If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On: Settings of Shakespeare - Celebrating Female Composers

Dear Friend of Sacred and Profane,

The S&P singers are back in the rehearsal room, preparing to bring you another beautiful concert on March 4th and 5th! I want to give you some personal notes on how this program came about, in addition to the formal program notes that you’ll see at the concerts.


When we decided to focus our 2016-2017 concert on poets and poetry, it seemed only natural that we should dedicate a concert to the poet who has probably elicited more choral settings than any other – the great Bard, William Shakespeare. The problem for me, as selector-of-repertoire-in-chief, was choosing works for only one concert! There are so many wonderful Shakespeare choral settings, and my research kept leading me to new scores, new compilations, new recordings. In the end, I decided to zero in on two themes – works by women composers, and choral cycles. In this email, I’ll tell you about the compositions by women that we’ll be performing; you’ll hear from me later about the cycles on our program, which include music by the Brit Ralph Vaughan Williams, the witty Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi, and the Swiss master Frank Martin.

It feels odd that in 2017 we would still need to draw attention to music by women, doesn’t it? But when you consider that the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2016 production of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin was the first opera by a woman the Met had produced since their 1903 production of Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald, it becomes clear that we still need to champion women’s music to make sure excellent women composers receive equal (or any) attention. It took 113 years for the country’s most important opera house to present two works by women! Personally, I don’t believe that is an oversight, but rather a reflection of establishment prejudice. And, by the way, our orchestras fare little better. According to a survey of the twenty-two largest American orchestras, women composers accounted for only 1.8% of the total pieces performed in the 2014-2015 concert season. It’s perhaps telling that when I did a Google search for “women composers” today, the photo that came up first for the composer and pianist Clara Wieck Schumann was not actually of Clara, but of her husband Robert.

Recognizing and celebrating women composers has always been an area of interest to me. I wrote my master’s thesis at UC Santa Cruz in 1998 on Swedish music for women’s choir, and focused a good deal on music by women. Moreover, as I’ve written about before, my doctoral thesis at University of Iowa in 2002 was on the feminist musical aesthetic of the music of Karin Rehnqvist, the Swedish composer whose music you have heard in several Sacred and Profane concerts. In my research for that thesis, I delved into the history of women composers and the parallel musical language they have developed alongside their male counterparts.


I’ve gotten lots of questions about what makes music “feminist.” A quick response is that like all art, music reflects the maker’s entire self, and gender and sexuality are essential to our experience of the world. The music we write will reveal that experience in various subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. But rather than wax further on that for you, let me tell you a bit about the women we will be featuring in our upcoming concert. Our concert will demonstrate that the dearth of opportunities to hear music composed by women is a result of pure prejudice, not the lack of beautiful music.

Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched by her future husband Wilhelm Hensel

Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched by her future husband Wilhelm Hensel

Fanny Hensel composed a large repertoire of wonderful music for a cappella choir to be performed at her parents’ Sunday afternoon concert series in Berlin. These afternoon musical salons were the “in” place for intellectual elites of Berlin to be, and since it was considered inappropriate for women to perform in public venues, salons were also socially acceptable venues for women in music to thrive in as composers and performers. Like her brother Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny was known as a great music prodigy, but she was discouraged by her brother from publishing her works. Toward the end of her life, however, she did publish a cycle of choral works called Gartenlieder, and S&P has performed a number of those works in recent years. Unter des Laubdachs Hut, her setting of a translation of Under the Greenwood Tree, is a blast. It takes off like lightning and keeps the choir gasping for breath to the end.

Rebecca Clarke was a bi-coastal, English-American composer whose music is beginning to receive some long-overdue notice. She composed several choral settings, always choosing high-quality poetry by poets like Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. Her A Lover’s Dirge is a rich, complex work that often juxtaposes clashing pitches and then merges the choir back together in a sonorous result. We’ve been really enjoying mastering the complexity of her score in rehearsal.

Amy Beach was a prominent composer, pianist, music educator, and advocate for women composers in Boston in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She toured the US and Europe extensively as a pianist, and her large choral, orchestral, and chamber works were performed by orchestras across the country, including here in San Francisco. I have always loved Beach’s music, and I’m enjoying returning to her Three Shakespeare Songs for women’s voices after programming them with my university choir a while back. The pieces display her mastery of harmony, which is at the same time accessible and brilliantly crafted. These are truly delightful pieces, and S&P’s women are singing them beautifully.


Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you at our concerts in March!