September 2017, saw the 150th birthday of prolific woman composer, Amy Beach, yet her music is rarely placed in modern concert repertoire. Although she is perhaps one of the most well-remembered women composers, there is still a long way to go to make sure her wonderful works are fully integrated into modern concert halls. This article aims to highlight her fruitful life, and also look into her work for violin and piano: Romance.
Amy Beach was born in New Hampshire, 1867, and it was said that from a very young age she showed the signs of being a child prodigy. It has been documented that by age 1, Amy could sing forty songs. By age 2, she could improvise melodies over pre-existing music. By age 3, she was competent at reading music. From age 4, Amy began composing simple works, such as waltzes. It was Amy’s mother who was the driving force behind her musical education, as she herself was a well-known pianist and singer at the time. At age 6, Amy began taking formal piano lessons with her mother, which she excelled at. Thus, by age 7, she was giving public recitals, playing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and of course, herself. In 1875, Amy and her family moved to Boston, and she began taking piano lessons with Carl Baermann (a student of Franz Liszt). At age 14, Amy received her only composition lesson, which was with Junius W. Hill. Therefore, the rest of her career she was a wholly self-taught composer.
A lot of articles about Amy Beach focus on the sexism she encountered throughout her life, and the ways in which she overcame them. It is important to understand this, as it was such a large part of her life, and therefore it affected the way she was able to work at times. Amy married Dr. Henry Aubrey Beach, who was a Boston-based surgeon, who was 24 years her senior. Henry did not agree with Amy giving so many recitals, so he restricted her to just two a year, with all proceeds from these recitals going to charity. Due to this, Amy began to focus more on composition. Henry forbade Amy to learn composition formally, so she instead bought an abundance of books on composition, orchestration and arranging so she could learn her own art. Even through this, Amy is still recognised as a powerful force when it comes to composition. Her Mass in Eb Major was received with particular positivity when it was premiered in 1892.
Amy Beach: Mass in Eb Major (Kyrie)
Amy Beach was part of a group called the Boston Six, which was comprised of John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, George Whitefield Chadwick, Horatio Parker and Edward MacDowell. Being a part of this collective aided Amy to get her work published, and by 1896 she premiered her first symphony - Gaelic Symphony. This was a large milestone as Amy became the first American woman to composer and then further publish a symphony. Further to this, in 1900, Amy was the soloist for the premiere of her Piano Concerto in C Sharp Minor, and from here her composition career really took off.
1910 was a tragic year for Amy. She lost both her husband and mother in the same year, and to deal with the grief, she stopped composing for a short period of time. After taking a year off to grieve, Amy began composing and giving recitals once more. She went travelling around Europe with American soprano, Marcia Craft, and together they gave many recitals in major European cities. Throughout her travels, Amy was known to be the first American woman who was able ‘to composer music of a European quality of excellence.’
Amy Beach: Piano Concerto in C sharp Major
Amy returned to America in 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I. She became the primary carer of her terminally ill cousin, Ethel. Amy began offering coaching and feedback to young composers and musicians. In 1928, Amy received an honorary Master’s degree from the University of New Hampshire. During the last years of her life, Amy travelled to Europe once more, and gave some of her last public concerts. Upon her return to America in 1940, Amy retired from composing due to ill health, which overcame her in 1944.
Romance for violin and piano was premiered in 1893, and published within the same year. Technical complexity is at the heart of many of Amy Beach’s compositions, with this one being no exception. The relationship between the piano and violin is very special in this particular work, due to the amount of musical communication between the two instruments. Amy’s originality is crystallized in Romance, with it being a real homage to technical chamber music from the Romantic era. Romance is dedicated to Maud Powell, a close personal friend of Amy, and also a virtuoso violinist. The premiere of Romance, was played by Maud and Amy, and it is noted that it was received incredibly well by the audience.
As one of the leading representatives of the late-nineteenth-century Romantic style, Amy keeps the feeling of this in Romance. Her use of dramatic dynamics, extremities in range for both instruments, and the way they both fuse together to create one voice is incredibly beautiful. The charm of Romance is perhaps one of its greatest assets, with it really tugging at your heartstrings in some places. The dainty, yet powerful melodic lines sing through the complex piano accompaniment, and show off the versatility of the violin in just six short minutes. The ending of this work acts as a reprise of the beginning of the work, and slowly begins to wind down, before ending on the tonic, with a beautiful arpeggiated chord from the piano.
