900 Years of Women Composers
Programme notes by Anna Pope
Everyone loves a mystery, and searching for women’s music through nine centuries has certainly proven quite a challenge. Many women wrote music, but how much was actually published? How much is now hidden in obscurity? How many works were appropriated by men? How many ‘Anonymous’ pieces might have been written by women?
Perhaps we will never know. But what we do know is that the pieces that have been uncovered so far are hidden gems. Music full of passion, emotion and truth. Music that deserves to be heard.
O nobilissima viriditas
Hildegard of Bingen
Today, we start our journey with one of the most famous women of the Medieval Period, Hildegard of Bingen. Born at the end of the 11th century, Hildegard had visions from an early age and was considered to be ‘touched by God’. Given to a monastery while still a child, Hildegard soon learnt to read and write, and then to play the ten-stringed psaltery and compose music.
By the age of 38, Hildegard was elected leader of the group of women attached to a male monastery, and by 1150, she had overcome many obstacles to establish her own nunnery in Rupertsberg.
Living to the extraordinary age of 83, Hildegard became so well known for her wisdom, knowledge and spiritual enlightenment that popes and kings sought her advice. Her prolific writings included theological works, spiritual poetry, a morality play, medicinal texts, and ‘Physica’, a remarkable early scientific study into natural history. Thankfully, her fame ensured her works were revered and passed down through the generations, and so dozens of her musical compositions also survive.
Today, we present one of her most complex and beautiful plainsongs, a ‘responsory for virgins’. Typical of Hildegard’s work and unlike the standard liturgical plainsongs of her day, this spiritual text is enshrouded with passion, colour and appreciation of nature in all its beauty.
O noblest green viridity, you are rooted in the sun and in the clear bright calm you shine within a disc no earthly excellence can comprehend:
You are surrounded by the embraces of the service, the ministries divine. As morning’s dawn you blush, as sunny flame you burn.
A chantar m'er de so qu'eu no volria
Comtessa Beatriz de Dia (fl 1175-1212)
Speaking of passion, Beatriz, Comtessa de Dia was seething with it when she wrote the next piece. The most famous troubaritz (or female troubadour) of the late 12th century, Beatriz was of noble birth, and lived and performed in the courts and grand houses of Provence and southern France.
Sadly, although several of her poems survive, only one song has been found – a song so full of heartbreak that it cannot fail to touch the listener. She writes of her lover – full of anger, passion, hurt and betrayal. She loves him, she hates him, the emotion echoes through the centuries.
I must sing of what I do not want, I am so angry with the one whom I love, Because I love him more than anything: Mercy nor courtesy moves him, Neither does my beauty, nor my worthiness, nor my good sense, For I am deceived and betrayed, as much as I should be, if I were ugly.
I take comfort because I never did anything wrong, Friend, towards you in anything, Rather I love you more than Seguin did Valensa, And I am greatly pleased that I conquered you in love, My friend, because you are the most worthy; You are arrogant to me in words and appearance, And yet you are so friendly towards everyone else.
Amor per qual cagion
Vagh'amorosi augelli (1570)
Maddalena Casulana (1544-1590)
Next we journey into the Renaissance period where we meet the 16th century Italian composer Maddalena Casulana. Casulana is an extraordinary figure in musical history. She is believed to be the first woman ever to have a work formally published, and like all pioneers, her journey to recognition was not an easy one.
In Florence, she learnt to play the lute and sing, and composed her first collection of madrigals in 1566. However, it was not until 1568 in Venice that she was able to publish her first book of four-part madrigals.
She dedicated this landmark collection to her friend Isabella de Medici with the following inscription:
[I] want to show the world, as much as I can in this profession of music, the vain error of men that they alone possess the gifts of intellect and artistry, and that such gifts are never given to women.
As a singer and a woman, Casulana created works that were eminently singable and driven by words and their meaning. Lumina will sing two of the madrigals she published in 1570, both full of love and anguish: Amor per qual cagion and Vagh’ amorosi augelli.
Love, why cast me aside, knowing I am faithful, and longing for peace find myself in war, you who are cruel, you are not peace for me, but always burn with your lively face.
Vague loving promises which, above the shrubs, renew your old loves, sing among beautiful flowers of the eyes and the blonde hair that was so sweetly knotted to my hands, and my Cloris on the waves, on this beloved shore, hear the harmony that can only sweeten my pain.
Mente L'ardite Labbia
Ahi che per altro tu no'l festi all'hora
Vittoria Aleotti (1575?-1620)
A generation later, Vittoria Aleotti wrote even more voluptuous songs of love – rather surprising when you consider that she spent most of her life in a convent. Born around 1575, Vittoria Aleotti showed an early interest in music, and soon
leant to sing and play the harpsichord.
