|Violin Music by Women: A Graded Anthology||
There was recently a wonderful article (and broadcast) for NPR by Ned Wharton, brother of violinist Geoffrey Wharton, about Geoffrey's many connections with Audrey Call. It's a great read!
The Boulanger Initiative was founded in June 2018 by two young musicians, Laura Colgate and Joy-Leilani Garbutt, who hit the ground running and have already made a substantial impact on raising the visibility of women composers. Their stated mission is “to work towards greater inclusivity, and to enrich our collective understanding of what music is, has been, and can be.” This positive message guides them towards imagining and helping to create a future more inclusive of women composers—past, present and future.
I had the opportunity to talk with co-founder Laura Colgate recently and discuss the Initiative’s plans, as well as what spurred the two women into action. The two met nearly accidentally, with a mutual friend introducing them when they both showed up at a restaurant. At the time, both women were in the process of finishing their doctorates (Joy in organ, Laura in violin) and were writing their dissertations on women composers. A later brainstorming session provided more than enough ideas to provide an agenda for the Initiative.
Laura’s “aha” moment came when she was in 8th grade and attending the Tanglewood Institute. She said, “… JoAnn Falletta conducted, and I remembered seeing her get on the podium and just being completely dumbfounded that a woman could conduct, and well… It had literally never occurred to me, it had never entered my brain that that was something I could do as a woman… I think a lot of females have that moment where you just go, ‘Oh really—I can--oh—OH, Okay!’ But by 8th grade, it’s already a little bit [late]… We need to get that into girl’s heads when they’re still five.”
The Boulanger Initiative (BI from now on) intends to combat that all-too-common experience through a three-pronged approach: performance, education and research, and commissioning new works. They plan to develop a concert series “devoted to presenting music composed by women, past and present,” as well as working towards addressing current inequalities on concert programming. The graphic to the right is courtesy of the Donne--Women in Music project (http://www.drama-musica.com/stories/2018_2019_orchestra_seasons.html )
In addition to creating visibility on concert stages, BI wants to reach students at early ages through education. Research can support this goal. “We had an interview with a magazine a week or two ago, and they said they had just interviewed an organization in Europe that had found that the numbers for women composers in education drop off drastically after the undergrad years. The higher the level of education, the smaller percentage of women. They just don’t stay in the field… We want to see if it’s the same numbers here, and figure out why that’s happening, and then start to funnel that into our education series. We hope to start this Fall going to different schools, really starting as young as we can—grade schools, high schools, universities—and really start the education process with demonstrations, lectures, whatever we can to put in young minds that this is a possibility… We want to get the research done, to see where the gap is, to see what the numbers are, to see what needs to actually be done based on research, not just what people say.”
The third prong, commissions of new works, will seek to generate support for established and emerging composers. They hope to commission at least one piece by their debut season of 2019/20. Eventually, all three divisions will work together and feed into activities like a “Young Composers Festival,” with established women composers working with young girls, and receiving performances by other young musicians.
The first major event BI is planning is a three-day launch festival starting on March 8, 2019 (International Women’s Day). The festival will be “non-stop women composers” with activities and events under one roof, all accessible by a cover charge. It will feature local D.C-area performers, an electronics demonstration, a documentary viewing, panel discussions, and master classes. Each day an internationally-recognized guest artist/chamber ensemble will participate in events, capped by a ticketed Main Stage performance in conjunction with a composer(s) that they have worked with, or from whom they have commissioned works. It promises to be an amazing festival!
The discovery of women composers really began with Women’s Studies programs in the 1970’s. Interest in the topic has waxed and waned over the nearly fifty intervening years. I was curious as to how Laura thought promotion of women composers might be more effective now than it has been in the past. “I think that, first of all, classical music has taken a completely different direction with entrepreneurship, and all of these new groups popping up. You look at the chamber ensembles and the new music ensembles, and those are the groups that are really getting the music played. Their numbers are making the more traditional venues really take notice, and look, and not have a choice anymore to make excuses and say ‘Oh, well, we don’t need to program that next to Beethoven.’” Laura mentioned the success of the Keychange Initiative [link] pushing to encourage music festivals to achieve a 50/50 gender balance in programming by 2022. Currently more than 100 festivals worldwide have signed on to the pledge, but only three of these are in the United States. “We are talking to a few educational organizations about starting a pledge of a similar nature, but with schools. For example, if there’s a composer’s summer festival, making sure that half of the students are women…. I think there’s a lot happening now that wasn’t happening then. I also think technology makes it much easier for us to reach bigger milestones.” Clearly public pressure and the current climate encouraging women’s activism is a factor in creating “buzz”; BI wants to be sure that they set a positive agenda for the future rather than negatively focusing on attitudes of the past.