Amy Beach: Romance for violin and piano
Unlike a wealth of forgotten women composers, Amy Beach has retained a presence in musical history. However, there is still a long way to go before her works are properly integrated into modern concert halls. Her music is daring, powerful, emotional, complex and full of character, and there is no good reason why she shouldn’t be at the forefront of many concerts. Just before she passed away at age 77, Amy was concerned that her legacy would be shadowed by gender politics, rather than it being about her musical efforts. She said ‘My work has always been judged from the beginning by work as such, not according to sex. The question has rarely ever been raised.” Even after all the oppression she received in her lifetime, she still downplayed it to ensure her art was heard in the future. Well, Amy, we can hear your music, loud and clear - thank you for your contribution to classical music.
©Alex Burns 2018
Alex Burns has recently graduated from The University of Sheffield, after studying for a Bmus in Music, and for an MA in Musicology. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 Classical Music blog in the world, and has written on a range of different composers, aiming to make classical music more accessible to everybody.
Claude Arrieu was the pseudonym used by the French composer Louise Marie Simon (1903-1990). She was a prolific composer who studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire with many notable composers including Paul Dukas. She also studied piano with Marguerite Long and wrote many works for that instrument. Louise Marie received the first prize for composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1932. She wrote in the Neo-Classical style favoured at the time by other French composers including her contemporary Francis Poulenc.
Louise Marie Simon worked as a producer and for the sound effects department of the French Radio Broadcasting Service until 1947. During her time working as a producer, she became interested in electronic music and worked with the composer, Pierre Schaeffer. He wrote of her:
Claude Arrieu is part of her time by virtue of a presence, an instinct of efficiency, a bold fidelity. Whatever the means, concertos or songs, music for official events, concerts for the elite or for a crowd of spectators, she delivered emotion through an impeccable technique and a spiritual vigilance, finding the path to the heart.
Louise Marie Simon wrote music that portrayed dramatic emotions and in her chamber music she employed strong melodic themes reminiscent of Gabriel Faure but with the added spice of sudden harmonic shifts. She would have been a young student when the group of composers Poulenc, Honegger, Milhaud, Durey, Auric and Tailleferre were named Les Six by writer Jean Cocteau in an article in the magazine, Commedia. The six composers published a book of piano music in 1920 called L’Album des Six that surely made a huge impression on Louise Marie Simon. She certainly displayed some of the same quixotic, playful characteristics in her own music.
Simon’s music displayed influences of Ravel, Debussy and Faure. Her concerto for two pianos, composed in 1934, was particularly well received. She also wrote flute, violin and trumpet concertos. Her music displayed a great love of melody even when the melodic style of writing ceased to be fashionable.
Louise Marie composed in many genres including opera and orchestral works, songs and chamber music. She composed at least thirty film scores and forty radio scores. She is best remembered for her chamber music and had a particular fondness for writing for woodwind instruments. Her instrumental music is thought to be the strongest and most characterful of her output. Her flute duet from 1963 can be listened to at the following audio link:
Many of her works for woodwind remain in the repertoire - in particular:
Quintet en Ut for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn & Bassoon (1955)
Suite en Quatre for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet & Bassoon (1964)
Sonatine for Flute and Piano (1943)
The radio premiere of Sonatine was well received when performed by Jean-Pierre Rampal and Herman Moyens in 1944. The piece demonstrates a few of Simon’s compositional quirks: she states deceptively simple opening themes built on arpeggio figures or octaves of the tonic for each of the three movements. These opening subjects are repeated many times yet incorporate subtle changes such as stretched intervals or new chromatic notes. The keys of the three movements are G major, A major and G minor but a sense of unity throughout Sonatine is provided by referring briefly to the submediant major of each of those keys. This provides a fleeting hint of elegant Renaissance style amidst colourful flurries and sardonic quips. This referencing of older traditions in a twentieth century context links her work with that of Cocteau, Stravinsky and Picasso and results in music which is both original and charming.
Simms, B.R. Music of the Twentieth Century, New York: Schirmer Books 1996
Vinton, J. Dictionary of 20th Century Music, London: Thames & Hudson, 1974
Cocteau J. Cock and Harlequin: Notes Concerning Music, London: Egoist Press, 1921
Being the younger sister of prolific composer and educator, Nadia Boulanger, Lili Boulanger has perhaps not received as much attention from modern writers. It should be our mission in 2018 to uncover the delights of women composers, especially those who have not received as much media attention. March 15th 2018 sees the centenary of Boulanger’s premature death, and it is with great pride that I am writing this blog in her memory for Illuminate’s fantastic women composers blog series.
