women-composers

‘The American woman is in the habit of getting what she sets her heart on. She has determined to write music.’

This is not the place to take up cudgels for a contest on the problem of woman’s right to respect in the creative arts. There are some, it is true, who deny fervently that the feminine half of mankind ever has or can or ever will do original and important work there. If you press them too hard they will take refuge up this tree, that all women who ever have had success have been actually mannish of mind,—a dodge in question-begging that is one of the most ingenious ever devised; a piece of masculine logic that puts to shame all historic examples of womanly fallacy and sophistry. It seems to me that the question is easily settled on this wise: it is impossible for a rational mind to deny that the best work done in the arts by women is of better quality than the average work done by men. This lets the cat’s head out of the bag, and her whole body follows pell-mell.

In a few instances it seems to me that the best things done by women equal the best things done by men in those lines. The best verses of Sappho, the best sonnets of Mrs. Browning, the best chapters of George Eliot, the best animal paintings of Rosa Bonheur, do not seem to me surpassed by their rivals in masculine work. If anything in verse of its sort is nobler than Mrs. Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” it is still in manuscript. If there is any poet of more complete individuality than Emily Dickinson, I have not run across his books. In music I place two or three of Miss Lang’s small songs among the chief of their manner.

All over the world the woman-mind is taking up music. The ban that led Fanny Mendelssohn to publish her music under her brother’s name, has gone where the puritanic theory of the disgracefulness of the musical profession now twineth its choking coils. A publisher informs me that where compositions by women were only one-tenth of his manuscripts a few years ago, they now form more than two-thirds. From such activity, much that is worth while is bound to spring. Art knows no sex, and even what the women write in man-tone is often surprisingly strong, though it is wrongly aimed. But this effort is like the bombast of a young people or a juvenile literature; the directness and repose of fidelity to nature come later. The American woman is in the habit of getting what she sets her heart on. She has determined to write music.

With an ardor that was ominous of success, Miss Amy Marcy Cheney, after a short preliminary course in harmony, resolved to finish her tuition independently. As an example of the thoroughness that has given her such unimpeachable knowledge of her subject, may be mentioned the fact that she made her own translation of Berlioz and Gavaërt. She was born in New Hampshire, of descent American back to colonial times. At the age of four she wrote her opus 1. She is a concert pianist as well as a frequent composer in the largest forms. She is now Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.

Mrs. H.H.A. (Amy) Beach

Mrs. H.H.A. (Amy) Beac

Not many living men can point to a composition of more maturity and more dignity than Mrs. Beach’ “Jubilate,” for the dedication of the Woman’s Building at the Columbian Exposition. The work is as big as its name; it is the best possible answer to skeptics of woman’s musical ability. It may be too sustainedly loud, and the infrequent and short passages piano are rather breathing-spells than contrasting awe, but frequently this work shows a very magnificence of power and exaltation. And the ending is simply superb, though I could wish that some of the terrific dissonances in the accompaniment had been put into the unisonal voices to widen the effect and strengthen the final grandeur. But as it is, it rings like a clarion of triumph,—the cry of a Balboa discovering a new sea of opportunity and emotion.

Another work of force and daring is the mass in E flat (op. 5), for organ and small orchestra. It is conventionally ecclesiastic as a rule, and suffers from Mrs. Beach’ besetting sin of over-elaboration, but it proclaims a great ripeness of technic. The “Qui Tollis” is especially perfect in its sombre depth and richness. The “Credo” works up the cry of “crucifixus” with a thrilling rage of grief and a dramatic feeling rare in Mrs. Beach’ work. This work was begun at the age of nineteen and finished three years later. It was given with notable effect in 1892 by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston.

Mrs. Beach’ “Valse Caprice” has just one motive,—to reach the maximum of technical trickiness and difficulty. There is such a thing as hiding one’s light under a bushel, and there is such a thing as emptying a bushel of chaff upon it.

