Giving women composers their due

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CDREVIEW

Woman’s Work

MSR Classics, www.msrcd.com

$14.95



“Woman’s Work” is a collection of piano music by women composers performed by Dr. Charlotte Mueller in Kristiansand, Norway, in celebration of International Women’s Day 2005. Featured on this CD are works by seven women composers of the 19th and 20th centuries whose lives and accomplishments reflect social and political struggles of those eras.

“Eskimos” (1907) by Amy Beach, the first work on the recording, is a set of four pieces based on 11 Inuit folk tunes, all derived from an early monograph on the Alaskan Inuit Indians by the anthropologist Franz Boas. The first woman to compose a symphony, Beach went on in later life to establish and promote various organizations designed to help other women composers.

Germaine Tailleferre (“Romance for Piano,” 1924) is best known to musicians by her association with “Les Six,” group of French progressive patriotic composers who collaborated and supported each other during the early and middle parts of the 20th century. A woman of leftist leanings, Tailleferre joined the Communist Party in her youth and remained a Communist until her death in 1983.

Lili Boulanger (“Trois Morceaux pour Piano,” 1914) not only completed over 50 major works by the time of her death at age 24, but distinguished herself at age 19 as the first woman to win the most coveted prize of the international composition competition, the Prix de Rome. News of this rocked the feminist movement in America at the time, propelling Boulanger into international recognition.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (“Notturno,” 1838, and “March from Das Jahr,” 1841) and Agathe Backer Grondahl (“Piano Suite, Op. 20,” 1887) both struggled with 19th-century conventions regarding a woman’s right to be recognized publicly for her accomplishments. Grondahl, a Norwegian composer, performed widely throughout Europe, dividing her time between concert performances and composing. She impressed even the great critic George Bernard Shaw, who felt she was one of the greatest pianists of the century.

The final two compositions in this CD were written by African American composers, Florence B. Price (“Dances in the Canebrakes,” 1953) and Margaret Bonds (“Troubled Water,” 1967). Both composers employed African American musical idioms in many of their works. Price was the first African American to compose a symphony. Bonds, in 1936, met writer and poet Langston Hughes, whom she called her “soul mate,” and with whom she collaborated in writing musicals, cantatas and song cycles until his death in 1967. Bonds’ music is a fascinating and rare combination of popular idioms such as jazz and blues, deftly crafted into a form of arts music that retains the spontaneity of improvisation.

Asked why she compiled a CD of music by women composers, Dr. Mueller replied:

“Well, the answer to that is easy: My mother was a composer and I grew up in a home in which we knew firsthand the frustrations and problems women composers feel. It is a fact that women composers as well as women in many different creative fields have always had a more difficult time getting recognition or acceptance of their work.

“Realizing that, I did extensive research finding music of real quality by women composers that was rarely played and, in some cases, not even currently in print,” she continued. “Researching the lives of these composers made the project that much more relevant to my initial feeling that the music of many women composers had not had the kind of exposure it deserved.”

Asked whether that meant that struggle for recognition and equal acceptance is still going on, and whether there is still “women’s work” to do in this regard, Mueller pointed out: “Just the fact that this CD contains music by women whose names have hit the music history books but whose work is hardly known shows that their music has not yet gotten the recognition it deserves — for the same reason that creative women still have to struggle to be recognized.”

Asked what thoughts lay behind her choice of the title of the CD, Mueller responded: “It was meant to be tongue in cheek. ‘Woman’s work’ is often the domestic drudgery that is left to women, such as housecleaning and taking care of family members — something almost all these composers had to do. But of course, this CD contains woman’s work of a different vein.

“You might ask if the title intended to be a type of protest. In a way it was, but with a note of humor.”