I met Angela by chance when we were both invited by Dr Rhiannon Mathias to give papers at the First International Conference on Women’s Work in Music at Bangor University in September 2017. The timing really couldn’t have been better: Angela was planning to launch Illuminate while I was revisiting my Doctoral research with a view to programming a year-long commemoration of the centenary. By the end of the conference, we had agreed that Morfydd’s Four Welsh Impressions for solo piano would benefit both projects by forming part of Késia Decoté’s repertoire for Illuminate’s inaugural concerts in Stafford, Cardiff and Brighton (10, 11 and 20 April 2018).
2 Késia Decoté playing Morfydd Owen’s Four Welsh Impressions
Publication of the blog gave an immediate sense of the level of interest to come. Within a day, BBC Cymru Fyw, the live-stream Welsh-language news channel, had picked up the story and turned it into a feature piece, Cofio Morfydd, cerddor lliwgar y cymoedd [Remembering Morfydd, colourful musician of the valleys] that reached the top three news headlines in Wales. Requests for interviews, repertoire suggestions and programme notes soon started arriving via @MorfyddOwen100, the Facebook and Twitter channels that I set up to publicise and archive centenary activity and, by February, it was clear that Morfydd was becoming a full-time job in her own right. This had some practical implications, given that my usual job is to programme the Gregynog Festival, the oldest extant classical music festival in Wales, but happily, we had just enough time to retailor our 2018 season so that we could present a programme of events in Mid Wales as usual, focusing on Morfydd Owen’s family roots in the Montgomeryshire village of Llanbryn-mair, while also leaving me the flexibility to respond to other invitations and opportunities. And so @MorfyddOwen100 evolved into a series of concerts, talks, exhibitions and special events in the UK from January to December 2018, plus other performances and broadcasts worldwide that I was able to assist via e-mail and social media.
Highlights in Wales included two ceremonies over centenary weekend to unveil blue plaques on the houses where Morfydd Owen was born (68 Park Street, Treforest), and in which she died (Craig-y-Môr, Plunch Lane, Oystermouth). Creating and delivering these occasions, including arrangements for performers, audience members and television camera crews, kept us all so busy in the moment that it is good to have quieter time now to realise how significant they were. Few people can ever been paid such a compliment, let alone a musician who died when she was just 26 years of age. There were large attendances at centenary lectures for the Royal Institution of South Wales and Oystermouth Historical Society at Swansea University (6 September 2018); the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth (11 September 2018); Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives (12 November 2018), and the University of South Wales’ Treforest Campus when Morfydd Owen was the subject of the Ursula Masson Memorial Lecture for the Centre for Gender Studies in Wales and the Women’s Archive of Wales (International Women’s Day, 8 March 2019).
Other audiences were reached through frequent television and radio broadcasts, including a 90-minute drama by Boom Cymru for S4C (Channel 4 Wales) that was given a preview screening by BAFTA Cymru in Cardiff (25 October 2018) prior to broadcast (16 December 2018). During a year of #Sheroes and #Herstories, Morfydd Owen’s life and example also came to symbolise something more than musical achievement alone and there were requests for interviews for current affairs programmes as well as those specialising in music and the arts. Morfydd was chosen, for instance, as one of five inspirational Welsh women to mark one hundred years since the Representation of the People Act by BBC Radio Wales’ flagship news programme, Good Morning Wales(8 February 2018). Rhondda Cynon Taf Borough Council also announced that it would be honouring three women including Morfydd with commemorative panels in local libraries with the intention of telling their stories so that future generations of women in the area may be inspired to follow in their footsteps. The Morfydd Owen panel will be unveiled when a new library building has been completed at Llys Cadwyn, Pontypridd.
But the most impactful event of centenary year must surely have been the fine performance of Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, at the BBC Proms on 20 July 2018. This was the first time that the work had been heard in London since it was premièred at Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, by the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Mackenzie, on 12 December 1913, and the performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio Cymru as well as being recorded for delayed television transmission by BBC Four. What a whirlwind of a day that was, including an interview by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today; a Proms Plus talk with Steph Power and Petroc Trelawny that was edited to form the interval feature during the live performance on BBC Radio 3; and concert commentary for BBC Radio Cymru that was broadcast live from within the Royal Albert Hall itself.
Nocturne was heard alongside two scores by Lili Boulanger, who also died prematurely in 1918 at the age of 24; and she and Morfydd Owen were two of 21 women whose music was represented at last year’s Proms – that is, 15 per cent of the 133 composers whose work was heard during the season as a whole. According to the annual survey conducted by Women in Music, these figures were substantially better than the previous best of 12 female composers in 2015. Proms Director David Pickard has also pledged to increase the number of commissions so that male and female composers are treated equally by 2022.