Finally, I asked Laura a very unfair question—what are her favorite pieces by women composers? Having recently finished her doctorate with a massive recital of violin music by women composers, she has far too many pieces still close to her heart to choose. But, I was cruel and made her choose two.
The first is the monumental Frises for Violin and Electronics by Kaija Saariaho. You can listen to Laura play it here:
Secondly, and very appropriately, Laura chose Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring morning). Unusually, Boulanger wrote three versions of the piece—one for violin and piano, one for orchestra, and one for piano trio. Laura has played the first two versions, and is looking forward to playing the third soon. Here is the one for violin and piano, also performed by Laura:
Today I received an email from violinist Geoffry Wharton, retired concertmaster of the Cologne Symphony and owner of Audrey Call's beautiful Gagliano. He has understandably done a good bit of research on Call, and recently came upon new information about her jazzy suite, Canterbury Tales, which sheds an entirely new light on the composition!
But first, a little recap. I wrote about the piece in a blog post from 11/25/2014 (here, if you'd like to read it) and it turns out I was completely off in my assumptions about it! The piece is not about the book by Chaucer at all, but, as Wharton writes:
But I did find out recently that the genesis of the Canterbury Tales is not the Chaucer stories, but the big news in New York in 1936 that the King of England was abdicating to marry a woman from Baltimore, Wallis Simpson. (explains the English national anthem and the wedding march in the the piece). “The Duke Takes a Train” refers to the Duke of Windsor, and (I am guessing here) “The Bishop Checkmates” refers to an English bishop who was the one who broke the news to the British public about the affair.
Oops. Reminds me of the final exam I took for a college English class in which I wrote a lengthy essay on the wrong chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses.
So now, looking at the piece from this perspective, it all makes sooooo much more sense.
In the first movement, "To a Lady From Baltimore," the suave introduction does evoke Wallis Simpson and the elegant excess of which she was fond. God Save the King, as indeed Edward needed to be, appears around 1:27-1:45, preceded by a heraldic fanfare. That's followed by a minor version of Here Comes the Bride (1:57-2:20), which tapers out to nothing and the introduction material returns.
From my 2014 recital, which was a return to playing after eight years on the sidelines (I'm not responsible for the piano's intonation, but I apologize for my slips):
Movement 2, "The Bishop Checkmates," features a stealthy, slippery theme which morphs into everyone's first harmonic minor tune, the "Snake Charmer." Seems like Call thought the announcement by a clergy member was a little underhanded. According to an article in The Guardian, "What really sparked public awareness of Edward VIII's relationship with Simpson, and the abdication crisis that might follow, came thanks to the words of Bishop Blunt of Bradford whose pulpit denunciation in 1936 exposed the whole crisis." The snake charmer tune arrives at 0:34-0:54.
I kept wondering if the third movement had anything to do with Billy Strayhorn's jazz standard, "Take the A Train," but Google tells me it was written in 1939, and Call published Canterbury Tales in 1937. There is certainly a lot of "train" music in the movement, but I can't find any historical reason for the stereotypical "asian" sound of the fifths throughout the movement. In any case, in "The Duke Takes A Train," Edward VIII rides off into the sunset, presumably with Wallis in tow.
While this charming suite is currently out of print, you can find a short jazz solo by Call in volume four of the anthology. It's called The Witch of Harlem, and there's a recording on the "Soundfiles" page. You can learn more about Call's life at the 2014 blog post linked above.
What better way to celebrate women this month than through videos of young students playing their music? There have been some wonderful concerts using pieces from the anthology this year, and happily some videos are available from the performances. Kudos to the teachers embracing new material and exposing their students to women composers. To quote the hashtag of Claire Allen, #WomenWriteMusic too!
One of Claire's students, by the name of Hannah, was the spark behind her adoption of violin music by women into all her student's lives. Claire was having a competition in which students could earn earn points by reading about composers. Six-year-old Hannah came to her lesson and asked, "Why are all the composers we read about men?" Excellent question!