Sketches for Piano by Amy Beach: (1) In Autumn; (2) Phantoms; (3) Dreaming; (4) Fire-Flies

Notes Rupert Hughes: ”Fireflies’ is a shimmering and flitting caprice of much ingenuity, but it keeps in the field of dissonance almost interminably, and clear harmony is not so much the homing-place of its dissonance, as an infrequent glint through an inadvertent chink. This neat composition is one of four ‘Sketches for the Piano,’ of which ‘Phantoms’ is delightful with ghostliness. ‘In Autumn’ is a most excellent tone-poem, and “Dreaming” is a well-varied lyric. As a colorist Mrs. Beach is most original and studious.’

“Fireflies” is a shimmering and flitting caprice of much ingenuity, but it keeps in the field of dissonance almost interminably, and clear harmony is not so much the homing-place of its dissonance, as an infrequent glint through an inadvertent chink. This neat composition is one of four “Sketches for the Piano,” of which “Phantoms” is delightful with ghostliness. “In Autumn” is a most excellent tone-poem, and “Dreaming” is a well-varied lyric. As a colorist Mrs. Beach is most original and studious. Her tireless hunt for new tints often diverts her indeed from the direct forthright of her meaning, but the “Danse des Fleurs” is rich in its gorgeousness. The flowing grace of the “Menuet Italien” makes it an uncharacteristic but charming work.

Horace, you know, promises to write so that any one will think him easy to equal, though much sweat will be shed in the effort. It is the transparency of her studiousness, and the conspicuous labor in polishing off effects and mining opportunity to the core, that chiefly mars the work of Mrs. Beach, in my opinion. One or two of the little pieces that make up the half-dozen of the “Children’s Carnival” are among her best work, for the very cheery ease of their look. “Pantalon,” “Harlequin,” “Columbine,” and “Secrets” are infinitely better art than a dozen valse-caprices.

Amy Beach, Five improvisations for piano, Op. 148. Posted at YouTube by pianorarities

Both the defects and effects of her qualities haunt Mrs. Beach’ songs. When she is sparing in her erudition she is delightful. Fourteen of her songs are gathered into a 431 “Cyclus.” The first is an “Ariette,” with an accompaniment imitating the guitar. It is both tender and graceful. Probably her best song is the setting of W.E. Henley’s fine poem, “Dark is the Night.” It is of the “Erl-King” style, but highly original and tremendously fierce and eerie. The same poet’s “Western Wind” is given a setting contrastingly dainty and serene. “The Blackbird” is delicious and quite unhackneyed. “A Secret” is bizarre, and “Empress of the Night” is brilliant. With the exception of a certain excess of dissonance for a love-song, “Wilt Thou Be My Dearie?” is perfect with amorous tenderness. “Just for This!” is a delightful vocal scherzo of complete originality and entire success. “A Song of Love” is passionate and yet lyric, ornamented but not fettered. “Across the World” has been one of Mrs. Beach’ most popular songs; it is intense and singable. “My Star” is tender, and the accompaniment is richly worked out 432 on simple lines. Three Vocal Duets are well-handled, but the long “Eilende Wolken” has a jerky recitative of Händelian naïveté, to which the aria is a welcome relief. Her sonata for piano and violin has been played here by Mr. Kneisel, and in Berlin by Mme. Carreño and Carl Halir.

Besides these, Mrs. Beach has done not a little for the orchestra. Her “Gaelic Symphony” is her largest work, and it has been often played by the Boston Symphony, the Thomas, and other orchestras. It is characterized by all her exuberant scholarship and unwearying energy.

Margaret Ruthven Lang

Margaret Ruthven Lang

Margaret Ruthven Lang, the daughter of B.J. Lang, is American by birth and training. She was born in Boston, November 27, 1867. She has written large works, such as three concert overtures, two of which have been performed by the Thomas and the Boston Symphony Orchestras, though none of them are published. Other unpublished 433 works are a cantata, two arias with orchestral accompaniment, and a rhapsody for the piano. One rhapsody has been published, that in E minor; in spite of its good details, it is curiously unsatisfying,—it seems all prelude, interlude, and postlude, with the actual rhapsody accidentally overlooked. A “Meditation” is bleak, with a strong, free use of dissonance.

