Elizabeth Wood Inspires Hartford Festival

Elizabeth Wood at the Jan. 21, 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C.

The 17th annual Women Composers Festival of Hartford invited musicologist Elizabeth Wood to be their Keynote Speaker, and Wood shares her energizing presentation with us here.  It was really more of a Convocation: a kick-off of the Festival, a drawing together of those assembled as well as the composers and pieces of the opening concert  (March 30) – “Music in the Time of Women’s Suffrage.”  It was also (as you will read) a call-to-action, galvanizing us all in a commitment to activism at this critical time.

This short bio is drawn from a recent publication: Elizabeth Wood was educated at the University of Adelaide (BA Hons., PhD) and has lived in New York since 1977. She has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in music, literature and women’s and queer studies, and has presented public lectures and papers at universities around the world. Her publications include a novel, a history of Australian opera, and a series of award-winning critical studies of Ethel Smyth. She was co-editor (with Philip Brett and Gary Thomas) of the path-breaking collection Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (1994).

I am delighted to welcome you all to this opening concert of the 2017 Women Composers Festival of Hartford.

First, I wish to recognize and thank our artistic director and past-president, Penny Brandt, a founding member of the Festival Board for all of its 17 years. Penny is clearly a multi-tasking multi-talented magician: in 2013 she was responsible for adding a research forum to the Festival program; she teaches “Women’s Work in Music History” at U.Conn; she welcomed a new baby, Oscar, only 3½ months ago; and in two weeks’ time she will defend her doctoral dissertation. We wish her all joy (with Oscar) and success (with the diss).

We also thank Sacha Peiser, current president; Nick Smolenski, festival director; the wonderful Charter Oak staff; our performers tonight – all from the Hartt School here in Hartford – for helping to make this 4-day celebration possible. Finally, we applaud the participating musicians and composers, who have come from near and far to share with us the marvelous work of their musical minds.  Welcome all.

It has been a tradition for this festival to begin with a salute to ancestors. Penny tells me that at the very first festival, three women singers presented the program: there was but one song, by Clara Schumann. Each sang that same song in turn. Nobody knew of another woman composer, or where to find another work by any woman composer!  My, how things have changed.

How much have things changed?

When I think about obstacles faced and surmounted by the three composers represented on tonight’s program, I am astonished by their persistence and courage. Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), a rebel born to a large military – and singularly unmusical – British family, had to face down parental refusal as well as gendered social and middle-class norms, rules of proper female etiquette and tradition, in order to study, unchaperoned, at the Leipzig Conservatory. There, she fought for the right to study composition, learn counterpoint and theory, from which female students were excluded. The pattern of exclusion she experienced as a woman by what she called the Male Machine (men who preside over education, decide the curricula, lead the orchestra, choose the programs, award prizes, write reviews and generally control everything) continued throughout her life.  But Smyth learned to use strategic thinking, to find ways to have her music heard, e.g. deploying her ace card by conducting it herself – an alarming novelty for most late Victorian-Edwardian women, but for Smyth, a fiercely competitive sportswoman, an enjoyable, magnetic and athletic accomplishment.  Smyth’s passionate love affairs with women were legion, her several books of travel, memoir, and polemic were best-sellers, but I believe the highlight of her life was her discovery of feminism and militant activism after deciding in 1910-1913 to devote herself, and her creativity, to active service in the cause of women’s suffrage. For that decision, she went to jail, but her Tory heritage, embedded in her father’s conservatism, was forever changed by serving a cause larger than personal and professional ambition: to work and march shoulder to shoulder alongside women of all ages, class backgrounds, education, and work experience.  Suffrage radicalized Smyth.

The work we will hear tonight, however, predates all that excitement. The violin sonata was written in the winter of 1887 at Leipzig, when Smyth was 29. One of the first to hear it, with the composer on piano and Adolf Brodsky, violin, was Brodsky’s guest Tchaikovsky, on his first visit to Germany. He and Smyth became admiring friends. But Smyth was bereft that icy, bitter winter in the aftermath of rejection by her lover, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, a misery she inscribed on the score at the start of the 3rd movement. Musicians usually play from published scores, but scholars prefer to study the original manuscript. Imagine my delight to find there the story – or ‘code’ – behind this pivotal movement, whose instrumental conversation, seemingly troubled by anxiety and ambivalence, acts to decenter the mood established in previous movements. Smyth’s poetic inscription offers the clue: it comes from Dante’s vision of Hell, “where the souls of the lustful are tossed forever upon a howling wind.” (l’inferno, canto 5, l.121). The ghost of Francesca da Rimini, suffering “hidden fires,” “said to me, Smyth quotes, “The bitterest woe of woes is to remember in our wretchedness old happy times.” (121-4).  Longing, loss, and a passionate restlessness pervade Smyth’s youthful work.