In this video from last June, Claire's student Jiening is playing "A Picture," a movement from a suite by Edith Lynwood Winn titled From the Carolina Hills. Winn (1867-1933) was a pioneer in American music education. She studied violin in Boston with Julius Eichberg, and in Germany with Bernard Listemann. Should you go into a library with a good section on violin pedagogy, you'll likely see some small and well-used books whose titles start with the words, "How to Study..." and go on to name Kreutzer, Rode, Fiorillo, and Gavinies. Those are the works of Ms. Winn. She wrote a number of teaching pieces like this suite. "A Picture" and two other movements can be found in volume 1.
The grand finale of the Allen Violin Studio's #WomenWriteMusic recital was a group performance of "The Ice Skating Pond," the fourth movement of Kansas native Hannah Bartel's Kansas Memories Suite (also in vol. 1). Students love this suite! Hannah, now Hannah Bartel Groening, was a student of mine at Kansas State University. She was a composition major and violinist, and writes very beautiful and playable music. A full-time mom now, Hannah has caught one of her toddlers sitting at the piano "composing" already! I think of Hannah as one of the new generation of composers, but maybe her two-year-old is ahead of us already.
In February I gave a presentation to string teachers at our state music teachers convention on the anthologies, and in preparation I asked both Claire and Amy Beth Horman for reactions from their students to the pieces. One of Amy's students, ten-year-old Risa, wrote an incredibly beautiful response:
"Playing well-known wonderful pieces written by male composers always makes me feel great, but playing unknown still beautiful pieces written by female composers makes me feel special.
After listening to the piece titled A Sketch, I instantly fell in love with it. Its delicate, graceful and poetic melody touched my heartstrings and it was hard to believe that such a beautiful piece went unappreciated.
I could easily connect with the piece probably because it is written by a woman. I felt proud and privileged whenever I performed the piece because I was pretty sure that no one there had ever heard it before and I felt like being an ambassador for the piece.
Working on the piece was more than just learning a piece but a more special experience to me.I am fortunate to be able to have such an experience. Thank you so much."
Risa was a winner of the American Protege competition, and got to play in Weill Recital Hall last summer. She chose to play Ellicott's A Sketch for the occasion (and I was able to go and hear it!) She also performed it on Potter Violins' Classical Open Stage-- check out their Facebook page and YouTube channel for lots of great videos!
tRosalind F. Ellicott (1857-1924) was the daughter of the Bishop of Gloucester in England, and had a musical mother. Ellicott studied two years at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but most of her training was private. A Sketch was her first published work (in 1883), and can be found in vol. 3 of the anthology. In addition to short works, Ellicott wrote some large-scale compositions, including a fantasia for piano and orchestra, and her Dramatic Overture received performances in England and as far away as Chicago. Thanks to Risa and her pianist Brad Clark for such a beautiful performance!
Also in volume 3 is New Zealand composer Claire Scholes' delightful Knee's Up Mambo. Scholes (born in 1980) is a mezzo soprano based in Auckland, where in addition to composing she works as an arranger, and teaches voice and piano privately. She is known for her vocal and choral writing, but I think her string writing is fantastic!
Kayleigh, another student of Amy Beth Horman, also performed this piece on Potter Violins' Classical Open Stage. It is such a fun work, and in a style we violinists don't get much chance to explore in the standard literature! Spoiler alert-- for the third volume of the viola anthology, I've commissioned a new piece by Scholes, which is Bollywood-inspired! Dust off your C-strings, because you're going to want to play it!
Two historical and two contemporary women composers played by a bunch of young violinists-- a great way to celebrate Women's History (and future!) Month. Do you have videos of students playing anthology pieces? I'd love to see them and share them with the world!
Guest Blog by Claire Allen: Integrating Repertoire from Violin Music By Women with Suzuki Books 1 & 2 (Part 3 of 3)
Tiptoe Dance by Gail Ridgway Brown
Where to put it: Middle of Book 2, Gavotte from Mignon-ish: after Low 1 has been introduced, and after some pizzicato prep has been done.
Tiptoe Dance is a great piece for putting a lot of skills together, but not necessarily for teaching them. Students should be comfortable with high 2/low 2 patterns as well as low 1’s and the C Major Scale before learning this piece. It has some fun fast scales, as well as one little lick that’s reminiscent of Gossec Gavotte. The theme can be done either on the string at the balance point, or brush stroke, depending on the student. It also ends with a fast transition to a pizzicato chord that needs some isolation practice and some pizzicato prep (see: Green Tomatoes).
