Discovered: A Wealth of Music By Women

I went downtown yesterday to pick up a new book for a piano student of mine from The Leading Note. To my delight, I discovered a wealth of music by female composers for both flute and piano alike! Here’s what I bought:

At the Piano With Women Composers, ed. by Maurice Hinson. Published by Alfred Publishing Co. [Intermediate to Early Advanced Piano]
Barcarolle et Scherzo, by Berthe di Vito-Delvaux. Published by CeBeDeM. [Late Intermediate Flute]
As She Was, by Catherine McMichael. Published by Alry Publications Etc., Inc. [Intermediate Flute]

At the Piano With Women Composers features thirteen different women composers writing from the Classical era to the 20th Century. Some of them, we’ve met in my History Hunt series: Amy Beach, Teresa Carreño, Cécile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Clara Wieck Schumann. Others are still on my to-do list. I’m particularly excited to explore this collection, so my more advanced piano students had better watch out!

Previous posts in this series discovering music by underrepresented composers: (1) (2)

Advertisements

Representation Remixes: Skipping Rope, by Yelena Fabianovna Gnesina

Over the past half of a year, I’ve been making a real effort to expand my music collection to reflect the composers I’ve featured in my History Hunt series (and hope to continue to feature when time and health permit!). It’s been a real challenge, though, especially with my flute music collection. There are real gaps–so much so that I recently had to apologise to one of my students for only giving her music by white men to play so far when neither of us fit that bill.

So I’ve started to do some very simple arrangements to fill in the gap a little. Normally, I keep my arrangements as a perk for members of my studio, but addressing the incredible imbalance in core flute repertoire is something I feel very strongly about. So, I’d like to make these arrangements generally available.

The first one I’ve completed is “Skipping Rope,” by Yelena Fabianovna Gnesina. It’s found in the Grade 5 Royal Conservatory of Music repertoire book; the arrangement should be suitable for flute students playing at a Grade 1/2 RCM level.

flute-Gnesina-Skipping Rope (Flute and Piano parts)
flute-Gnesina-Skipping Rope-flute part (Flute part alone)

I hope you all enjoy, and please feel free to send me feedback! I don’t arrange music as often as I should, and so I could do with some constructive criticism.

A Pleasant Surprise

As I was preparing for a lesson this afternoon, I noted in some surprise that not only was the study I was going to be teaching by a female composer, but by a female composer I’d not heard of.

RCM Grade 5 Study #15, “Skipping Rope,” is by (Y)elena Fabianovna Gnesina. She doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page in English (yet!), but here’s what The Free Dictionary has to say about her:

Born May 18 (30), 1874, in Rostov-on-Don; died June 4, 1967, in Moscow. Soviet pianist and teacher. Honored Art Worker of the RSFSR (1935).

Gnesina graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1893 as a piano student of V. I. Safonov and devoted herself to teaching. She was a founder and director of Gnesin’s School of Music (from 1895) and Gnesin’s Music Pedagogic Institute (from 1944), where she worked as artistic supervisor and professor. As a teacher Gnesina developed the finest traditions of the Russian school of piano. Her students included the pianist L. N. Oborin and the composer A. I. Khachaturian. She was awarded two Orders of Lenin, two other orders, and various medals.

V. I. ZARUBIN

It looks as though I have some research to do!

Back to School, Back to Blogging

Well, now, here we are again. Most students in my area started their first day of school on Tuesday, the leaves on the maple tree outside my window are starting to turn red, and fall will soon be here (even if the current 33C feels-like temperature doesn’t suggest as much). And so now is a good time to get back to this blog, and hopefully make updates a regular feature once again.

Over the summer, I was able to go on a music-buying spree for my studio. It was a lot of fun, but it also brought to mind one of the difficulties of making sure the music my students are exposed to comes from a variety of sources.