Romanticism is a creative force in the music of Amy Marcy Cheney, a child prodigy born 1867, home-schooled in Boston by a controlling but benevolent mother, who wrote her Opus 1 at age 4,; first appeared in public as a pianist and composer at age 7; and made her professional debut as a pianist at age 16. Two years later, she married into privilege, exchanging her name for that of a prominent Boston surgeon, a widower slightly older than her father, called Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, hence the “Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.” [How many women lost their names in marriage? Were those names ever “ours” to lose?] Amy also “lost” her public career (but not her social standing in the “Boston Group,” a social elite of intellectuals and artists in that most musical and Anglophone city) because her husband forbade her, as was his patriarchal right, to teach or earn a living by performing, unless for charity. Ironically, Dr Beach approved of his young wife’s self-taught composition in the privacy of home. Only with his death in 1910, when she was in her 40s, was Amy able to travel, to perform and make known her own music at home and abroad. Freed at last, she never looked back.  Tonight, we hear her piano quintet, opus 67, of 1907, composed some 20 years after Smyth’s violin sonata.

Censorious parents and teachers, forbidden love, limited education and other restrictions based on gender presented hurdles for women composers. Marriage, motherhood, could diminish or end a creative career. So could one’s inherited race or ethnicity and class. The other child prodigy tonight is the elusive Florence Smith, born in 1888 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a middle-class African-American family, the father a dentist and amateur painter, the mother (also Florence) a former school teacher who gave the child piano lessons. Florence made her public debut at age 4. Her first composition was published at 11, in 1899. Then by means I have not ascertained, she made her way north to the New England Conservatory of Music in Amy Beach’s Boston, one of very few black women to do so, and graduated there in piano and organ at age 19 in 1906.  Back in Little Rock, she married a lawyer, Thomas Price, took his name, gave birth to two daughters and a son who died in infancy, taught here and there in black schools and colleges, moving briefly to Atlanta, GA, in 1910 to head the music department at Clark University. Her application to be admitted to membership in the Arkansas Music Teachers Association was denied.

Think about that. Think about what Florence Price was up against in the violent, prejudiced, segregated South.

In 1927, the Price family moved north, in the tracks of the Civil War-era Freedom Railway, to Chicago  and the South-side African-American community of intellectuals, artists, welcoming musical societies and churches, and professionals like themselves. Florence continued to study, teach privately, write music for radio commercials, improvise on theatre organs for silent film screenings. She lost her first husband to despair during the Depression, her second to divorce, and raised her girls as a single parent. But, suddenly, her career bloomed, in 1932, with a series of prestigious awards and performances. An African-American merchant in Philadelphia, Rodman Wanamaker, with the support of the NAACP and W.B. DuBois, announced “A Contest in Musical Composition for Composers of the Negro Race.” Four of Price’s works, a Symphony in E, Piano Sonata in E minor, Piano Fantasy #4, and orchestral work, “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America,” all won monetary prizes. She was finally on her way. The symphony was chosen for performance by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Price herself premiered her own Concerto in One Movement at Orchestra Hall, then heard it repeated in 1934 by the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, conducted by Ebba Sundstrom of Sweden, with Margaret Bonds, an African-American pupil who lived with Price, at the piano.

But what then? What happened to Price and her work after the awards were over? I want to know more, for instance, about the ways she merged classical forms, in which she was so fluent, with her African-American heritage of dance rhythms and melodies, in, for instance, her original songs (some to texts by Langston Hughes) and in arrangements of Spirituals. For “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint,” which we will hear tonight, melodic material is derived from both traditional Western European songs (Clementine; Drink to me only with thine eyes), African-American songs (Shortnin’ Bread), and Spirituals (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). Until recently, none of Price’s 300-plus compositions available in published form. Her undated manuscripts are in Little Rock or in private hands. She seems not to have taken part – as Bonds did, after moving to NY in 1939 – in the vibrant Harlem Renaissance of African-American art and culture in New York in the 20s and 30s. Price remained close to her roots and community. Apparently, she continued to write music up to her death in 1953 at the age of 65. But who heard it? Where is it?

Penny invited me to talk about composers and their music in the women’s suffrage movement in the US and UK. What seems especially urgent is to hold an open discussion (at tomorrow morning’s panel) of issues and strategies facing women artists and activists right now, in the age of Trump. I think Penny hoped to cheer us up, in these troubling, scary times, with stories of our fighting feminist foremothers who, over 100 years ago, waged a long and sometimes violent battle for women’s right to vote; who demanded justice, equality, and freedom from oppression. We can learn from their endurance. Suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony in the US, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett in UK, worked for change for decades, and did not quit. Musicians and composers who worked for the cause included composer/pianist Teresa Carreno; composer/violist Rebecca Clarke; composer Clara Rogers, who like Smyth was denied permission and opportunity to study composition and orchestration at the Leipzig Conservatory; the Scottish-born pianist Helen Hopekirk, who premiered a student sonata by Ethel Smyth at the Gewandhaus; made her professional debut at Leipzig in 1878; then moved to Boston. Beach was not personally involved in women’s suffrage but became an admired role model for women in music. Smyth, who signed on to the militant wing, became a lesbian feminist icon.