Dance of the Gnomes, by Charlotte Louise Woodbridge
Where to put it: Middle of Book 2 – pairs nicely with Two Grenadiers
Dance of the Gnomes uses many of the same skills as Two Grenadiers, from the ability to switch between d minor and D Major to the many finger patterns used. Both the bowings and rhythms are simpler than in Two Grenadiers, so depending on the student, this piece can either be preparation for Two Grenadiers or reinforcement afterwards. There are double-stops, but they’re mostly open strings and add a great element of fun. The slurs in the D Major section also help to strengthen the bow skills needed in Suzuki Book 2. Several well-placed ritards also help students develop musical pacing and sophistication.
‘Lil Blue, by Hannah Bartel
Where to put it: Middle – end of Book 2
‘Lil Blue is a beautiful piece that features a lyricism not found in many of the pieces in Suzuki Book 2. Students should be able to play a 2 octave A Major scale before they tackle this piece. This is a much friendlier introduction to A Major than Boccherini Minuet. It’s in ¾, and as every phrase starts on an upbeat, provides ample opportunity to discuss strong and weak beats and bow speed. Lots of good 4th finger practice as well.
The Marionettes, by Eve Hungerford
Where to put it: Late Book 2
The Marionettes is another great piece in A Major that’s friendlier than Boccherini Minuet. Its cheerful and upbeat character make it a favorite of my students. There are some fun repeated downbows on the G string which give us a chance to work on landing at the frog and pulling the arm weight in the bow. Students will become very comfortable with alternating high 3 and ringing 3. Dotted rhythms in the middle section will help reinforce the rhythmic concepts introduced in Two Grenadiers and Witches’ Dance. There is also opportunity to work on the left hand frame with plenty of 1 – 4 octave passages.
Aria, by Ethel Barns
Where to put it: After Gavotte from Mignon in Book 2
Aria is a beautiful piece in g minor that helps develop a lyrical tone and more sophisticated phrasing. Particularly after the faster pieces in the middle of Book 2 (Two Grenadiers, Witches’ Dance, and Gavotte from Mignon), this makes for a dramatic change in character and allows the student to work on their low 1’s and 4’s in a slower paced piece. There are lots of opportunities to talk about breathing (like a singer, since an aria is a song!), phrasing, and pacing. Two simple doublestops at the end allow for a little technical push as well.
Many, many thanks to Claire Allen for her thoughtful analysis and helpful hints on using these pieces! Check out all the wonderful activities at the Potomac Arts Academy, where Claire teaches (in addition to her own studio, Allen Violin Studio) and is co-ordinator of chamber music. Fairfax, Virginia is lucky to have her!
Guest Blog by Claire Allen: Integrating Repertoire from Violin Music By Women with Suzuki Books 1 & 2 (Part 2 of 3)
Without further ado, here is the next installment of Claire Allen's article!
The Ice Skating Pond, by Hannah Bartel
Where to put it: After Minuet 2, and then anywhere in Suzuki Book 2
This is a phenomenal piece, and my students simply adore it. Especially when they’ve been working hard to master the more sophisticated bow patterns, playing this piece is a huge relief and lets them just play. I don’t teach this piece until after a student has done Minuet 2 and is fairly comfortable with both low 2 and high 3 patterns. Students will want to play this piece fast right away, and rather than rein them in too much, I make sure that there isn’t really anything new for them to learn in it so they can just run.
Buy My Pine, by Edith Winn
Where to put it: Musette
Buy My Pine is a fun, fiddle-ish piece. I’ve found that it works best around the Bach Musette in Book 2 to work both on D Major finger patterns across all four strings as well as slurs that are a little less complicated than those in Musette. There are also opportunities for a lot of good level work.
A Picture, by Edith Winn
Where to put it: After Minuet 2
A Picture works very nicely with Minuet 2. It reinforces the Down Up-Up bowing, and also has some great opportunities for building the connection between the high 3rd finger and the 4th finger. There’s more high 2/low 2 finger patterns, and some fun passage work across the strings. Depending on the student, the bowstroke can either be detache on the string at the balance point, or you can have them bounce it a little bit. There are also a great ritardandos to where you can talk about pacing and breathing.
Note: I don’t always teach this piece – I use it more in the Minuets if a student is really getting things quickly and needs more repertoire to go in depth.