Born on 21st August 1893 in Paris, Lili Boulanger was considered at a young age as a musical child prodigy. This was perhaps not too surprising for the Boulanger family, with her mother and grandmother being singers, her elder sister, Nadia, being a composer and educator, and her father, Ernest, also working as a composer. It became apparent as early as two years old, that Lili had perfect pitch, therefore her parents supported her musical studies (something which is perhaps not always seen). Lili was very close to her father, who passed away when she was six years old. It is suggested that many of her works touch on themes of grief, as she was greatly affected by his passing. Music was thus a central part of the Boulanger household, and Lili thrived in this sort of setting.
After battling poor health from the age of two (which stayed with Lili the rest of her short life), the young aspiring composer attended music classes with her sister at the Paris Music Academy when she was well enough. From there, Lili began taking classes in music theory (from as young as five years old), and she also began studying organ performance with Louis Vierne. Lili also became proficient at playing the piano, violin, cello, harp, as well as being a good singer, and she subsequently was educated by the likes of Marcel Tournier and Alphonse Hasselmans. She became so absorbed in music, having lessons 7 days a week, that she rapidly improved and gained entry into the prestigious Paris Conservatoire in 1912, to study composition.
In 1912, Lili competed for the prestigious Prix de Rome prize, but halfway through her performance she collapsed. A year later, however, she entered again and won the composition prize for her cantata Faust et Hélène, making her the first woman composer to win this prize. Winning the Prix de Rome gained Lili a five-year international scholarship, which put her at the centre of the French music scene at this time. Lili became a student under her sister Nadia, and also prolific French composer, Gabriel Fauré. Soon after winning the composition prize, Lili was offered a contract with the publishing company, Ricordi, which gave her a fixed salary, as well as the publication safety so she could distribute her works abroad.
Lili’s life and work were consistently troubled by her chronic illness, which began as bronchial pneumonia, and formed into crohn’s disease, which ended her life in March 1918. Although she enjoyed travelling, Lili was often forced to cut trips short, like after going to Rome in 1914 to compose, she soon returned home to help her sister support French soldiers after WWI had broken out. In 1916, she was told she had two years to live, and in this time Lili was incredibly creative, as she rushed to complete the works she had already started. Compositions such as Pie Jesu (1918), Vieille prière bouddhique (1917) and D’un matin de printemps (1918) were completed by the time she passed, however her opera La Princesse Maleine remained uncompleted.
The last orchestral work completed by Lili before her untimely death in 1918 was D’un Matin de Printemps (‘One Spring Morning’). Originally composed as a duet for violin and piano, in the spring of 1917, this work has been adapted into various versions, including an orchestral version (1918), a trio version with piano and violin (1917), and a duet for flute and piano (1917). This work is only short, clocking in at around 4-5 minutes, however it is full of playful twists and turns, as well as exhibiting a fine art for both storytelling and complex musical cohesion. For the purposes of this article, I shall now be referring to the duet version for flute and piano.
Unlike many of her other works, which are darker in character and harmony, D’un Matin de Printemps is full of a fresh, joyful character. Adhering to the ‘rules’ of impressionism in the early twentieth century, Lili begins this piece with three sets of minor seconds played by the piano (A, B - E, F - A, B). This creates a certain frivolity to the work, as the tonality of the work is unsure at this point. The flute enters in b. 3 and this melody is then syncopated with the accompaniment, creating a slight uneasiness between the duo, however, due to the sheer sweetness of the character of this piece, it comes across as fun and exciting.
The ostinato phrase that is heard for quite some time underpins the first section of the work. This soon changes into a slighter darker middle section, where the flute carries some ominous trills, whilst the piano accompaniment becomes much more complex. This then segues back into the next, much faster section, that resonates that of the introduction. This soon calms, and the flute moves into a sweeping melody. The constant changes between sections of this work keeps you on your toes, as well as keeping you engaged in the music. The work ends with a some bold flourishes from both the flute and piano, before a full-scale glissando from the piano and a short and sharp last note.
Lili Boulanger’s style of composition can certainly be read from different stand points. The first is her obvious nod to impressionism, and the likes of Claude Debussy. D’un Matin de Printemps is a prime example of this kind of musical expression. Secondly, her style can be likened to that of Gabriel Fauré, who, as well as being her teacher, was also a close family friend, and taught Lili much of what she knew about composition. Lastly, Lili’s compositional style was progressive for her time, which is largely due to her extensive music education from such a young age.