Already proficient by the age of 7, her architect father sent her to a Ferrara convent that was well known for its music. By the age of 14, Vittoria chose to stay at the convent and become a nun.
This shines a light on something important about monastic life in this period. By the 15th century, around half of Europe’s noblewomen lived in convents. They were generally considered to be a place of learning and enlightenment, at a time when women rarely had access to books or education anywhere else.
This situation had not changed much by the 16th century, and Aleotti plainly reveled in the chance to study and practice her craft during her life in a convent. Perhaps religious devotion was not always the most important reason for people to live in these places? The nature of Aleotti’s compositions certainly suggest this – her chosen texts are eminently secular.
While my bold lips, urged on by hungry desire, Sought relief from death, treacherous Love, Envious of my sweet comfort, Arranged fate so that another came to disturb my happy fortune.
Alas, your only reason then, was that your breast still burns for another, And taking pleasure In keeping untouched for your pride that divine paragon of sweetness, to my suffering heart, When it was expecting joy, you gave pain.
Lucrezia Orsina Vizana (1590-1662)
Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana had a rather different experience as a nun. Born in 1590, Vizzana seems to have had a true vocation. She entered a convent in Bologna at the age of eight, and went on to become a talented musician, proficient in singing, composition and playing the organ.
The only nun in Bologna to successfully publish any music, Vizzana published a collection of sacred motets in 1623. However, unrest had already started to affect her convent, with an anonymous letter cited music as the cause of the strife. The stress seems to have led to some sort of breakdown for Vizzana, and, sadly, she never composed again. Her motet Protector noster proclaims her abiding faith.
O God our protector, the master, and great is the glory of his might, for He is called and chosen the highest. O beloved shepherd, O keep protecting your children. Exultantly proclaiming and magnifying your works, Tell all people and all nations of the glory of God, In holy places, praised and admired for ever.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-1664)
Moving firmly into the Baroque period, we meet the renowned singer and instrumentalist Barbara Strozzi, also the most published Venetian composer of her era. Born in Venice in 1619, Strozzi was the adopted/illegitimate daughter of a famous writer who took her into his household and nurtured her musical gifts.
Considered one of the finest singers of her day, Strozzi accompanied herself on the lute, and wrote and published many songs and choral works, usually for female voices. Strozzi’s duet I baci (the kisses) is a wonderful example of the way her musical expression illustrates the ardent passion of her text.
Oh sweet, oh dear, oh desirable kisses! United souls come on these lips to meet, with a kiss these souls are able to strike at the heart. Charmingly they reconcile, spitefully they bite, but it is in their sweet battle that hearts are joined. Oh sweet, oh dear, oh desirable kisses! Kiss my lips, kiss, and be silent..
The theme of passionate love continues in Strozzi’s four-part choral work Il silentio nocivo (painful silence). This is a wonderful piece to sing, the word painting is vivid, and the music moves from slow sensuous harmonies to elegant movement between the vocal lines. Fast – slow – together – apart: a chorus to love.
The sweetest breaths of our hearts, Lovers, are our affectionate words and songs. Your burning ardour, oh my heart, unleashes them. If such ardour does not touch you, then at least exchange two soft kisses.
Afflicted mouth, you are foolish if you remain silent. Sing, breathe, and the pain is released. Sing, so that the sweetest breaths of our hearts, Lovers, are our affectionate words and songs.
As we move through the centuries, it is tragic to be reminded of the injustices many women faced when trying to be recognised as composers. One can only guess at the volume of incredible music that has been suppressed or lost to time!
Abendlich schon rauscht der Wald
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)
In the early 19th century, we meet Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel – a woman very much oppressed by her family and society. Despite becoming an excellent pianist and composer from an early age, she was not allowed to play in public or publish any of her own music, being instead forced to publish under her brother’s name.
It was not until she was 41 and married that Fanny Hensel published her first collection in her own name. Sadly, she died before publishing anything more, thus missing the chance to be properly recognized in her own lifetime. Yet now she is now credited with at least 460 works, and having a style described as more experimental and expressive than her brother’s.
Her short song Abendlich schon rauscht der Wald is full of atmosphere and romantic eb and flow, conjuring up the profound peace of the forest.
Evening breezes rustle yet in the wood from the deepest grounds. Above, the Lord will now soon light the stars. How silent in the chasms! Just evening breezes in the wood.
Everything goes to its rest. Wood and world vanish; shuddering, the wanderer listens, yearning for home. Here in the quiet hermitage of the forest, Heart, at last may also go to rest.