Green Tomatoes, by Hannah Bartel
Where to put it: Early Book 2, after Musette
Students love the fact that Green Tomatoes is almost entirely pizzicato. The D Major finger patterns as well as the bowing patterns in the arco section work well to reinforce the work they’ve done in Musette. Playing this much pizzicato helps prepare them for the ending of Gavotte from Mignon later in the book.
Note: I teach Gossec Gavotte after Bourree in Book 2, so this serves as prep for that as well. Green Tomatoes would also be good between Happy Farmer and Gossec Gavotte in Book 1 if you teach the pieces in that sequence.
Part 3 coming very soon!
Guest Blog by Claire Allen: Integrating Repertoire from Violin Music By Women with Suzuki Books 1 & 2 (Part 1 of 3)
First of all, I promise to get back to writing blog posts very soon! Last summer all my writing energies went into creating a textbook for an online "Women in Music" class, from which I will make a few posts. I'm a little embarrassed to see that the wonderful Claire Allen is filling in for me yet again. Claire organized and prepared eight of her students for a very special recital this past June 4 called "Women Write Music," and it was one of the highlights of my life! All the students played pieces from either volume 1 or volume 2 of the anthology, Claire and I played the beautiful "Nocturne" by Rebecca Clarke from Three Pieces for Two Violins and Piano (published by Prairie Dawg Press), and she performed the three "Romances" by Clara Schumann and the 4th movement of Amanda Maier's "Six Pieces for Violin and Piano" from volume 4 (listen to her performance on the Sound Files page!) David Norfrey was a wonderful collaborative pianist for the program. The students all played Hannah Bartel's "The Ice Skating Pond" for a group finale:
Since Claire has been using the pieces from the anthology so successfully, I asked her if she would share her thoughts on how she has decided to integrate them with the Suzuki repertoire. Being the generous person that she is, she sent me this wonderful guide for 12 of the pieces. Here are the first four. Many thanks!
An Old World Minuet by Eve Hungerford
Where to put it: Suzuki Book 1, after Allegretto & Andantino
An Old World Minuet is a charming piece that introduces the ¾ time signature in a friendly way that allows the student more time to adjust to the key of D Major. There are good opportunities to work on level changes, simple slurs, and 4th fingers. It doesn’t require as sophisticated a bow arm as the Bach Minuets, so this is a nice introduction.
The Gipsy Fiddler by Eve Hungerford
Where to put it: Suzuki Book 1, before Etude (I teach this right after An Old World Minuet)
This piece is the most wonderful low 2 piece. It has the advantage of not using any 3rd or 4th fingers, so the student can focus on the relationship of the low 2nd finger to the 1st finger. The piece is in minor, so the student hears how dramatic the shift to low 2 is. There are no high 2’s in this piece, so there is minimal confusion.
Gipsy Fiddler also uses a lot of slurs, but in fairly simple patterns, and also helps students work on developing a full, sustained tone. It continues work in ¾, with a contrasting middle section in 4/4 that introduces students to meter changes much earlier than the Suzuki books do.
Note: After Gipsy Fiddler, I like to use the Bohemian Folk Song in e minor and All Through the Night from Barbara Barber’s Solos for Young Violinists, Volume 1 to work on the idea of high 2 on the D string and low 2 on the A string in G Major. I also do a lot of work on the two octave G Major scale and arpeggios before teaching Etude.
Rainy Daze, by Hannah Bartel
Where to put it: Rainy Daze fits well anywhere between the Minuets through all the G Major pieces in the early part of Book 2.
Rainy Daze gets students using all the patterns from the G Major Scale over all four strings, in a variety of both step and skip patterns. This piece works especially well between any of the Bach Minuets in Book 1 – my students love the fresh, contemporary, fiddle-inspired style and find it a welcome contrast. There are a lot of two and four note slurs, which help strengthen those skills before proceeding forward in the Minuets. I’ve found that students who have played Rainy Daze before Musette in Book 2 handle those slur patterns much better, as well. There’s also one really fun line with a little bariolage to introduce the idea of backwards string crossings.
The Bumblebee, by Anna Priscilla Risher
Where to put it: Like Rainy Daze, The Bumblebee can work well between the Minuets or also in early Book 2.
