This Is Her Story, This Is Her Song by Kenneth Dake, Director of Music
Posted on April 28, 2014 by Ken Dake

What You’ll Hear

This coming Sunday the Marble Choir presents an innovative program of seldom-heard masterpieces by women composers. The concert was originally scheduled as part of a March Women’s History Month celebration, but it is always a good time to recognize the powerfully creative feminine voice in both music and word. True to the choir’s reputation for unparalleled variety, this program runs the emotional gamut, featuring classic works of great drama and emotional power, moments of lighthearted fun, a couple of roof-raising spirituals, and a lot of truly beautiful music throughout!

Unheralded Voices from the Past

Fanny Hensel (1805-1847) was four years older than her brother Felix Mendelssohn, and truly a genius in her own right. Some thought her equally talented as her brother. In fact, their childhood music teacher wrote that she was “really something special” and compared her to Johann Sebastian Bach. True to the customs of the day, Felix was encouraged by their father to pursue music as a profession; Fanny’s musical talent was to be tolerated only as an “ornament”, not a career. Her brother was more supportive of Fanny’s music, and even connived with her to publish a few of her works under his name.

The Marble Choir will present three out of her six-movement work, Gartenlieder, opus 3 (Garden songs). It is our belated nod to Earth Day, celebrated last week, as well as our looking ahead to a special MarbleMusic Next Door concert on Thursday, May 8th, a musical Garden Soirée. These charming part songs sound Schubertian in nature (he had died just 18 years earlier), they exalt in the music of nature, and they may have actually been intended for singing outdoors. In typical German 19th-century poetic fashion we are enticed through Hensel’s music into a world of rustling trees and whispering brooks, of river nymphs overseen by glimmering stars and moonlit stillness. In each song we are invited to listen to nature, to hear deeply what it is saying to us.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) is often referred to as America’s first “successful” woman composer. Born in Henniker, New Hampshire, Amy was a child prodigy on the piano and began composing at age five. As a composer she was largely self-taught, an ardent student of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. When she was eight her family moved to Boston and she later married a surgeon by the name of Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach. Thereafter she composed under the name Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, and only in recent decades as her music has grown in recognition has she been referred to as Amy Beach.

We will present her motet Help Us, O God, opus 50, and I am gratefully indebted to Harvard University for supplying me with a copy of this hard-to-find masterpiece. It is on a scale of a Bach motet, and will be the longest and meatiest work on Sunday’s concert. Its text falls into three continuous movements. The first section is a dramatic plea for God’s mercy and forgiveness, written in a primarily homophonic style. The middle of the work is for women’s trio, and it is a lighter, more graceful setting of the text, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down before the Lord, our Maker.” The final section is a massive five-part choral fugue on the text “Arise for our help, and redeem us for Thy mercies’ sake.” One clearly hears the influence of Bach, and the sheer brilliance of Beach’s contrapuntal writing is something to behold.

Reaching back further in history, the choir will sing a work of Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704). Isabella was from Novara, Italy, and from age sixteen on she was a sister in an Ursuline convent. She composed a vast amount of sacred music, including motets, psalm settings, Magnificats, and mass settings. She also composed quite a number of instrumental works, and only one other Italian woman is known to have done so in the 17th century! Her Ave Regina Coelorum was composed in 1684 and would have been sung by women’s voices of the convent, accompanied by theorbo and basso continuo. In a twist of irony it is the Marble Choir men who will sing it in our concert, in an a cappella arrangement for tenors and basses. The text is a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary, referred to as the Queen of Heaven, Mistress of Angels, and portal from which the light of the world has come. Despite its minor key the music is buoyant, joyful and dancelike in spirit, with a variety of choral textures and imitative counterpoint. It sounds surprisingly like a madrigal, its worldly, celebratory feel juxtaposed with its otherworldly, reverential text.

Exalting the Divine Feminine Image

The concert also features music exalting the divine female – but composed by men. Contemporary English composer Paul Mealor (b. 1975) has composed an ethereal setting of Lord Byron’s famous text She Walks in Beauty. Shimmering harmonic clusters bring out the transcendent nature of Byron’s text describing a woman of striking beauty both inside and out. The poet likens her to the best of both through images of light and dark. Her face expresses both purity and sweetness, says the poet, but even more than that it is the window into her inner goodness, her “mind at peace with all below” and a “heart whose love is innocent.” Mealor’s music masterfully conveys the breadth of the poet’s admiration of his subject as well as the purity and goodness which he seeks to describe.