Although the premature death of Lili Boulanger raises many ‘what if’ questions, there is no time to waste. I suggest focusing on all of the wonderful works that this prolific woman composer left behind as her legacy. Her incredible story has left behind so many untold stories, under-celebrated works and new treasures to be found. She also leaves behind a large catalogue of music, which can mostly be accessed online. Lili was, and should still be considered, a pivotal French composer, as without her, who knows what might have happened to the Boulanger family legacy. As her 100 anniversary of her death soon approaches, now is the time to celebrate her legacy and memory.
©Alex Burns 2018
Alex Burns recently graduated from The University of Sheffield after studying for a BMus in Music and for an MA in Musicology. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 classical music blog in the world, and has written on a range of different composers, aiming to make classical music more accessible to everybody.
Libby Larsen (b. 1950) is an accomplished American composer. With over 500 compositions, several orchestral and university residencies, and numerous accolades to her name, Larsen’s professional career is a tour de force. Born in Delaware, Larsen moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, at an early age. Her early musical education at Christ the King School in Minneapolis centered on singing and reading Gregorian chant, which, according to soprano Tina Milhorn Stallard, opened Larsen’s eyes and ears to “rhythmic flexibility and prosody.” The rhythmic elasticity inherent in Gregorian chant “offered to [Larsen] the idea that there was freedom in music, an idea which would permeate her future compositions.” This freedom may be observed in works where Larsen uses phrase markings, as opposed to a rigid meter, to group musical ideas or gestures. When she does use bar lines, she adds them late in her compositional process, allowing her melodic ideas to guide the time signatures.
Larsen received her BA, MM, and PhD from the University of Minnesota. While a student at the university, she noticed contemporary composers having difficulty programming their works. As a result of her observations and experiences, she, along with Stephen Paulus, organized the American Composers Forum in Minneapolis in 1973. Today the Forum champions the music of American composers and works diligently to “make composers, and the music they create, a vibrant and integral part of our culture.” Its awards, grants, and publications have helped many composers make professional inroads in a highly competitive field.
Many of Larsen’s works champion women, which is particularly noteworthy as Illuminate begins its new series. Larsen’s opera Barnum’s Bird relates the story of soprano Jenny Lind’s American tour from 1850-1851. Her operas Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus, A Wrinkle in Time, and Mrs. Dalloway are all based on stories by women authors, and the latter two feature female protagonists. Several song collections, such as The Birth Project and Love after 1950, showcase poetry by women. Mary Cassatt and Songs from Letters set letters from Mary Cassatt and Calamity Jane, respectively.
One could choose a number of pieces from Larsen’s oeuvre to examine, but the following notes focus on Sarabande: In Profane Style (1997), which will be performed during Illuminate’s inaugural concert series. Larsen wrote and dedicated Sarabande to John Holmquist, a renowned guitarist associated with the Cleveland Institute of Music. Alejandro Saladin Cote recorded Sarabande in 2012 on the album Silhouettes: New American Music for Guitar. Both the score and Cote’s recording are accessible through Larsen’s personal website at
The Sarabande, Historically Speaking
When thinking of a sarabande, one might recall dance suites. Though this is a significant genre distinction for French and German sarabandes, the sarabande has a long and colorful history in Spain and Italy. According to Grove Music Online, the sarabande had its origins in Latin America and Spain, but traveled to Italy in the seventeenth century as part of the Spanish guitar repertory. In Spain, the zarabanda was an energetic dance with sung text that was accompanied by guitar, castanets, and other percussion; however, it was banned in 1583 for its obscenity. Larsen’s subtitle for her Sarabande, “In Profane Style,” creates a dialogue with this historical fact. As we will see, Larsen’s Sarabande defies some conventions of the genre, thus “profaning” the style.
Other historical elements to note include the sarabande’s formal structure, meter, rhythm, and instrumentation. In the seventeenth century, the French version of the sarabande was sectional. Larsen’s Sarabande could certainly be interpreted as sectional, with returning chords and motives lending a sense of unity to the work. In the 1630s, triple meter became a defining feature of the sarabande, and by the seventeenth century, there was often rhythmical emphasis on beat two. Although we rarely hear a clear triple meter in Larsen’s Sarabande, there is often emphasis on the second beat of the measure.
After 1640, the sarabande was closely associated with the guitar in Spain and Italy. Larsen draws on this connection by writing her Sarabande for solo guitar. In France and Germany, however, the sarabande often appeared in keyboard and lute suites as a slower dance in triple meter. Larsen does evoke this slower tempo at the beginning of her Sarabande, but ultimately transitions into a quicker tempo.