Nocturne was greeted by rave reviews in the British and French press and, believe you me, when Richard Morrison concludes his Times review with ‘More Morfydd soon please’ after you have sought to draw attention to the significance of a score for 35 years, it feels like a really good day at the office. The Proms performance has since been rebroadcast by ABC Radio in Sydney (28 July 2018), Radio Monalisa in Amsterdam (26 and 29 August 2018), and as part of Mexico City’s leading classical music programme, Música en Red Mayor, presented by Jose-Maria Alvarez (4 September 2018). Nocturne was also featured by Steve Lamacq on BBC Radio 6 Music and by Huw Stephens and Clemency Burton-Hill on BBC Radio 3’s podcast Classical Fix, making this one of the year’s highest-profile events for Welsh culture in terms of impact and reach. A cumulative audience of millions must have been able to access the concert itself, plus the live, delayed and on-demand broadcasts via BBC radio, television and online, and the subsequent relays by other radio stations.
From one major national festival to another and it was standing room only at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay for a presentation about Morfydd Owen’s pioneering work as an ethnomusicologist as part of Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru’s new strand of classical music programming called #Encore (7 August 2018). The Welsh Folk-Song Society generously made it possible for me to include live performances of Morfydd’s rarely-heard transcriptions and arrangements of Welsh and Russian folksongs by Siân James and Steffan Rhys Hughes, accompanied by Rhiannon Pritchard, as illustrations to my script and the presentation also served as the Society’s Amy Parry-Williams Memorial Lecture for 2018. We repeated the event at Llanbryn-mair as part of Gregynog Festival's Morfydd in Montogomeryshire programme (29 September 2018) when it was emotional to do so within sight of the framed portrait of Morfydd Owen that her father presented to the village after her death and which still hangs in the entrance hall of the Community Centre. Llywelyn Ifan Jones also made an effective transcription for solo harp of Morfydd Owen’s haunting piano miniature Glantaf that he premièred during his Gregynog Festival recitals in partnership with Live Music Now.
9 Llywelyn Ifan Jones playing his transcription of Morfydd Owen’s Glantaf
Two new scores took Morfydd Owen’s legacy in fresh and imaginative directions by sampling her songs. Psychohistory, a sound installation commissioned by Swansea International Festival from Locus (Richard James of Gorky’s Zygotic Monkey and Angharad Van Rijswijk of Accü) for Swansea Museum (22 September-21 October 2018), drew on a fragment from A mother’s lullaby; while Robin Haigh’s score ‘Morfydd’, premièred at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, by the Berkeley Ensemble (22 November 2018), used the vocal line of The lamb as the only melodic material throughout. Haigh's score was one of eight commissioned as part of Acclerate, PRS for Music's inaugural career development programme, and received a second performance as part of a Tŷ Cerdd Night Music showcase at St David’s Hall, Cardiff (9 April 2019).
Significant revivals of Morfydd Owen’s vocal, choral, chamber, piano and orchestral works took place throughout centenary year, including seven songs by Katherine Aregood Crusi and Keith Trievel at the Trinity Lutheran Church, Reading, Pennsylvania, USA (2 May 2018);Threnody for strings played on tour from Beaumaris to Milford Haven by the Welsh Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Hose (May-October 2018); a full recital of Morfydd Owen’s vocal and piano music, given by Gail Pearson and Christopher Williams at Cardiff University School of Music (13 November 2018), and Nocturne played by the Philomusica of Aberystwyth, conducted by David Russell Hulme, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre (8 December 2018).
Cardiff University honoured Morfydd as an alumna during concerts by its Symphony Orchestra (24 November 2018)and Chamber Choir (14 December 2018); and the Choir has since toured three of Morfydd’s choral works to China (June 2019).Morfydd’s scores have also been championed by the student musicians of Stetson University, Florida, USA; the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiffl and the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London (part of the #VenusBlazing initiative). After 35 years’ research, I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see the composer reach a tipping-point where personal lobbying is no longer required from me for her music to be programmed, and long may it continue.
11 The Ethel Smyth Trio and Prism Trio playing Morfydd Owen’s ‘Piano Trio’
Which brings me to the current sequence of performances of Morfydd Owen’s 1915 ‘Piano Trio’, programmed by Illuminate Women’s Music and given by the Prism Trio as part of the Music Marathon at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, Connecticut, USA (30 March 2019), and the Ethel Smyth Trio in Brighton (30 August 2019), York (7 September 2019) and Stafford (14 September 2019). Angela Elizabeth Slater and I will be giving a pre-concert talk in York and look forward to seeing you there. Other performances of Morfydd’s music are already being planned as far ahead as September 2020, so do follow the @MorfyddOwen100 accounts on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest news.