Canadian Healey Willan (1880-1968) composed more than 800 works including operas, symphonies, chamber music, a concerto, works for band, orchestra, organ, and piano. However, he is best known for his religious music. The choir will sing his Liturgical Motet I Beheld Her, Beautiful as a Dove, which is a setting of an 8th century text for the Feast of Our Lady. The text compares the Virgin Mary with springtime itself, girding her with “rosebuds and lilies of the valley” as she gives birth to the new life brought to all by Christ. It compares her to a “wreath of sweet smoke arising from frankincense and myrrh,” a reference to the gifts brought to her by the magi at Jesus’ birth. Sometimes the best thing a composer can do is simply stay out of the way of the pure beauty of a chosen text, and the serene music of Willan’s sublime motet does just that.

Contemporary Voices

Joan Szymko (b. 1957) is a composer and conductor from the Pacific Northwest. With a catalog of over 100 published choral works, her music is performed by ensembles across North America and abroad. Abundant lyricism, rhythmic integrity and vigorous attention to text are hallmarks of Szymko's diverse and distinctive choral writing. Fresh and inspiring, her text selections are as notable as her music. All Works of Love features a powerful text by Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. Remember. All works of love are works of peace.” Of particular interest is how long Szymko dwells on the first part of the text – particularly ‘we have no peace’ and ‘we have forgotten.’ It isn’t until half-way through the work that the altos finally tell us what we have forgotten – ‘that we belong to each other.’ The final section of the work features the single word “Love” with undulating crescendi and diminuendi which are to be ‘like slow breathing’ according to the composer. Perhaps she is telling us that works of love are to be as routine as breathing, and as vital as the very air which sustains life.

One of the most innovative contemporary American composers is Meredith Monk (b. 1942). As a composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, music-theater works, films and installations she has pioneered what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” Monk creates works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound in an effort to discover and weave together new modes of perception. Her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument – as an eloquent language in and of itself – expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words. In fact, on Sunday’s concert the Marble Choir will sing her wordless 1988 composition, Jewish Storyteller/Dance/Dream, which uses only syllables combined with different vocal colors to express an earthy, native sound that is unlike that of any other composer.

Another leading voice in contemporary choral music is New York City composer Nancy Wertsch (b. 1948). A native of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, she graduated from the all-scholarship Curtis Institute of Music as a voice major – which is clearly one reason she writes so well for the voice. Ms. Wertsch’s affinity for vocal music has inspired a large body of choral music, anthems and concert pieces ranging in style from complex poly-choral music to arrangements of spirituals and American songs. The choir will sing her joyful Christmas motet, Wake, O Earth, which has a bit of a roaring twenties jazz feel to it. Taking an early 17th century text and making it sound dazzlingly fresh is no small task, and Wertsch succeeds brilliantly, with a couple of stunning harmonic shifts thrown in for good measure. The choir will close this Sunday’s program with her towering arrangement of Fanny Crosby’s gospel hymn Blessed Assurance, from which the title of the concert is a direct parody. Through the gradual layering of vocal textures, imbued with an old-time gospel feel, the work is gradually propelled toward its inevitable climactic conclusion, one that is sure to rattle the rafters!

Words from the First Second Lady

Two works of contemporary Minnesota composer Carol Barnett (b. 1949) will be featured on the concert. One is her very exciting take on the old spiritual My Soul’s Been Anchored. This fiendishly difficult but well-worth-the-effort arrangement reflects the high proficiency of the ensemble for whom it was written: the Dale Warland Singers. Her use of complex jazz harmonies, rhythms, and chromaticism combine in a tour-de-force of vocal writing. We hope to do it all the justice this arrangement so richly deserves!

The other piece of Carol Barnett’s we will present, Remember the Ladies, couldn’t be more different. It is a musical setting of a letter written in 1776 by Abigail Adams to her husband John, a member of the Continental Congress. Abigail is remembered as being the first 2nd Lady (since John Adams was the first US Vice President) and the second 1st Lady, since he then went on to become the second U.S. President. But in 1776 she was managing the farm and four children in Braintree, Massachusetts, and keeping up a lively correspondence with her husband which included her candid opinions on policy. In this particular letter she implores her husband with this advice:

“I desire you would remember the ladies. Be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.... If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. But such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.”

Barnett’s clever setting of this text is humorous but seriously well-crafted in a style that would have been heard in Europe in the late 1700s.

In this concert of great choral masterworks – both sacred and secular, but all divinely inspired – we will “remember the ladies” and honor, belatedly in some cases, their unique compelling voice and creative genius.

New CD release by the Marble Choir available on the day of the concert!
Sweet Hour – honoring the life and ministry of Dr. Arthur Caliandro.

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