Finding music by non-male composers and minority composers is a constant struggle. In my side work as a music reviewer for the Canadian Music Teacher, on more than one occasion I’ve been sent collections of music where the composers featured were exclusively men. And for all its benefits, the Royal Conservatory of Music itself does little better in its pre-20th century music.

However, I was lucky enough in my most recent spree to find two flute works by female composers to add to my collection: Canadian Nancy Telfer’s Star-Gazing, and American Amy Beach’s Sonata in a minor, Op. 34, which was transcribed for flute. (Amy Beach was previously featured on this blog’s History Hunt series, as one of the most famous and popular composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) I was also able to find an intermediate piano collection of Chinese folk songs, which I’m looking forward to incorporating into my students’ repertoire–once I do some research, of course–and Fiona Wilkinson’s book of technique, The Physical Flute.

Frustratingly, Telfer and Beach’s works together cost more than a typical collection of multiple works by all-male composers. This isn’t unusual. When it comes to teaching with representation, music teachers have to be willing to shoulder a financial burden. That can be a real hardship, since many teachers are of lower income than is typically assumed. Add in the time and patience needed to track down representative works in the first place, and our challenge is clear.

To lessen this challenge for others, I’m planning to document each work I come across as I slowly shift my personal collection into something more balanced. I’m hoping that, in doing so, I’ll be able to make teaching with representation just a little more feasible.

Works featured:

Star-Gazing, by Nancy Telfer. Published by the Canadian Music Centre. (Français) [Easy Flute]
Sonata in a minor, Op. 34, by Amy Beach. Transcribed for Flute and Piano by Alexa Still. Published by International Opus. [Advanced Flute]
Chinese Folk Songs Collection, arranged by Joseph Johnson in consultation with Wen Guo Yao, Shen Wen, Jerry Huang, the Deng family, and Jennifer Linn. Published by Hal Leonard. [Early Intermediate Piano]
The Physical Flute, by Fiona Wilkinson. Published by Waterloo Music Company Ltd. [Intermediate to Advanced Flute]

Portrait of Anna Amalia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar.

History Hunt: Anna Amalia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar

Hello, all! Apologies for the delay between History Hunt posts. My studio continues to grow, which is great news for me, but makes it hard for me to find time to do the research for these posts. I’ll keep trying to make them as regularly as I can, though, because the History Hunt series is very important to me.

So, this week, we’re going to be meeting our second musical Anna Amalia–our first was Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, who I featured last summer. Unfortunately, up-to-date information about this Anna Amalia is sparse at best and inaccessible at worst, and so I’ll have to rely on old sources. This means that, though I’m doing my utmost to ensure this post is accurate as always, not having access to newer scholarship means some of my information may be outdated.

Also, please note that child neglect and misogyny are discussed in this post.

Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar was born a princess on October 24, 1739 in Wolfenbüttel, in what’s now Germany. She was her parents’ ninth child, but sadly, rather than being excited to welcome another member of their family, her parents were disappointed that she was a girl. They neglected her terribly in favour of her older siblings, which left Anna deeply unhappy.

Even her teachers treated her poorly, something she didn’t at all deserve. Eventually, with no one to turn to, she devoted herself to learning in order to bring herself happiness. Luckily, there were a great many musicians and artists at the court of her father, Duke Charles I (also known by his German name of Karl I). She took music lessons from a professor at Collegium Carolinum, a university her father founded.

When she was sixteen, she married Duke Constantine of Weimar in an arranged marriage. However, in spite of what’s usually thought about arranged marriages, this was a great relief for Anna. She saw it as a way out of her unhappy home, and so she gladly married the eighteen-year-old Duke and moved to Weimar to become its new Duchess.

Life in Anna’s new home was hard at first, as Weimar was much poorer than the household in which Anna grew up. The arts weren’t valued nearly as much in Weimar as they were in her old home. Still, she kept her chin up and persevered.

Sadly, when Anna was eighteen, her husband died of illness. Because their son was still an infant, this left her ruling Weimar in his stead, first with a fellow guardian, and then, once she was twenty-one, alone.