Ave Maria - Abendfeier in Venedig (1848)
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Mid-19th Century pianist and composer Clara Schumann had an experience almost opposite to that of her friend Fanny Hensel. Clara’s father not only encouraged her to perform in public, he insisted upon it. A child prodigy, Clara Wieck was considered one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century. She also composed for the piano, orchestra, voice and choirs. Her talent as a pianist supported first her father and then her husband Robert Schumann.
Clara was not only the main breadwinner, she also served as mother to eight children and several grandchildren, and managed the household. She stopped writing music altogether whether her husband became ill and was eventually moved into a mental asylum.
Saddest of all, she ended up losing her confidence as a creative talent, saying:
“I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"
Clara then spent the last 43 years of her life promoting her husband’s work and supporting friends such as Johannes Brahms. Imagine what more she might have written if she’d felt able to do so.
Today, Lumina present two of her works. Gondoliera evokes longing amidst the imagery of Venice.
O come to me, when an army of stars wanders through the night, floating with us like a gondola through the splendour of a moonlit sea.
The air is as soft as a lover’s whimsy, playing gently in the golden glow, the zither tinkles and draws your heart into passion.
Although ostensibly religious in meaning, Clara Schumann’s 1848 work Ave Maria – Abendfeier in Venedig (Evening celebration in Venice) is based on a poem both enigmatic and evocative. Is it about love? Or Venice? Or the Virgin Mary? Or perhaps all three? Whatever its meaning, the drama and emotion is palpable.
Hail Mary! Sea and sky are at rest, Bells ring out from all the towers. Hail Mary! Leave all earthly pursuits, Pray to the Virgin, to the Virgin’s Son! The angelic throng is now kneeling With lily stems before the Father’s throne, And through the roseate clouds, the songs Of blessed spirits float ceremoniously down.
O holy devotion, which wonderfully fills every heart with gentle shivers! O blessed faith that goes heavenward on the white wing of prayer! The pain dissolves in gentle tears, while the joy of jubilation sounds softer. Hail Mary! Earth and sky shine to unite lovingly at this sound.
Melanie Bonis (1858-1937)
We now move into the early 20th century, a time of great social and political change for women. Born in the mid-19th century to a strict Catholic family, Melanie Bonis lived through the First World War and into the 1930s. Her musical gifts were not encouraged at first, however, eventually her parents allowed her to study at the Paris Conservatoire where she was taught by Cesar Franck and alongside Claude Debussy. In order to have her work taken more seriously, she became known as Mel Bonis to make her gender less obvious.
Forbidden from marrying the man she loved, Melanie’s parents arranged her marriage to an old, widowed father-of-five who did not like music. It was only after she left him for the man of her choice that Melanie managed to publish some of her compositions. Her sacred work Adoro te moves from restrained devotion to passionate entreaty.
Thee we adore, Thee we entreat, Thee we adore, O hidden Saviour, Thee, Who in Thy sacrament dost deign to be; Both flesh and spirit at Thy presence fail, Yet here Thy presence we devoutly hail.
O blest memorial of our dying Lord, Who living Bread to men doth here afford! O may our souls forever feed on Thee, And Thou, O Christ, forever precious be.
O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see, May what we thirst for soon our portion be, To gaze on Thee unveiled, and see Thy face, The vision of Thy glory and Thy grace. Amen.
Ich schreite heim
Catharina van Rennes
Another significant turn-of-the-century figure was Dutch musician Catharina van Rennes. A notable singer and vocal teacher, van Rennes was also a versatile and influential composer. Well known for her children’s songs, she also composed a cantata for a Women’s Suffrage conference in 1909 in Amsterdam.
Today, Lumina presents her short and powerful work Ich schreite heim. Every phrase pulsates with emotion, the contrast of light and shade leading finally to a desolate whisper – surely more poignant than an echoing cry.
I stride home from the ball, from the dance, but can only think of past sorrow, nothing of splendour and nothing of happiness.
I am striding home. The ravens are screaming and the silent snow falls as though it wants to bury the whole world.
With your trap, with your web, you silent snow, cover my head, cover my life, cover my pain! Cover my pain!
Finally, we move to 21st century Australia. Inspired by the struggle towards reconciliation, Anna Pope composed The Salt Pan in 2009. The work comes from a deep-felt need to seek a world that is more just and kind – believing, hoping, that as human beings, we can all strive to do more, be more.
