Women Composers and CMNC

CMNC is a strong supporter of women composers, both those composing today and those who have written so much wonderful music over the years. By playing this amazing trove of chamber music at our workshops, we enrich our musical lives while returning neglected works to public appreciation. Our goal is for 20-25% of the music at each of CMNC workshop to be by women. We invite other workshops to join us in this endeavor. Please contact CMNC if we can help in any way.

On October 3, 2015, CMNC held a workshop at Mills College, in Oakland, California, where 28 groups played chamber music by 21 female composers. The article that follows describes the origin of this memorable workshop. Follow the links on the left or below to learn more.

October 3, 2015

From the Workshop Director:  Elizabeth Morrison   

I have enjoyed many concerts by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, and truly appreciate their leadership in programming diversity. A case in point was their June 2015 concert, at which they presented a full concert of music composed by women. It was thrilling. They opened with Partita for Piano and Strings, Opus 20, by Vitezlava Kapralova, a brilliant Czech composer and student of Martinu who would surely be more famous if she had not died of tuberculosis in 1940, when she was just 25. The pianist, Sara Davis Buechner, champions the work and played it enthusiastically. I liked it, though as so often with new pieces it would have been nice to have heard it again in the second half, at which time, Dawn assured the audience, we would all have liked it more. Buechner then played Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 7, written when Clara was 14 years old. It is astonishing how seldom this beautiful work is played. The slow movement has an extended cello solo (warmly played by Russ Bartoli) composed long before Brahms’ second piano concerto, for which it is a clear inspiration. Many in the audience recalled a 1992 recording made by the much missed Women’s Philharmonic of San Francisco, with pianist Angela Cheng, Terrie Baune as concertmaster, Nina Flyer on solo cello, and Joanne Falletta conducting. This recording also includes the first and still only recording of Fanny Mendelssohn's Overture.

The second half of the concert was given over to the Serenade in D Major by our old friend Ethel Smyth, of whom we had almost a festival at the Mills workshop last October, i.e. we programmed a full two of her chamber works. And at this point, as I reveled in the splendid new music I was hearing, an idea was born. It occurred to me that in light of this concert, the pride I had felt when CMNC programmed four works by women at Mills was not quite justified. I began to wonder…what if….?

I am not much interested in being politically correct when it comes to music. Mostly I am a hedonist; perhaps most of us happy amateurs are. We play classical music for the same reason that Mick Jagger plays rock and roll: because we like it. And three of my most gripping musical experiences over the last few years were with Rebecca Clarke’s piano trio (and her amazing song The Seal Man), Clara Schuman’s piano trio, and most recently the String Quartet in E Minor by Ethel Smyth, which I worked on with a preformed group at two CMNC workshops. The trios have shown up regularly on CMNC programs for some time, but the interesting, challenging Smyth quartet was new to most of us, even to our coach at San Francisco State, Sandy Wilson, who has been telling people ever since how amazed and delighted he is to have discovered her. Smyth, as I learned from her memoirs, was a productive and very famous musician in her time. Could there not be many more women like this, and much more music that we would love to play, if we only knew it?

So I began to think seriously whether we could devote a full day of our upcoming Mills workshop to playing music by women. It seemed to me that after 26 years of playing music by (mostly) men, we could afford to spend one day exploring the composers who hold up the other half of the sky. Of course it was not a decision I could make alone. As workshop director the music assignments are my overall responsibility, but the whole board is involved in selecting the music, and I would need their support and even more, their enthusiasm.

Their support was immediate and their enthusiasm all I could have hoped for. I think we were all intrigued to have a theme for the workshop (we started talking about future programs that might focus on American composers, or Russians, or who knows what else). Women composers seemed very natural to start with. Of course the question arose whether we’d have enough music to assign. A chamber music workshop needs many more pieces than the three needed for an orchestra concert. At Mills we usually have 28 groups; even with seven or eight preformed groups (who select their own music) we’d still need 20 excellent pieces, over a variety of ensembles from trios to string quartets, woodwind quintets, works for piano with winds and strings, and possibly one larger work. We turned to the CMNC library and found that we did in fact own many pieces by women. A few, such as the Schumann, Clarke and Madeline Dring trios and Amy Beach’s Variations for flute quintet, have been played quite a few times, a few others have been trotted out now and then, and a good number had been bought and never assigned. Not a good use of our library funds! There is even one piece, Travelling Songs for String Quartet, which CMNC commissioned from Gwyneth Walker, and which Terrie Baune and friends premiered at a workshop at Cal State Hayward in 1996. October 2016 will be the twentieth anniversary of that largely forgotten event–and it may not have been played since.

This was promising, so I mentioned the idea to Terrie Baune as I was on my way to Humboldt. There she helped me more than I can say by assigning me a piece by a woman every single day. In the course of the week I performed the Amy Beach flute quintet, a string quartet by Grazyna Bacewicz, Louise Farrenc’s Nonetto, a piano trio by Elfrida Andrée, and an incredible piano quintet by the living Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who was the find of the workshop for me. I also read others, including two piano trios by Lili Boulanger and a string quartet by Venezuelan composer Teresa Carreño, and freelanced five or six more piano trios with Carolyn Lowenthal and Bill Horne. It was all good music, and I had the best time at Humboldt I’ve had in years. Terrie told me she hadn’t gone to any heroic effort to find these pieces, either–they were all ones she would have put out anyway, she just shoved them in my direction to help with the CMNC project. I am very grateful to her for this help.

So this is the plan. On Saturday October 3 at Mills, all the assigned music will be by women composers. The Del Sol Quartet, our performing coaches, have happily agreed to play a piece by a woman as well–Charlton Lee told me they have the largest repertoire of music by women of any group he knows. They are thinking about Ruth Crawford Seeger. There is an opt-out if you’d like one–you can come as a preformed group and select music by a man, because preformed groups as always are free to choose their own music. Of course if you choose to come preformed with a woman composer, so much the better. Depending on how many preformed groups there are, possibly the usual male-female composer ratio at a CMNC weekend will be reversed. We plan no change in the ratio of male and female coaches or participants, by the way. We hope you’ll all come as usual.

Women composers in CMNC Library (pdf)    More pieces will be listed as we obtain them.

We think this is a first, and we hope you will be as interested in it as we are. Between our existing library and some new pieces we have purchased there is wonderful music from all eras, classical, romantic, and modern, and something to please all tastes. As Saturday is a master class day, each of us will get to hear three pieces beside our own, which should be fascinating. On Sunday we will return to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; they and all the genius men composers we love are not about to disappear from our repertoires any time soon. But on Saturday October 3 our B’s will be Beach, Bolz, Bacewicz, Boulanger, Beamish and Bialwa. There is a great trove of music by women waiting for us. Please join us in discovering it!

Amy Beach     (PD-US wikimedia.com)