The title of our concert tomorrow (7.30pm, 7th July, Exeter College Chapel), an entire programme of music by women, is taken from the carol by Cecilia McDowall (words by Christie Dickason) and commands, ‘Sing, stars’. We oblige by giving voice to wonderful music by starry women whose light has in the past been unfairly obscured in the musical firmament, and current female composers whose stars are surely on the rise. As our director observed, we’re not singing this programme simply BECAUSE it is written by women, but because it is good music that deserves wider appreciation.
The programme covers a range of styles from Medieval plainchant, through madrigals and part-songs, to sacred motets. You may well have heard of Hildegard of Bingen, the extraordinarily creative German Abbess with whom we kick off (football pun entirely intended); in the modern musical landscape, Roxanna Panufnik has deservedly received attention; and, partly through the efforts of BBC Radio 3, the spotlight has recently been trained on overlooked female Romantic composers such as Fanny Mendelssohn (Hensel). All these have their rightful place in our programme; but I thought that in this blog, I’d briefly preview the work of four composers who may not yet be quite so prominent in the public consciousness.
In the first half, we sing the underperformed ‘Magnificat’ by the baroque composer Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704). As were most of the earliest female composers, she was a nun, entering the Collegio di Sant’Orsola in Novara, Northern Italy at 16, and remaining there for the rest of her life. It was a life that led her to become the most prolific female composer of her day, of particular renown for her sonatas – which, as far as we know, are the first to be written by a woman. Most of her works were dedicated to both a person of high standing and the Virgin Mary, to emphasise her devotion; this renders her interpretation of Mary’s song of praise particularly apt and poignant. Accompanied by a violin duo, it has a lightness of touch and some quirky moments both melodically and harmonically.
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), now best known for her viola music, attended first the Royal Academy and then Royal College of Music, and was something of a female musical pioneer – she was amongst the first professional female orchestral musicians, and also one of Stanford’s earliest female composition students. However, she later suffered from depression induced by the struggle to be taken seriously in the musical world, and gave up composing following her marriage. We hope to right a few wrongs by singing her ‘Ave Maria’, a transcendent setting for female voices, and a wonderfully expressive setting of a John Dowland song, ‘Weep you No More, Sad Fountains’. Both these pieces are beautifully crafted and emotionally intense miniatures, characterised by some surprising – though sumptuous – harmonic shifts. She certainly deserves her star to shine a little more brightly.
I don’t think I’m guilty of overstatement if I suggest that Kerry Andrew (b.1978) and Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980) are amongst the brightest compositional stars working on the British musical scene today. Both are equally happy in small and large-scale genres, and boast a diverse range of influences, not only in terms of different musical styles but also artistic media. Andrew’s ‘O Lux Beata Trinitas’, a setting of a fourth-century text by St Ambrose, perhaps owes something to her active involvement with varieties of folk music, as the suitably luminous and sustained opening and central lightburst diminish to a shimmering aleatoric conclusion that imparts something of an improvisatory quality. Frances-Hoad’s ‘Introit and Blessing’, which bookend our second half, are dedicated to a teacher who ‘loved the English choral tradition’ – but they are anything but predictable. The Introit is a sustained, joyous crescendo, generating restless and edgy harmonic tensions that finally find release in a radiant fortissimo A-major chord. The Blessing cleverly traces a similar melodic and harmonic shape but in much gentler fashion, finally fading to an open chord that invokes, perhaps, a distant memory of the devotional Medieval cloisters in which we began our journey.