Meantime, Zoë Smith has just released a recording of the Four Welsh Impressions as part of a disc of Welsh piano music on the Tŷ Cerdd label;and a few copies of my ‘life in pictures’ of Morfydd Owen, Never So Pure A Sight, are also available from Tŷ Cerdd. Morfydd’s published music can be obtained from Tŷ Cerdd and Oriana Publications; while the main collection of her manuscripts is held at Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives.
I’ll end with some reviews of Nocturne at the Proms that speak for themselves and I trust will convince others to programme Morfydd Owen’s music in future. Do be in touch if there is anything I can do to help; and with sincere thanks – diolch o galon- to all who have helped in so many ways already.
Alongside Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, we had two works by Lili Boulanger and the Nocturneby the little known Morfydd Owen … Only twenty-six when she died, she left behind a substantial corpus which is too infrequently performed. What stands out in her Nocturneis the beautiful writing for woodwind, subtle but virtuosic, and the advanced nature of the orchestration as a whole, hinting at works that might have matched Strauss if only she had had the time … At fifteen minutes long, it’s a work we could do with hearing more regularly in the concert hall.
Morfydd Owen's Nocturne in D flat major (1913) … should transform perceptions about Welsh (and British) music history … Unlike far too many supposedly ‘lost’ composers, Owen's legacy was substantial. Her reputation doesn't rest on sentimentality or gender alone, but on the hard evidence of her music itself.
The Nocturne is sophisticated and highly original … Such deftness of design, such precise orchestration, and such beauty … unhurried and clear of purpose … its serene confidence is highly distinctive: Owen most definitely had a voice of her own, though she was only 22 when it was completed. BBC NOW should make this Nocturne part of their standard repertoire … Owen's music speaks for itself regardless of reputation.
Morfydd Owen’s tragically short life is rendered even more poignant by a haunting photograph of a beautiful young woman gazing confidently out at you. She wrote Nocturne in 1913, and it is, in our global village, a powerful reminder how a couple of hundred miles can make a world of difference. As with Lili Boulanger, there’s an element of Impressionism, although from a darker, grey-green palette. The various influences – Delius, northern Europe, Russia – might not sound so assimilated, but Owen had a freakishly astute orchestral ear, clearly knew the power of a good tune and was an imaginative manipulator of mood, all aspects of her musicianship given full expression by this beautifully engaged, spacious performance.
Morfydd Owen was a revelation to me. The only thing more astonishing than the quality of her orchestral Nocturne is the fact that she wrote 250 other pieces in her 27-year life … Performed for the first time in London since its 1913 première, the Nocturne begins with very French flourishes for woodwind, then unfurls the most gorgeous melody. More Morfydd soon please.
© Rhian Davies, 2019
The Times, 23 July 2018.
A BBC Proms press release suggests that ‘over 16 million people watched the BBC Proms on TV’ in the UK alone in 2017, see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/proms-2018.
As one of the most prolific composers of the seventeenth century, Barbara Strozzi was not only a renowned soprano, but a profoundly accomplished and empowered woman, who forged a career for herself as a composer of cantatas and arias. Her 400th Birthday offers an opportunity to explore the life and works of one of the first women to openly characterise herself as a composer, and to be accepted as such, in what was an oppressive and problematic social environment for women.
Strozzi was born in Venice on 6th August 1619, to Giulio Strozzi, and his long-term servant and mistress, Isabella Griega. Giulio played a key role in setting his illegitimate daughter on the path towards a musical career, encouraging and including her in his academic activities, especially those which were musically inclined. He co-founded an academic movement called the Academia degli Unisoni, an offshoot of the distinguished Academia degli Incogniti, which focussed on musical activities and debated musical topics. Taking place in the Strozzis’ home, Barbara acted as a master of ceremonies, directing debates, giving vocal performances, and ultimately, having the last word. These types of academic societies were key to Renaissance and Baroque culture, as they provided intellectual and financial support to the arts, and therefore were frequently responsible for dictating cultural, artistic fashions.
Giulio Strozzi arranged for Barbara to be taught by Francesco Cavalli, himself a student of Claudio Monteverdi, who was a prominent composer of opera and other dramatic works. Giulio was a great admirer of music, and wrote libretti for composers such as Monteverdi, Cavalli, Manelli and Sacrati. It is no wonder that this passion for music lead him to encourage his daughter’s talents, although the degree to which he included her in musical activities in an academic, intellectual context is remarkable.
The liberal approach of her father enabled Barbara Strozzi to establish herself as an autonomous and serious composer, although doing so was not without its risks. Her female contemporaries were performers; Prima Donnas of the operatic stage, whose status as actress-singers at times gave them little more than aesthetic significance in the public eye, and generated comparatively little cause for concern in the predominantly conservative society. Some of these singers also composed, but none made a name for themselves through their compositions.