Larsen’s “Profane” Sarabande
Larsen’s Sarabande both ascribes to and avoids the genre of the sarabande. Rhythmically, for instance, Larsen puts emphasis on the second beat while eschewing the sarabande’s distinctive triple meter. She also incorporates both slower and faster tempi. Larsen’s Sarabande begins “slowly, sensuously,” almost like the guitarist is seducing or daring the listener to join in the upcoming dance. As the tempo increases and the dance commences, Larsen begins emphasizing the second beat in different ways. Sometimes beat two has a downward leap and the lowest pitches. Other times it has the longest note value of the measure. Yet Larsen “profanes” the sarabande style by avoiding the traditional meter of 3/4. In fact, she changes meters throughout, appearing to undermine metrical stability almost as soon as she establishes it.
Larsen evokes the Spanish roots of the sarabande by using techniques often associated with Flamenco music. First, she indicates for the guitarist to play golpe three times during the work. Golpe, a Spanish noun that indicates a “hit” or “knock,” involves rhythmically striking the wood or bridge of the guitar. Second, Larsen often indicates tambura. This is a softer percussive sound; the guitarist strikes the strings, as opposed to the wood or bridge of the guitar. Finally, near the end of her Sarabande, Larsen calls for rasgueado, a rapid strumming technique. In the video below we have our very own Illuminate guitarist Cassie Mathews demonstrating these techniques:
Like the early French sarabande, however, Larsen’s Sarabande is sectional. A slow introduction precedes the fast dance, which Larsen marks allegro. Within the dance, linear melodic sections alternate with strummed, chordal sections. Tempo fluctuations, such as ritardandos and a long accelerando, also help mark musical divisions. Yet despite such changes, Larsen creates a sense of unity through repeated motivic ideas, intervals, and chords. For example, many of the strummed chords are built on the interval of a fourth. In the dance portion, a neighboring figure, which is quickly connected to a dotted gesture, repeats several times. The golpe technique also ties the slow and fast sections together. But perhaps most significant is Larsen’s repeated use of a tritone, both melodically and harmonically. Known as the diabolus in musica (the devil’s interval), in part due to its harmonic instability, Larsen could not have chosen a better melodic or harmonic idea to profane her Sarabande!
Two other features to note in Sarabande include moments of indeterminacy and Larsen’s descriptive instructions. At three points in the work, Larsen instructs the guitarist to repeat notes or percussive effects “as long as you wish.” Two of these moments occur near the end of the slow section; one occurs at the end of the work. These places are notable because in giving such instructions, Larsen is giving the performer a degree of autonomy. The performer must use his or her musical judgment to determine how long to extend the repetitions.
Larsen also fills her work with descriptive instructions, guiding the performer in his or her interpretation. For instance, at the beginning of the work, Larsen instructs the guitarist to play “slowly, sensuously as if beckoning with subtle, deeply warm movements.” A sense of intensity near the end of Sarabande is also clear. On the final pages of the work, the guitarist is instructed to play in a manner that is “about to break loose” and then “suddenly forcefully restrained.” This restraint does not last, though, as Larsen describes the music-or perhaps the guitarist-as “no longer able to hold back, faster and more frenzied to the end.” It is as if Larsen places the performer on the cusp of losing his or her musical mind, risking a breach of behavior that could potentially profane expected performance decorum.
In sum, Larsen creates a modern sarabande that, at times, almost flaunts its musical transgressions. Her Sarabande clearly draws on elements of past sarabandes, but it also moves in new and unexpected directions. It engages with, but is not bound by the past, encouraging us to think about what has been, what is, and what might be.
© Laura Dallman, 2018
Endnotes and references in the text identify my sources. The literature on Larsen is abundant, so the additional resources are just some of many possible suggestions! -LD
American Composers Forum. https://composersforum.org/ (accessed 1 January 2018).
Feldman, Mary Ann, and Laura Greenwald Strom. “Larsen [Reece], Libby.” Grove
Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/
grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002250015?rskey=7h7aCP&result=1 (accessed 1 January 2018).
Glahn, Denise von. Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 2017.
Hudson, Richard, and Meredith Ellis Little. “Sarabande.” Grove Music Online.
http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000024574 (accessed 1 January 2018).
Kachian, Christopher. Composer’s Desk Reference for the Classical Guitar. Pacific, MO:
Mel Bay Publications, 2006.
Larsen, Libby. Composer’s personal website. https://libbylarsen.com/ (accessed 1
———. “Composing, Words, Music.” In Teaching Music through Performance in Choir,
ed. Heather J. Buchanan and Matthew W. Mehaffey, 95-110. Vol. 2. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2005.
