If you’re an undergraduate music student, you’re lucky if you’ve spent more than a third of a single 50-minute class on a female composer. Even in graduate school, as coursework becomes increasingly specialized (and dissertation work takes over), you may spend a semester with, say, Clara Schumann, Ruth Crawford Seeger or Amy Beach. But it’s unlikely.
For the twelfth year in a row, a group of Hartford-area musicians assemble to celebrate the legacy of women composers with a week-long music festival, directed for the third time by Hartt School composer Daniel Morel. The concerts take place at Hartt, Capital Community College, CCSU, Trinity and a few other venues around town, and will feature works by living and historical composers.
This year’s featured guest is Dr. Judith Shatin, professor of composition at the University of Virginia and a longtime advocate for women composers. She’s served on the board of the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) and was the president of American Women Composers, Inc.
“It’s certainly changed dramatically,” Shatin said by phone from her UVA office, about the current opportunities for women composers. “In the mid- and late-’70s in graduate school, there just weren’t women in that pipeline. They just weren’t getting the training and the time to develop, and they didn’t have access to much in terms of performance opportunities.”
These days, Shatin said, women composers have greater access to training in composition and to have their works performed. The development of digital workstations, she added, allows all composers to get immediate feedback on what they’ve written.
“Have the issues disappeared? Sadly, no,” Shatin said. “That’s why I’m delighted to participate in a festival like this. There’s so much terrific music that has not been heard. One could say the same thing about male composers.”
If you’re ever up in Cambridge, Mass., wander into Harvard University’s Paine Concert Hall for a pretty clear view of the classical music canon. Seven names — BACH, HAYDN, MOZART, BEETHOVEN, SCHUBERT, CHOPIN and WAGNER — are etched above the stage. Beethoven’s at the center, which seems reasonable enough. (At a music theory conference on Schubert’s music a few years ago, the chair of one of the sessions suggested we shift our vision slightly to the right until the discussion was over.) But ultimately the positioning doesn’t matter; it’s all required listening for music students and art-music enthusiasts.
You can’t go wrong spending hours with any of those seven composers, and there’s no need to swap one out for another. In an alternate world, that list might read HILDEGARD, STROZZI, BEACH, BOULANGER, CLARKE, GUBAIDULINA, HIGDON. Do concert-goers recognize any of those names? What about Nanette Mozart, Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn?
Morel recently checked out the New York Philharmonic performance schedule and found only two concerts featuring women composers. Programming works by women, Morel said, simply isn’t happening at a rate that can adequately educate the public about their contributions.
That also goes for the academy. “Most composition departments tend to be male-dominated student wise and faculty wise,” Morel said, “not necessarily for political or biased reasons. Very few professors think women should not compose. But the egalitarianism hasn’t translated into a fully diverse classroom setting yet.”
Festival participants will hear three selections from Shatin’s diverse body of work. “We wanted to invite someone who could talk to composition classes and students about programming new music and the variety of music to support,” Morel said. “Also, Judith’s music involves large orchestral forces as well as electronic music. People don’t often recognize that side of the contribution.”
Shatin herself doesn’t place too much emphasis on the distinction between the acoustic and digital worlds.
“From the beginning of the development of digital music,” she said, “I’ve been captivated by it. You have the sound at your fingertips, the sound of the world and synthesized sound... It’s certainly put composition at fingertips of people who wouldn’t have a way into it. That said, just because you are using technology doesn’t mean your music will be good. There are a number of cliches you can easily fall into.”
Women Composers Festival of Hartford, March 4-11, womencomposersfestivalhartford.com
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