The dry and cracked salt pan is a metaphor for an undernourished land, desperate for fairness and respect to be fully established. The 2008 Apology went some way towards that nourishment, but I still feel there is so much to be done. Just as Lake Eyre can flourish with long-awaited waters, so, I believe, will the ancient cultures of Australia flourish if a fuller spirit of generosity and fairness is extended and shared between all Australians.
In 2009, Bernard Mageean wrote:
Anna Pope’s poem is focused on powerlessness and the disappointingly slow development of common understanding. The image of the Salt pan is one of loss, and lost opportunity. Anna’s music also has some of the repeated phrases and patterns of traditional singing, but is more of a reflective commentary using her own musical language and choral style.
The four-part choral work is based on Anna’s poem of 2004.
In my heart I belong, but in my mind I see that I am one of the different ones. I am an exception. Special allowances are made for me so that I can remain in my own country.
Everything is a battle, the land a meal of left-overs – doled out in cold charity. ‘Sorry’ comes late – too much lost, unclaimable. The past is not reconciled with the now … The future is barren, cracked – a salt-pan after years of drought.
Also inspired by the Australian landscape, Rachel Sag’s Kata Tjuta was written while on a holiday to the Northern Territory in 2008. Rachel’s work evokes the sounds and grandeur of the stunning rock formation at Kata Tjuta
Bernard Mageean wrote:
In Kata Tjuta the atmosphere of sacred mystery experienced by the visitor is dealt with explicitly in the text, even while the music evokes the simple majesty of these places. The question of what the visitor actually sees and hears in such locations is the key to these pieces, and a ritual and mysterious quality in the music directs attention once again to traditions of significance that endure, and that can be suitably and carefully preserved, if the effort is taken, in the human web of constantly interacting messages among which lives are led and take meaning.
As well as the music, Rachel also composed the text for her four-part choral work:
Many heads in the desert, many head to this land. Many head through the valley with their heads in the sand. Kata Tjuta, with your valley of secrets, quiet, eerie, whispers of the wind. Kata Tjuta, standing still in the shadows, show me the way to your mind. Oh Kata Tjuta, tell me what you’ve seen, through your millions of sunsets, through the many who’ve been. Oh Kata Tjuta, many heads to the sky. You just keep your secrets, as the years pass you by.
Our composers today have taken us from gorgeous landscapes of the sun-kissed waters of Venice to the profound peace of a forest in Germany and to the sacred rocks of Kata Tjuta in the Northern Territory. We have celebrated love – in all its forms – from spiritual to romantic, from sensual to passionate. We have heard music of devotion and conviction interwoven with delight in the natural world.
A common thread through all of this music has been emotion that reaches out to all of us – performers and listeners alike. Whether it be the passionate breathless kiss of Strozzi’s I baci, the heartbreak of Beatriz de Dia’s A chantar, the desolation of Catharina van Rennes Ich schreite heim, or the impotent fury of Anna Pope’s The Salt Pan.
The Common Perception of Demons
Having survived all these emotions, we end today’s concert with something completely different. Imagine you’re a demon – a cheeky little fellow who wants to entice the unwary into a place that is hot and merciless. This rollicking piece was written by Lumina composer Saam Thorne in 2010. We hope you enjoy our demon dance: The Common Perception of Demons.
We dance around the fires of hell, We tempt and trick you with our games, We're sly and wily, we lie so well, We're here to drag you down to the flames! Ah, ha, ha, ah, ha, ha, Ah, ha, ha, see them burning, Ah, ha, ha, hear them shrieking, Ah, ha, ha, music to our ears!
A demon is a slipp'ry fellow, He'll whisper in your ear. He'll tell you you'll be rich as pharaoh, And it won't take but a year. You'll be persuaded to do our bidding, It starts with just a favour. Once you've taken that first step, You'll never find a saviour. Ah, ha, ha, etc.
The violinist who plays like a demon, His fingers dance on the strings. The guitarist who met a stranger, He wails those blues with a sting.
They sold their souls for avarice, They were blind to the result. When their time came to die the devil laughed, He said, "You can't default!"Ah, ha, ha, etc.
A demon wears a thousand faces, Has horns, a tail and a rosy hue. The devil has a thousand names, And here are just a few: Asmodeus (lust), Mammon (greed), Leviathan (envy), Beelzebub (gluttony), Amon (wrath), Belphegor (sloth), And last but not least, Lucifer (pride)!
I see demons, they look like you. Lust, greed, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth, pride.
We dance around the fires of hell, We tempt and trick you with our games, We're sly and wily, we lie so well, We're here to drag you down to the flames!
We hope you have enjoyed our celebration of 900 Years of Women Composers! We will post clips of our performances on YouTube soon.
Performance: 13 March 2021
Adelaide Fringe Festival