Due to the controversy of Barbara Strozzi’s musical activities and her interaction with men in academic circles, it has been frequently suggested by her contemporaries and by recent scholars that she was a courtesan. In 1637, eight satires were anonymously published, which criticised the Academia degli Unisoni, with comments made about Barbara, including; "It is a fine thing to distribute the flowers after having already surrendered the fruit”, and "to claim and to be [chaste] are very different”.
In the period of 1640-1646, Barbara became a single mother, bearing three children by Giovanni Paolo Vidman. She later gave birth to a fourth child, the father of whom is unknown. Her status as a single mother has propagated the courtesan narrative, as has a portrait of the composer by Bernardo Strozzi (no relation of Barbara), which features Barbara with a nude breast, alongside a viola da gamba and sheet music (indicating her ability to perform and accompany her own music). Whether or not Barbara was a courtesan cannot yet be determined, but it does not alter or undermine her musical achievement.
Strozzi’s exposure to the academic sphere inspired her to go down the route of composition, and she shrewdly chose to focus primarily on one genre of works. So far, research has uncovered over eighty-two works composed by Strozzi, the vast majority of which are short, secular songs set to poetry with a consistent theme: unrequited love. This theme is approached in a variety of ways: with humour, irony, and solemnity, depending on the piece. She composed cantatas and arias, which vary in form and length, clearly showing an attempt to play with different structures. Her vocal ability as a soprano seems to have dictated the music she wrote, as all but a few works are for, or include, a soprano voice. Her pieces are lyrical, emphasising the power and diversity achievable with the soprano register, with long, melismatic passages giving the performer plenty of opportunity to show off. She added dynamics, tempo markings and a plenitude of ornamentation such as trills, tremolos and runs, suggesting that Strozzi was keen to show the singer how to best to exhibit their skills.
A particular example of this is “Appena il sol”from Opus 7, Diporti di Euterpre (1659), which contains numerous markings and instructions from Strozzi, as well as exhibiting the long melismas which show off the soprano voice to its fullest.
Although Strozzi composes in the seconda prattica style, which puts emphasis on music being secondary to the words and emotions it is expressing, she shows an affinity for choosing short passages of text to set her music to. Her use of text is often repetitive rather than expansive, as can be seen within her strophic arias and their repeated choruses. Although typical seconda prattica techniques such as word painting are used to emphasise certain lyrics, her works indulge the singer’s abilities, rejecting the narrative voice adopted by her contemporaries, in favour of a more self-expressive one. She deals with the inherent drama of her theme: the agony of unrequited love, by using the voice to truly expand on the feelings expressed in the lyrics, with her lyric-less portions of melody creating just as much, if not more, emotional impact upon the listener. The aria “L’eraclito amoroso”, from Opus 2, Cantate, ariette e dueti (1651), exemplifies this repetitive use of text and expressive, lyric-less vocal melismas to create a significant emotional impact.
Her attention to detail, as well as the fact that almost all of her works were short cantatas and arias, provides a stark contrast to the work of her teacher Cavalli, and the work of her other contemporaries. Whilst opera was an extremely popular phenomenon, demand for printed books of works which could be performed in the home were also very popular. Most composers attempted to supply both dramatic and domestic markets, as well as writing sacred music, but Strozzi focussed her attention on producing her Opuses, which were monographic collections of musical works for general, domestic use. Appealing to the domestic market, Strozzi was able to see eight of these Opuses, consisting entirely of her own compositions, through the press.
Unlike composers who belonged to a particular court or patron, Strozzi was not required to churn out music for particular occasions or at the whim of an employer. She was able to perfect her own works at her own pace, and ensure that they were all printed, avoiding the ephemerality of many court composer’s outputs. Although she was not able to rely on a consistent salary, she managed to earn enough to support herself, her children, and for a time, her ailing parents. She dedicated her works to a range of high-ranking, European patrons, such as the Duchess of Mantua and King Ferdinand of Austria, implying a high level of renown and success.
Barbara died in November 1677 after travelling to Padua. We can only trace her career as far as her last published set of cantatas and arias in 1664, but in the final thirteen years of her life, Strozzi may have composed several works which were not published, or were lost.
Barbara Strozzi’s music demonstrates her impressive knowledge of the soprano voice, and expresses her passion for vocal music, cultivated by her supportive father. Her exposure to the academic societies of Venice allowed her to flourish in an environment which was hostile toward women in her position, and her shrewd approach to her compositions enabled her to create and perfect music which was not only popular, but commercially saleable. In doing this, Strozzi created a musical legacy which has lasted over three centuries, long outliving the works of many of her contemporaries.
© Annabelle Page (2019)
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