“Libby Larsen: Communicating Through Music.” Interview by Richard Kessler.
NewMusicBox. 1 February 1999. https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/libby-larsen-communicating-through-music/ (accessed 7 January 2018).
Raines, Robert. “Libby Larsen.” In Composition in the Digital World: Conversations
with 21st Century American Composers, 90-101. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Stallard, Tina Milhorn. “Libby Larsen (1950-).” In Women of Influence in Contemporary
Music: Nine American Composers, ed. Michael K. Slayton, 148-91. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Strand, Katherine. “A Socratic Dialogue with Libby Larsen: On Music, Musical
Experience in American Culture, and Music Education.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 19 (Spring 2011): 52-66.
 Tina Milhorn Stallard, “Libby Larsen (1950-),” in Women of Influence in Contemporary
Music: Nine American Composers, ed. Michael K. Slayton (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 148.
 “About,” American Composer’s Forum, 2018, https://composersforum.org/about/about-acf/ (accessed 1 January 2018).
 For a general discussion of the sarabande see Grove Music Online, s.v. “Sarabande.”
 This may also be tied directly to Larsen’s compositional process of inserting bar lines later in the compositional process. See Stallard, 152.
 For a quick discussion of guitar techniques, see Christopher Kachian, Composer’s Desk Reference for the Classical Guitar (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 2006). There are also a number of easily accessible YouTube videos that demonstrate Flamenco techniques.
 See Libby Larsen Sarabande: In Profane Style (Minneapolis: Libby Larsen Publishing, 1997), 1. The indication is above the first measure.
 Ibid., 4. The first indication is above the first treble stave. The second indication is above the second treble stave.
 Ibid. The indication is above the fourth treble stave.
Morfydd Owen’s high achievements as a composer and performer, her movie-star looks, mercurial personality and mysterious death have all combined to ensure her posterity as the great lost hope of Welsh music. As we move into a New Year when many commemorations are planned to mark the centenary of her passing on 7 September 2018, I’m grateful to Angela Slater for this invitation to launch Illuminate’s blog series about women composers by reflecting on a remarkable creative artist whom I’ve been researching for the past 35 years.
Born in Treforest, Glamorgan, on 1 October 1891, Morfydd was considered a prodigy when she went to the piano of her own accord at the age of four and started composing at six. She followed the traditional Welsh apprenticeship of chapel and eisteddfod performances before entering University College, Cardiff, to study with David Evans as first holder of the Caradog Scholarship,1909-12. Morfydd played Grieg’s Piano Concerto in 1911 as well as hearing 20 of her own compositions performed in Departmental concerts. These scores were already unusual for a Welsh composer. All Morfydd's Cardiff songs set English words, for example, rather than Welsh; Mirage dabbles in whole tones; The Nightingale has a waywardly experimental vocal line, and Sea Drift, a scene for voice and orchestra, was written 16 years before the Welsh National Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) came into being. To Our Lady of Sorrows, Morfydd’s finest song, also dates from this period, its craftsmanship and emotional intensity marking it out as a particularly remarkable achievement for a 20-year-old undergraduate in early 20th-century Wales.
Morfydd might well have become a teacher herself if not for a chance connection with Eliot Crawshay-Williams, the Liberal MP for Leicester. Recognising the quality of her work, he persuaded Morfydd - and her parents - that she should come to London to study composition with Frederick Corder at the Royal Academy of Music, 1912-17. Morfydd won every available prize at the end of her first year, including the Charles Lucas Silver Medal for her orchestral Nocturne. Hailed by Corder as one of the most individual student works ever heard, the impressionistic Nocturne was premiered at Queen's Hall in Langham Place in 1913, followed by a tone-poem based on the folk tune Morfa Rhuddlan [The Marsh of Rhuddlan] in 1914 and excerpts from a cantata, Pro Patria, in 1915. The critic of the Morning Post observed: ‘It would seem that in the process of time Wales, in the person of this clever young lady, will supply, is supplying a modern composer of whom much will be heard’ (1).
During her time at the Academy, Morfydd Owen became a member of Charing Cross Chapel and began to move in influential London Welsh circles. Her career was advanced by concert invitations and composition commissions from other Liberal MPs including David Lloyd George, H. Haydn Jones and J. Herbert Lewis, and she collaborated with Mrs Herbert Lewis to transcribe and arrange Welsh folksongs that she collected with a phonograph in Flintshire and Ceredigion. Tunes that are as familiar to us today as Gwn Dafydd Ifan [David Evans’ Gun] and Hela Llwynog [Fox Hunting] might well have been lost without this pioneering work.