The Bumblebee does great pre-trill preparation, including three glorious measures of 3-4 for a good 4th finger workout. It’s much more scalar than Rainy Daze, and helps reinforce patterns in G Major as well. The concept of 3/8 may be a little tricky for students at this level to understand, so a little rhythmic work outside the piece is needed. All the slurs also help create a sustained sound, and having one bar per bow is usually fairly easy for students to remember. A few well-placed ritardandos and fermatas make for wonderful lessons about musical pacing and timing, as well as breathing and cuing your pianist.
A great joy for me is hearing from people about their use of the anthology pieces, and student reactions to the music. It's been particularly wonderful to correspond with Claire Allen, a Suzuki teacher in Virginia. She has been a wonderful champion for incorporating pieces by women into her teaching (see her blog post from last October on the subject at http://www.claireallenviolin.com/blog/game-changer#comments). She recently wrote to me about how she is integrating pieces from volume one into Suzuki Book 1:
"I wanted to write and thank you again for the wonderful Violin Music By Women anthology. I've been using it in my studio for the last few months, and my students positively adore it. The first two pieces, "An Old World Minuet" and "The Gipsy Fiddler," fit beautifully in the middle of Suzuki Book 1. I use the Minuet right after Andantino to stay in D Major just a little longer and to introduce 3/4 time and the minuet before we get to the big Bach ones. Then, I use Gipsy Fiddler to introduce low 2. I like to teach low 2 long before we get to Etude, and Gipsy Fiddler is perfect since there are only low 2's in it! My students love how dark and moody the piece is, and they also adore the slurs."
She has an exceptional student, five-year-old Jiening Zhang (who has already been studying with Claire for a year and a half!) Jiening recently played "The Ice Skating Pond" from Kansas Memories Suite as an audition piece for an honors recital, and was accepted! Her parents have given me permission to post the video here for your enjoyment:
Look at that beautiful bow arm! What great energy in her strokes.
Claire also writes, "We're all excited in our studio - these pieces make such a lovely contrast with the Suzuki folk songs."
Check out her blog (http://www.claireallenviolin.com/blog) -- she always has interesting and thoughtful ideas!
Another teacher in my town, Katherine Okesson, has told me that she uses the first volume with more advanced students for position and shifting work. The first piece, "An Old World Minuet," fits beautifully in fourth position. "The Gipsy Fiddler" is a great piece for shifting between first and third positions. The beautiful "Aria" by Ethel Barns is perfect for practicing a budding vibrato. If you've found new uses for the pieces, or great ways to incorporate them into your sequence of pieces, I'd love to hear about it!
Volume four is filled with great memories of three composers in particular-- Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Libby Larsen, and Lauren Wells. Two are firmly established, leading American composers, and one was in graduate school when we met by chance.
I think it was the summer of 2008 that I got the crazy notion of emailing the three most respected American women composers about my anthology project. What could happen? I certainly wouldn't be any worse off if I never heard from them. So emails flew to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Libby Larsen and Joan Tower, and then I set about cleaning the house and doing all those summer things that never happen during the school year. I think I was actually dusting when the phone rang. "Hi, this is Ellen Zwilich, and I think your anthology is a great idea. I would love to be part of it." Gobsmacked. I think I managed not to fangirl at her too much. She was absolutely gracious and was so helpful in putting me in touch with appropriate contacts at Theodore Presser. Her Partita for violin and piano was written for a high school student of Louise Behrend, and so was already tailor-made for the project. Dr. Zwilich was kind enough to offer the whole work for my use. Unfortunately, it would have made the volume too long, so she chose the "Tango" movement as the best stand-alone piece. Please do look for the whole Partita-- it is a terrific work, accessible and attractive!
The boost that phone call made to my ability to complete the whole shebang was immeasurable. She made me feel both validated and inspired. Having the first woman to earn the Pulitzer Prize in Music encourage me was a tremendously special encounter.
Joan Tower and Libby Larsen also returned my emails, to my astonishment. Ms. Tower was lovely and supportive, but she didn't have anything readily available and unfortunately the timing was not right for a commission.
Libby Larsen is an amazing confidence booster. Such a positive and caring person! We arranged to meet in Minneapolis when I was traveling there, and had a really wonderful lunch together. It was right before the 2008 presidential election, and as we discovered common political leanings, she sent me a "Baroque Obama" t-shirt afterwards (with President Obama's face superimposed over Bach's in his iconic portrait). I brought along some of the other volume four pieces for her to look at, and she talked about wanting to do something very rhythmic and driving, perhaps even with speech involved. Needless to say, I was fine with anything she wanted to do! Imagine my surprise when Blue Piece arrived-- it's a dreamy, languorous piece conjuring up images of smokey rooms and cosmopolitans. I love it.