Anna had a long road ahead of her: Weimar was in tough shape and had little money. However, that didn’t discourage her. She was used to studying, and so she started learning about how to run a duchy as soon as possible. Though it took years, she brought Weimar back to its former riches. She also encouraged artists, musicians, writers, and actors to come to her court. Some of the most famous artists of her day soon arrived, putting Weimar on the map as an important cultural centre.

It wasn’t only other people who made music around Anna, though. She was a composer herself, and though only a few of her pieces survive, one of them is the opera Erwin und Elmire, which she composed when she was about thirty-six. When writing this opera, she united two different opera styles with the traditional music of the area to create what’s been called “an important artistic milestone in the development of German Opera by a major historical figure in her own right.” (Tregear)

Nowadays, Anna is best known for the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, which she established personally, starting it off with around two thousand books. Even after a terrible fire in 2004, it still houses over a million volumes–including the published manuscript of her own opera. Though she’s no longer a well-known composer, her influence can still be felt to this day.

Here’s a sample of Anna’s music in the form of a trailer for her opera, Erwin und Elmire. More of the opera can be found by searching its title on Youtube.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
A Grand Duchess: the Life of Anna Amalia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and the Classical circle of Weimar by Frances Gerard
Abstract of Anna Amalia (1739–1807) Erwin und Elmire (1776) Full Score with Critical Essays by Peter Tregear
Weimar, Germany on the Encyclopædia Britannica website
Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel on Wikipedia.org
Duchess Portrait Missing Since WWII Returns to Her Heirs on Bloomberg.com (Image Source)

Micki Grant on the cover of her LP "Lovin' Kind of Woman"

History Hunt: Micki Grant

This week marks the 1st anniversary of History Hunt! Looking back, I’ve learned so much about musicians from all kinds of different places in history, from those who lived nearly a thousand years ago to musicians who are still alive and making music to this day. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share the lives and music of these great people with you, and I’m looking forward to many more anniversaries!

For today’s History Hunt post, it’s time to visit another musician whose career is ongoing, someone who’s a woman of many talents.

Micki Grant was born as Minnie Perkins on June 30 in Chicago, Illinois. We don’t know the exact year of her birth, though it’s often quoted as 1941, because Grant doesn’t like to share it.

During her childhood, Grant recalls in an interview with the Dramatists Guild of America, there was always music in the air. This music was often blues music, such as W. C. Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues,” and was performed by her father, who had taught himself how to play the piano by ear. Grant would often sit on the piano stool beside her father and then improvise her own songs when he was finished.

When Grant was either six or eight years old, she played the part of the Spirit of Spring in a play at the community theatre. It was then, as she touched the flowers to make them come to life, that she decided she wanted to have a career in theatre when she grew up, and that same year she began taking acting lessons (for free!).

Later, when she was nine, she started taking violin lessons while her sister learned how to play the piano. Unfortunately, Grant was discouraged from taking piano lessons by her sister’s teacher, as the teacher believed she didn’t have the talent to play the piano–something that Grant soon proved wrong.

As she grew up, Grant took up other instruments. She learned to play the double bass, as there was a vacancy in a newly formed string orchestra that she volunteered to fill. Her violin teacher began teaching her how to play the instrument, even though Grant’s mother thought she was too small for it! She also learned to play the sousaphone in high school, another very large instrument. And, by the time she was sixteen or seventeen, she was directing the youth choir at church!

At this point, Grant wanted to become a famous novelist, though she knew she also wanted to work in theatre. How music would fit into her plans, she wasn’t sure just yet. Still, it remained a part of her life as she continued her education at three separate universities. At the University of Illinois, for example, she played in both the jazz ensemble and the concert orchestra, and when she studied double bass at the Chicago School of Music, she also played in its concert orchestra as well.