The influence of folksong can also be seen upon Morfydd’s own composition such as the songs William and To Violets with their modal melodies and recurrent refrains. Other expressions of Welshness in exile include the Welsh-language settings Suo-Gân [Lullaby] and Gweddi y Pechadur [The Sinner’s Prayer] and the Four Welsh Impressions, piano miniatures that evoke favourite Welsh landscapes and close friends: Glantaf, Nant-y-Ffrith, Llanbryn-mair (sometimes called Waiting for Eirlys, a reference to Eirlys Lloyd Williams, an Academy contemporary) and Beti Bwt (Morfydd’s nickname for her best friend Elizabeth Lloyd, with whom she shared a flat in Hampstead, 1914-16).
There are wonderful vignettes of Morfydd in Hampstead: her penchant for riding in motorcycle sidecars and the flamboyant clothes and gargantuan hats that she wore to picnics on the Heath. She and Elizabeth moved in Bohemian circles that included D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound and Prince Felix Yusupov, Rasputin’s assassin. A psychiatry student, Alexis Chodak-Gregory, was reputed also to be a Russian Prince and asked Morfydd to marry him, attending services at Charing Cross to prove his devotion and saying that he would not be kept dangling. Morfydd applied successfully to the University of Wales for a grant of £100 to study in St Petersburg and consider how folk music might influence the musical development of Wales, but the project never materialised because of the Great War, then the Bolshevik Revolution, and her relationship with Alexis also broke up. Instead, she remained at the Academy and began taking singing as well as composition lessons. Morfydd’s songs give a real sense of her voice and performance style - a lyric mezzo with a knack for pianissimo mezza voce – and she gave concerts in Bath and Oxford before making her professional début at the Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street on 10 January 1917.
1917 was also the year in which Morfydd married the Freudian psycho-analyst, Ernest Jones. Their clandestine wedding at Marylebone Register Office on 6 February – barely a month after her Aeolian Hall recital – was attended by none of her family and friends and continues to exert a potent fascination. Jones did not approve of his wife performing in public, so her diary soon dwindled dramatically. Her compositional output was also affected by serving as her husband’s secretary and proof-reader and organising the maids and meals at their West End flat and cottage in Sussex. These changes were particularly ill-timed because Morfydd was just beginning to achieve widespread recognition through publications by Boosey and Chappell and performances by leading soloists such as Robert Radford and Ben Davies at the Promenade Concerts and London Palladium. ‘Oh dear!’ she wrote to Eliot Crawshay-Williams on 22 July 1918: ‘Married life doesn’t seem to me to be quite the easiest thing to adapt oneself to, and has taken up all my time’ (2).
Morfydd’s time was actually about to run out altogether for she died six weeks after posting that letter on 7 September 1918 aged 26. The circumstances of the appendectomy performed at the home of her parents-in-law in Mumbles on the Gower Peninsula continue to raise more questions than they answer. Why was the operation carried out in a house when a major hospital was only moments away? Why was there no post mortem? And why was she buried without a death certificate? Official paperwork was filed a fortnight after the funeral had taken place at Oystermouth Cemetery.
Morfydd’s gravestone also contains errors and riddles, notably the German-language epitaph from Goethe’s Faust: ‘Das Unbeschreibliche / Hier ist’s getan’ [The indescribable / Here it is done]. Ernest Jones explained to Gilbert Tritschler, his wife’s first biographer, that the quotation meant ‘the pain & frightfulness of tearing two devoted people apart was indescribable, literally’ (3). But doesn’t it also hint at parallels with the Faustian narrative and a tragedy more multi-layered than may ever be known?
David Evans described Morfydd Owen as ‘an incalculable loss to Welsh music - in fact, I know of no young British composer who showed such promise’ (4). Frederick Corder recalled her ‘refined and beautiful talent’ (5), while the composer E. T. Davies wrote of ‘a grievous loss to Wales: here was a musician of outstanding genius cut off on the threshold of a career that would have shed lustre on her native country, and that might, quite well, have given a new direction to Welsh musical thought and endeavour’ (6).
Was Morfydd ‘an incalculable loss’? Well, she was certainly the pivotal figure in Welsh music at the turn of the twentieth century and one of the most versatile musicians that Wales has ever produced as a composer, singer, pianist and ethnomusicologist. By the time of her premature death, she had already produced a significant body of high-quality, meticulously-crafted work: some 250 surviving scores for the stage, orchestra, chorus, chamber and solo instruments, songs, hymns, folksong transcriptions and arrangements.