Ms. Larsen kept her commission fee intentionally low to help out, saying she just wanted to be a part of the project. Never having commissioned a piece before (I like to start at the top), it didn't occur to me until it was almost finished that that meant I could also dedicate it to someone. After some thought, I realized I wanted to dedicate it to all my violin teachers, in thanks for the many hours they dedicated to me.
My violin case is responsible for the inclusion of Serpentine in the anthology. I travel with a cute Tonareli shaped case that sits upright like a cello, taking up much less room sitting around airports waiting for the next flight. In 2011, while I was staring off into space between flights at the Kansas City airport, a young woman complimented me on the case, which of course started a discussion. Yes, she was a violinist, originally from Kansas City, but was getting her master's degree in composition from the University of Delaware. "Hmmm... there are no coincidences," I thought. I asked if she'd written anything for violin and piano, and explained about the anthology. A few days later, there was was an email from Lauren Wells in my inbox with a pdf and recording of Serpentine. I thought it was a great introduction for young players to contemporary idioms, including mixed meters and less tonal writing. I was also really excited to be able to publish a young composer in a volume with established contemporary greats and historical figures. Lauren now lives in Seattle and is involved in many forms of music making, both traditional and experimental. I think I remember her telling me that she has also been on a roller derby team. An exceptional young woman!
About two weeks ago (November 8, to be exact), I had a lot of fun presenting a lecture-recital that featured three suites by 20th-century American women composers. It was fun for a lot of reasons: one, the music was goofy and unlike anything I'd ever performed before; two, I got to work with our fabulous collaborative pianist, Amanda Arrington; and three, it was a big step forward for my playing after eight years of recovering from various injuries and illnesses. Looking on the bright side, if not for the enforced time away from playing, I never would have created this anthology!
I had found Audrey Call's Canterbury Tales Suite during anthology research, and even though it's in a jazzy style unnatural to me, I wanted to play it. Then I received an email last year asking me if I knew about Susan Dyer's An Outlandish Suite. The fine folks at interlibrary loan found it for me, and I loved how unusual and quirky it was. All I needed was one more piece of Americana to round out the program, so I went back to my roots and brought out a work from volume one, the Kansas Memories Suite by Hannah Bartel (now Hannah Groening). It made for a very light-hearted little recital!
Hannah Bartel Groening (b. 1985) was born in Cimarron, Kansas, growing up in the country with many siblings in a musical family. She was a composition student at Kansas State and graduated with a B.M. in 2008. Violin is her primary instrument, and she was a delight to work with. Hannah is married now and lives in Dodge City, Kansas, with her husband and young son. She teaches violin and piano, composes, and is an avid gardener. Last year was apparently a bumper crop for tomatoes!
I commissioned this suite from her for the first volume of the anthology. She writes wonderfully for strings, and has a natural gift for melody. Each movement captures a moment from her childhood, and focuses on a different technical aspect of violin playing: string crossings, pizzicato, legato, and perpetual motion. The pieces are not only useful for teaching, but are really fun to play! Below are links to sound files for the first and third movements:
" 'Lil Blue"
The next composer on the program was Audrey Call (1905-2001), who grew up in Marion, Indiana (also the birthplace of James Dean). Call began violin studies at age three and appeared as a prodigy from age eight into her teens. Graduating from high school in 1923, she began studying at the Sherwood Music School in Chicago. Call won two violin competitions in 1926, and mdd her debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1927. From there, it was off to Paris for "finishing" at the Paris Conservatoire, where she earned the "Premier Accessit de Violon" in 1928.
On her return to America, Call got involved in radio broadcast work. She was the violin soloist for the "Fibber McGee and Molly" radio show for several years, and married the show's orchestra conductor, Ulderico Marcelli, in 1937. Call also played on the radio shows of other luminaries of the day, including Dennis Day, Imogene Coca, and Ronald Coleman. She was also a staff violinist for both NBC and CBS. The 1930's also saw her turn her hand to composition. Call wrote a number of "novelty solos" for violin and piano in a jazzy/blusey/big band sort of style popular at the time (The Witch of Harlem is one, which you can find in volume four of the anthology). Her style has been compared to that of Joe Venuti, though I'm not sure how apt that comparison may be.