Though she spent some time in Los Angeles, it was in New York that Grant’s musical career really took off. On her own time, she learned to play the guitar (which she considers “a very friendly instrument”) and sang protest songs. Her paid work included singing in the off-Broadway plays The Blacks, Brecht on Brecht, and The Cradle Will Rock. In 1965, when she was twenty-four, thanks to her well-received musical theatre roles, she became one of the first African-Americans to land a role on an American soap opera, which was Another World. Almost right away, she became the first African-American to have a soap opera storyline written exclusively for her.

Grant wasn’t just interested in performing in musical theatre: she was also into writing plays and their music and lyrics. In 1970, she became the Urban Art Corps’ artist in residence and started what was to be a fifteen year-long collaboration with Vinnette Carroll, who was the first African-American woman to be a Broadway director. Together, they created Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, a Broadway musical that Grant also starred in. It was the first Broadway musical to be written solely by a woman, and when it finally closed, it was after 1065 performances–a huge success by any definition.

Throughout her career, Grant worked on numerous musicals, sometimes contributing the bulk of the work and at other times content to take the backseat. She’s also had fun writing music and lyrics for commercials, and for club singers. She’s won multiple awards over the years, including three Tony Awards, the NAACP’s Image Award, and the Dramatists Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She was the first woman to receive  Grammy for Best Score for Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. And she’s had not one, but two “Micki Grant Day”s given in her honour: one in Brooklyn in 1990 and another in Newark, New Jersey in 1993.

Those of you who are lucky enough to find yourself in New York City between February 27 and March 6 will have the opportunity to see Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope for yourselves, put on by the York Theatre Company. If anyone goes, let me know how it was–I’d love to hear about it!

In the meantime, for those of us who won’t be able to make it to the performance, here’s the reprise of “I Gotta Keep Moving,” as sung by Micki Grant and Alex Bradford:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Micki Grant with Kia Corthron, interview on Dramatists Guild of America site (mild language, racism mention)
Micki Grant, by Phiefer L. Brown in Notable Black American Women, Book 2 (ed. Jessie Carney Smith)
Micki Grant on The History Makers
Micki Grant on Music Theatre International
York Theatre Company to Launch Winter MUSICAL IN MUFTI Series in February at Broadway World
Micki Grant at Oxford Reference
Micki Grant at Wikipedia.org
Image Source

Composer, conductor, musician, poet, and writer R. Nathaniel Dett

History Hunt: R. Nathaniel Dett

This week (well…it was supposed to be last week, but I had a ton of errands), we’ll be meeting our second Canadian of History Hunt, someone who actually lived fairly near me! It was a really neat discovery for me, and I’m planning on going out of my way to introduce my music students to him as soon as I can track down some of his works.

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville (now a part of Niagara Falls), Ontario, Canada on October 11, 1882.

Ontario, Canada, birthplace of R. Nathaniel Dett

Ontario, Canada, birthplace of R. Nathaniel Dett

At first, Dett’s musician parents didn’t realise that their youngest son had inherited their gift, but that was soon to change. While two of his older brothers were receiving piano lessons, Dett began to copy them. He played their pieces–but without the sheet music they were using. When his brothers’ teacher found out, she was so impressed that she started teaching him for free!

When Dett was eleven, his family moved to the United States side of Niagara Falls. There, he continued his piano lessons and later, around when he was fourteen, he took a job as a bellhop at a local hotel. When he had the time, he would play the piano located in the lobby, which earned him more than a few fans.

The next year, in 1897, Dett made a decision. While he was setting up chairs in the hotel parlor for a visiting bass singer (who had actually been his Sunday School superintendent), he told himself that the next time he moved chairs, it would be for his own recital. Sure enough, later that summer, he was able to put on a piano recital in the same hotel parlor.