Morfydd’s songs are her most striking and original compositions: minimal settings like A Song of Sorrow and The Weeping Babe; deft patter songs tailored to the commercial market like Patrick’s Your Boy and For Jeannie’s Sake; ballads in the polished Edwardian style of Frank Bridge and Roger Quilter such as God made a lovely garden and In Cradle Land; the swooping melodic lines of Slumber-Song of the Madonna and Suo-Gân, and the dramatic, almost violent vocal outbursts of To Our Lady of Sorrows, La Tristesse and Gweddi y Pechadur. All are true singers’ songs, requiring technique, intellect and artistry to bring them off in performance.
The orchestral music has more sense of work in progress about it with borrowings from Wagner, Sibelius, Elgar, Debussy and Mussorgsky amongst others, but there is a definite flair for instrumentation and the deployment of large forces. And the surviving fragments of incidental music to The Passing of Branwen suggest that Morfydd’s future may have lain in film music and opera, a generation before Grace Williams’ Blue Scar of 1949 and The Parlour of 1961.
Whatever a fuller lifespan might have meant, Morfydd Owen’s perpetuity seems assured by a growing amount of music in repertory. The Threnody for strings and a selection of vocal and piano music has been published by the Welsh Music Information Centre (now Tŷ Cerdd) since 1991, leading to performances in Europe, Asia, Canada and the USA plus a burgeoning discography by artists such as Helen Field, Elin Manahan Thomas and Brian Ellsbury. Significant revivals have included the Nocturne in Dallas in 1986; Pro Patria in Cardiff in 1992; and Morfa Rhuddlan at the Gregynog Festival in 2014, the first public performance in over 70 years. BBC2 and S4C (Channel 4 Wales) commissioned 60-minute television documentaries to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth in 1991, and there have been more recent broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, including performances and features for International Women’s Day, Music Matters and Live in Concert. I wrote Morfydd’s first entry for Grove’s Dictionary in 1994, the same year in which my bilingual ‘life in pictures’ of the composer, Yr Eneth Ddisglair Annwyl / Never So Pure a Sight, was published by Gomer Press. Her life and music have also inspired Welsh-language novels by Marion Eames and Eigra Lewis Roberts and dance theatre productions by Geoff Moore’s Moving Being and Sally Marie’s Sweetshop Revolution.
The centenary of the composer’s death on 7 September 2018 offers fresh opportunities to raise awareness. The Welsh Folk-Song Society has asked me to create an illustrated presentation about Morfydd’s work as an ethnomusicologist when the National Eisteddfod is held at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay during the first week of August. Planning for concerts, talks, exhibitions, radio and television programmes, publications and blue plaques is also well underway. I’m delighted that Morfydd Owen’s Four Welsh Impressions will be performed as part of Illuminate’s first season in Oxford (9 March), Stafford and Birmingham (10 March), Cardiff (11 March) and Brighton (20 April) and am looking forward to giving an introductory talk before the Cardiff concert.
Should you feel inspired to become involved yourselves, Morfydd’s published scores are available from Discover Welsh Music (http://www.tycerddshop.com/products/sheet-music/morfydd-owen) as well as the last remaining copies of Never So Pure a Sight which is now out of print (http://www.tycerddshop.com/product/morfydd-owen-never-so-pure-a-sight-a-life-in-pictures). And there are treasures still to discover among Morfydd’s unpublished manuscripts at Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives. Consult the online catalogue here (https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/special-collections/explore/collection/morfydd-owen) and follow @MorfyddOwen100 on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest updates throughout centenary year!
© Rhian Davies, 2018
(1) Morning Post, 15 July 1914, 11.
(2) Morfydd Owen to Eliot Crawshay-Williams, 22 July 1918 (NLW Eliot Crawshay-Williams MS G28/33).
(3) Ernest Jones to Gilbert Tritschler, 24 April 1957 (NLW MS 18247D).
(4) South Wales Daily News, 9 November 1918, 2.
(5) Frederick Corder, ‘Obituary: Morfydd Owen’, R.A.M. Club Magazine, 54 (September 1918), 14.
(6) E. T. Davies, ’Morfydd Owen’, May 1956 (NLW MS 18247D).
Rhian Davies was awarded her Ph.D. by Bangor University in 1999 for a thesis entitled ‘A refined and beautiful talent: Morfydd Owen (1891-1918)’. She began researching Morfydd in 1982 and has since revealed many lost narratives in the history of Welsh music through publications, broadcasts and performances at the Gregynog Festival where she became Artistic Director in 2006.