Female Ensemble Gives History Lesson In Merit Of Women Composers

Pianist Magdalena Baczewska with the Cassatt String Quartet at Columbia University’s Italian Academy. (Photo by Susan Brodie)

NEW YORK — On March 30, the next-to-last day of Women’s History Month, music by three American women was on the program of the Cassatt String Quartet, joined by pianist Magdalena Baczewska, director of music performance at Columbia University, where the concert took place in the intimate theater of the Italian Academy. The concert highlighted the gender of both composers and performers, but the evening’s chief interest was the introduction of good music that has escaped the mainstream for non-musical reasons.

All three composers shared several characteristics: a very early interest in creating their own music; a musically talented mother who recognized and encouraged her abilities and ambitions; highly developed performance and compositional skills; and the drive, entrepreunerial talents, and determination to navigate the business of music. The work of all three composers showed great command of compositional practices of their time and a confident individual style transcending contemporary conventions.

Amy Beach in 1908 (Library of Congress)

Amy Beach was born in 1867 to a creative, influential, and progressive Boston family. A gifted pianist, she made her concert debut at age 16, but even as a toddler she invented songs; composition was always her greatest passion. Apart from some private lessons, she was largely self-taught, a common situation for musically talented women. At 18, she married a prominent surgeon, a widower more than twice her age. She agreed to largely retire from the stage, happily concentrating on composing, and her works were performed by Boston’s leading organizations (she bought property on Cape Cod with the royalties from one of her songs!).

In 1896, her Gaelic Symphony premiered with the Boston Symphony, the first-ever performance of a symphony by an American woman. Widowed in 1910, she went to Europe and resumed concertizing, returning to America after the start of World War I. Eventually she settled in New Hampshire, while maintaining a residence in New York City. Prolific and successful in her lifetime, she was regarded — often begrudgingly — as musically the equal of her male colleagues of the second Boston School, though her late-Romantic style had fallen out of fashion by the end of her life.

Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 67 (1907), has found a place in today’s chamber-music repertoire. It has a Brahmsian flavor (and, in fact, is based on a theme by Brahms), with dense textures alternating with more transparent sections and driving energy, especially at cadences. The Germanic foundations of American art music are clearly audible in this mini concerto, with its brilliant piano writing, brilliantly performed by Baczewska.

The recent rediscovery and revival of the work of Florence Price is a fascinating story. Twenty years younger than Beach, Price was born in Arkansas into a middle class, mixed-race family. Encouraged by her mother, a music teacher, she enrolled at New England Conservatory, where she studied composition with George Chadwick and graduated at 20 with honors in organ performance and piano pedagogy. After teaching at a Black college in Atlanta for five years, in 1912 she stopped teaching, returned to Arkansas, married a lawyer, and started a family (she was the only one of the three composers to have children).

Florence Price

Increasing racial violence in Little Rock drove the Price family north in 1927, and they settled in Chicago. There, Florence found a vibrant community of African American musicians and experienced her most fruitful creative period. Divorce disrupted her comfortable life, but before her death in 1953 she managed to produce over 250 works, of which a large unpublished cache was found in 2009 in her long-abandoned summer home in Illinois.

This concert opened with Price’s two-movement String Quartet No. 1 in G major, from 1929. It was followed by Fantasie Nègre, No. 1, (1929), a virtuoso showpiece that fits comfortably into the solo piano repertoire. Based on the spiritual “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass,“ it begins with a showy cadenza-like introduction, then settles into a series of variations on the theme. Midway, a more lyrical melody introduces a ruminative, impressionistic episode before returning to a series of variations on the original theme, increasing in compositional and technical virtuosity before ending with a flourish. With its technical demands and glancing jazz flavor, this would be an ideal piece for the encore-happy Evgeny Kissin, but Baczewska more than did justice to its demands.

The third composer, Dorothy Rudd Moore, is the most recent but least known of the three. Her career followed a trajectory more familiar to 20th-century composers. She was born in 1940 in Delaware, where she studied piano, clarinet, and singing. After studying music at Howard University, she acquired a foundation in 19th-century theory from Nadia Boulanger and later received training in more contemporary techniques from Chou Wen-Chung. She settled in New York City, married a cellist, and lived the kind of creative life — composing, teaching, performing, and advocacy — more viable in the New York of 50 years ago. She co-founded the short-lived Society of Black Composers in 1968. Coincidentally and fittingly, this concert took place exactly one year after her death. A 1990 interview provides rare, first-person insight into her life and career.

Dorothy Rudd Moore

Moore’s output, which includes songs, chamber music, and an opera, tended to be spare in texture and serious, and many pieces treat African American themes. Although unpublished, her slender catalog of roughly 37 works remains available from the American Composers Alliance.

Her three-movement Modes for String Quartet (1968) showed assured command of counterpoint, with a four-part fugal first movement giving way to a slower exploration of instrumental pairings in the second. While lacking any African American thematic material, the final allegro took on jazzy rhythms, atypical of East Coast musical vocabulary of the time.

Founded in 1985 and named after the American painter Mary Cassatt, the Cassatt String Quartet — Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins; Rebecca Benjamin, viola (subbing for Covid-infected Rosemary Nelis); and Gwen Krosnick, cello — have long championed new music. Their playing displayed conviction and assurance; any sense of the ensemble failing to gel could readily be attributed to the last-minute substitution of the viola player.

For this program, gender was ultimately irrelevant to the music itself. Any composer faces challenges in having work performed and especially in earning a living from it. While Mrs. Beach had the advantage of a wealthy husband and social connections to help promote her considerable talent, in general the barriers for women, especially women of color, have been daunting. Acutely aware of these conditions, all three of these featured women composers were active in professional organizations, like the American Composers Alliance, sole custodians for Moore’s work, or the National Association of Negro Musicians, which was invaluable to Price’s career.

The Cassatt String Quartet (Photo by Dario Acosta)

Today women who write music are less likely to face the kind of critical mockery endured by Beach, but the invisibility of their work remains a reality. One new organization with the aim of increasing the exposure of repertoire by female composers is the newly launched Boulanger Initiative. It offers a free database of music created by women, a project devoted to introducing excerpts of music by women into the standard audition repertoire, and a consulting service to help performing organizations discover music by women to include in their programming. The already vast database is a work in progress but appears to be expanding rapidly.