When he was sixteen, Dett became church organist at a church on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. In 1901, Dett began studying at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music; two years later, he quit his job as church organist to join the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. There, he majored in both piano and composition, which would have been a tremendous amount of work. It also would have been expensive, but luckily, when Dett gave a benefit concert after his first year to raise money for his classes, one of the attendees was so impressed that he promised to help him pay for his lessons.

While Dett was at Oberlin, he heard a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s American quartet that changed the course of his life. This work for strings was composed using traditional folk songs, and as Dett listened, he remembered his grandmother, who had sung songs written by African-Americans while enslaved. Dett had never been comfortable with the reminders of such a terrible time those songs brought. But now, he became determined to keep the memory of these songs alive, so they wouldn’t fade away.

In 1908, Dett graduated from Oberlin, holding a Bachelor of Music degree with honours. He was the first Black person to earn this degree at Oberlin. That wasn’t the last time Dett studied music, though: he earned degrees and honourary degrees from universities all over the United States, including the highly prestigious Harvard University. By far, Dett’s biggest learning trip was to Paris, France, later in his life. There, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the older sister of last week’s History Hunt composer, Lili Boulanger.

After Dett’s graduation, he began teaching at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. In 1911, he showed he was a man of many talents by publishing a book of poetry he dedicated to his mother. He spent the next few years teaching at two more universities and studying how to teach choirs, and then, in 1914, he gave two piano recitals that cemented his reputation as a composer and a pianist–one of which was at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Club in Chicago, Illinois. (This club was named after a previously featured History Hunt composer, who you can read about here.) He also entered a composition contest that same year put on by the Music School Settlement of New York and came second.

During World War I, Dett wrote music to keep up the spirits of both Canadians and Americans alike. He also got married, in 1916, to Helen Elise Smith, who was the first Black person to graduate from the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art (which later became part of the famous Julliard School of Music).

After the war, Dett founded the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919, and was its president between 1924 and 1926. The next year, he published an essay in four parts called Negro Music, which was an analysis of the state of Black folk songs and how they might best be preserved. This essay won him a Bowdoin Prize from Harvard. These prizes are “some of Harvard’s oldest and most prestigious student awards” (Harvard); winning one was very significant indeed. He also won a Francis Boott prize from Harvard in the same year, this time for his composition “Don’t Be Weary, Traveller.” And, on top of that,  later on, one of the groups to commission compositions from him was the TV station CBS, who asked for two separate symphonies!

After teaching at numerous universities, Dett settled at Hampton Institute in Virginia. There, he became the university’s first Black Director of Music by 1926 and united the university choir with local singers. With Dett at its head, the resulting choir went on numerous tours all across the United States and even to Europe and became very popular indeed. They performed in famous venues such as Carnegie Hall and Constitution Hall–the very same location that, eight years later, would refuse to allow Marian Anderson to perform for racist reasons. (See my History Hunt post on Marian Anderson for more information.)

Dett’s determination to preserve and help Black traditional music grow lives on even today. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale states on its website that it “is Canada’s first professional choral group dedicated to Afrocentric music of all styles, including classical, spiritual, gospel, jazz, folk and blues.” Dett would have been proud indeed.

Below is one of Dett’s most popular pieces from the suite In the Bottoms,  “Juba,” which is based on traditional Black music and dance.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
R. Nathaniel Dett at AfriClassical.com
R. Nathaniel Dett at Afrocentric Voices In “Classical” Music
Nathaniel Dett at The Canadian Encyclopedia
Roots and The Chorale at The Nathaniel Dett Chorale
Nathaniel Dett at Black History Canada
Robert N. Dett at the African American Registry
Dett, R. Nathaniel at BlackPast.org
R. Nathaniel Dett’s Views on the Preservation of Black Music by Jon Michael Spencer
Robert Nathaniel Dett Facts at YourDictionary
Bowdoin Prizes for Undergraduates at Harvard University
Dett Wins Francis Boott Prize at The Harvard Crimson
Juba dance at Wikipedia.org
R. Nathaniel Dett at Wikipedia.org (Image Source)