Smyth visited Boston in 1903 with John Singer Sargent and her sister Mary Hunter, en route to The Metropolitan Opera in New York for the American premier of her second opera, Der Wald. Yet it appears that Beach and Smyth, who both died in 1944 and surely heard of one another, never met. I do not know if either had ever heard of Florence Price, or she of them. It does not surprise us anymore how often and how rapidly women of great talent disappear from history. Coincidentally, both Beach and Smyth composed a large-scale Latin Mass (for SATB soloists, chorus, and orchestra), a bold, unusual choice for women of that time. Both were premiered in 1892, Beach’s in Boston, Smyth’s at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Both were well-received, then soon forgotten. Both were eventually revived, in the same year, 1984. Strange. Who says we don’t have ancestral ghosts?

Might an ancestral spirit – the spirit that animated the Women’s March on Washington last January, and sister-marches all over the world – renew in us a similar energy, focus, and durability to again join together to protect women’s rights? Our right to reproductive freedom, health care; maternity, newborn, and pregnancy care; child care; clean water and air? Our right to work; equal pay; equal opportunities? To LGBT rights, inclusiveness, and diversity? The list is long. Women no longer march as they did in 1910 for a single cause.

Our issues in 2017 are now part of a wider culture, of larger movements for change. We must engage in the great conversations taking place right now in the political arena, or become irrelevant. Isn’t it our responsibility to be engaged: to voice Dissent; to Resist; to Protest wrongs? Our demands include personal security, respect for differences among us in race, ethnicity, and religion, and compassion for those less able. We march to resist structural injustices and inequalities of all kinds, including disparities in wealth and opportunity. We protest the silencing of women throughout history, and call for the right of women to occupy public space, to speak in public space. We protest the displacement of millions of people by war and poverty. We protest and resist the ever-increasing everyday incidence of violence against women. (The final concert on Saturday evening is devoted to that cause).  We protest the sharp rise since January in murderous attacks against journalists and scholars and in the censorship of artists and artistic freedom worldwide – as noted by the Danish free speech advocacy group, FREEMUSE.

Women’s movements for change – feminist movements – are recurring waves: they gather, crest, break, subside, but will not die away. Identity politics of the 1970s and 80s gave way to our 21st century multiple identities. Yet history tells us that affirmative actions that unite us in common cause, while celebrating our uniquenesses, will persist until the cause is won. In Britain in 1914 the struggle for the vote was subsumed by the first World War, and feminists – including Smyth – exchanged their peacetime slogans for patriotic propaganda and worked for the war effort. The pause was only temporary. Women gained the vote, but then lost their jobs when the men came home. The issue for women then, and now, is: How do we engage?

We are all story tellers in sound and text. What stories are being told now? Are they about climate change? Clean power? Biodiversity? Environmental protection? Global warming and its consequences, the greatest catastrophe facing us all? How do we engage?

Californian Congresswoman Maxine Waters urges us to: “Be who you are. Do what you do.”  As artists, writers, composers, painters, poets, performers, we engage with the right to freely express ourselves in art. Our creativity, Martha Graham once said, is “a blessed unrest” that propels us forward into the unknown. It takes a leap of faith. The gestation of a work of art is rarely compensated, as the three composers we will shortly hear well knew. Magical thinking – I mean, of course, musical thinking — often needs long periods of gestation, in silence. Creativity can seem solitary. A composer may feel, as Smyth often did, like a lonesome outlier in a risk-averse, male-dominated music industry obsessed with replicating the success of proven money-makers – usually male. But we are at least as valuable as marketing. For we are driven by “a blessed unrest” — to find, as Ethel Smyth did, a like-minded partner, an ally, to sustain and love her. To promote another woman’s work, as Marian Anderson promoted Price’s songs. To mentor another, as Florence Price mentored Margaret Bonds. To help others develop technique and inspiration, and be open to new ideas, yet focus, always focus, despite the din of everyday news and fake news, on the work at hand with the zeal and ambition of a Price, a Smyth, a Beach. To trust that the material we work with will reveal the way forward; the process will make itself known. We can make a difference, in what we DO.

Composers, take heart. You are not alone. As reported in the New York Times recently, people stand up to President Trump in the courts, in street protests, and in art. A sense of humor helps. As we begin this festival, let us listen, first, to the voices of poets. “Fight the perverse in verse,” notes Nick Kristof of a recent contest in which 2000 “poets waged a battle in verse”   about “our commander in tweet.” One, Susan McLean, quipped:

Trump seethes at what the writers say.
He’ll pull the plug on the NEA.
The joke’s on him. Art doesn’t pay.
We write our satires anyway.

Let’s get to work!