Call had one son with Marcelli, and the marriage was a long and presumably happy one. She continued to compose and play, and was a dedicated violin teacher in Sunland, California. After her death, a music scholarship was established in her name at Santa Rosa Junior College. Call played a Gagliano violin, which is now owned by the concertmaster of the Cologne Philharmonic, Geoffrey Wharton.
The Canterbury Tales Suite is in three movements, each of which seems to present a character from the stories. Full disclosure-- I've never read the book so I am guessing at the correspondences based on an internet synopsis. Sorry! Please correct me if you know better. The first movement, "To a Lady from Baltimore," I'm guessing to be related to the Wife of Bath, a fun-loving, risqué, scarlet-dress-wearing woman of five marriages. The music is seductive, interrupted in the second part by a march and a sinister take on "Here Comes the Bride." Call makes use of whole-tone scales (perhaps a French influence?), upbow staccato, glissandi, and harmonics.
"To a Lady from Baltimore"
The other two movements, in my humble and uninformed opinion, depict the Friar and the Knight, respectively. The second movement starts with rather furtive music, and later launches into a jazzy, somewhat disguised version of the snake-charmer tune. The Friar was a slime-ball; he dressed like a beggar to get money, pretends he has a lisp for sympathy, calls the poor scum, and carries little presents for pretty girls. I'm stretching terribly for the third movement. The Knight went on many crusades, and the opening sounds like a meandering horse's gait. The piece then launches into stereotypical "Asian" music-- lots of double stop 4ths and 5ths-- indicative of travels in the east. And then somehow it all becomes train music, with "all aboard" glissandi and chugging. Lots of fun!
Lastly, a composer who was totally new to me! Susan Hart Dyer (1880-1922) was a dedicated violin teacher and composer with a very colorful upbringing, especially for her time. Born in Annapolis, Maryland, Dyer's father was a Navy Commodore who took his family with him on his travels. They spent considerable time in Guam, where her father was governor, and also in the Philippines. Dyer entered Peabody Conservatory in 1897, and received her teacher's certificate in 1902. She later studied composition at Yale with Horatio Parker, and received her degree as well as the Steinert Prize for composition in 1914. While in New Haven, Dyer taught music at the Neighborhood House Settlement School, where she was devoted to the welfare of the poverty-stricken students. Hand-written notes in the school records show the interest she took in each individual. For one student, she wrote, "Came over and over again to inquire about violin lessons. At that time said his mother wouldn't buy him a fiddle and we had none to lend. Now there are two idle and would advise looking him up, as it would be a very good thing for him to come to the school; he needs it."
Dyer moved with her parents to Winter Park, Florida, and taught at Rollins College from 1914-1922 (serving as director of the conservatory from 1916). She resigned from Rollins to become the Director of the Greenwich House Music School Settlement, but sadly died within a few months of taking the post.
Dyer was known for her keen sense of humor, which is readily apparent in An Outlandish Suite. I didn't know what to expect from such a title, but I think it relates to the idea of "outliers"-- people from the fringes of society at that time. The original program notes for the posthumous premiere stated, "Under this title Susan Dyer grouped together some of the musical impressions and reactions of years of travel. Through all her voyages and varied sojourns as a naval officer's daughter, she kept her sharp ears open to whatever music was wafted her way; and this suite is her vivid response to the musical color and emotional temper of races black and red and white and yellow." The first movement, "Ain't it a Sin to Steal on a Sunday," is subtitled "Negro Song." There were many versions of this tune, from "Ain't it Grand to Live a Christian" to "Ain't it a Sin to Beat Your Wife on a Sunday." This version was used as an encore in the 1922 musical Shuffle Along, the first all-black cast Broadway show. Movement two, "Florida Nightsong," bases the piano part on the birdcall of the chuck-will's widow (which you can hear here: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/sounds). This movement was performed and recorded by Heifetz. The unusual third movement is a Seminole ceremonial dance, the chicken dance (no, not the one you do at weddings). The piano part gets more and more insane as it goes along, with Amanda describing it as a "robot chicken on fire," and me to say, "this chick has issues." The "Panhandle Tune" is a cowboy song adapted by Dyer with beautiful simplicity. Lastly, the fifth movement is "Hula-hula," to be played "Not too fast, but with savage rhythm" yet "insinuatingly." The violin has many quick slides meant to suggest steel guitar. This quirky suite is very violinistic in writing and full of surprises!