“The Jumblies” is a setting of Edward Lear’s elusive nonsense, as full of the flavor of subtile humor as its original. It is for male chorus, with an accompaniment for two pianos, well individualized and erudite. It is in her solo songs, however, that her best success is reaped.

When I say that Mrs. Beach’ work is markedly virile, I do not mean it as compliment unalloyed; when I find Miss Lang’s work supremely womanly, I would not deny it great strength, any more than I would deny that quality to the sex of which Joan of Arc and Jael were not uncharacteristic members.

Such a work as the “Maiden and the Butterfly” is as fragile and rich as a butterfly’s wing. “My Lady Jacqueminot” is exquisitely, delicately passionate. “Eros” is frail, rare, ecstatic. “Ghosts” is elfin and dainty as snowflakes. The “Spinning Song” is inexpressibly sad, and such music as women best understand, and therefore ought to make best. But womanliness equally marks “The Grief of Love,” which is in every sense big in quality; marks the bitterness of “Oh, What Comes over the Sea,” the wailing Gaelic sweetness of the “Irish Love Song,” and the fiery passion of “Betrayed,” highly dramatic until its rather trite ending. “Nameless Pain” is superb. Her “Lament” I consider one of the greatest of songs, and proof positive of woman’s high capabilities for composition. Miss Lang has a harmonic individuality, too, and finds out new effects that are strange without strain.

“My Turtle Dove,” among the “Five Norman Songs,” in fearlessness and harmonic exploration shows two of the strongest of Miss Lang’s traits. Her récherchés harmonies are no pale lunar reflection of masculine work. Better yet, they have the appearance of spontaneous ease, and the elaborateness never obtrudes itself upon the coherence of the work, except in a few such rare cases as “My Native Land,” “Christmas Lullaby,” and “Before My Lady’s Window.” They are singable to a degree unusual in scholarly compositions. To perfect the result Miss Lang chooses her poems with taste all too rare among musicians, who seem usually to rate gush as feeling and gilt as gold. Her “Oriental Serenade” is an example of weird and original intervals, and “A Spring Song,” by Charlotte Pendleton, a proof of her taste in choosing words.

Her opus 32 is made up of two songs, both full of fire and originality. Opus 33 is a captivating “Spring Idyl” for the piano, for which she has also written a “Revery,” of which the exquisiteness of sleep is the theme. The music is delicious, and the ending is a rare proof of the beautiful possibilities of dissonance.

Margaret Ruthven Lang’s ‘A Spring Idyl, Op. 33,’ as performed by Philip Sear, PSearPianost on YouTube

Personally, I see in Miss Lang’s compositions such a depth of psychology that I place the general quality of her work above that of any other woman composer. It is devoid of meretriciousness and of any suspicion of seeking after virility; it is so sincere, so true to the underlying thought, that it seems to me to have an unusual chance of interesting attention and stirring emotions increasingly with the years.

An interesting and genuine individuality will transpire through the most limited amount of creative art. This has been the case with the few published works of a writer, whose compositions, though unpretentious in size and sentiment, yet reveal a graceful fancy, and a marked contemplation upon the details of the moods.

Margaret Ruthven Lang’s ‘Revery, Op. 31,’ performed by Philip Sear, PSearPianist on YouTube. ‘The exquisiteness of sleep is the theme': Rupert Hughes

Irene Baumgras was born at Syracuse, New York, and studied the piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where she took the Springer gold medal in 1881. She studied in Berlin with Moszkowski and Oscar Raif. She was married in Berlin, in 1884, to Philip Hale, the distinguished Boston musical critic.

Her devotion to her art was so great that her health broke down from overwork, and she was compelled to give up piano playing. Some of her compositions have been published under the name of “Victor René.” Her 15th opus is made up of three “Morceaux de Genre,” of which the “Pantomime” is a most volatile harlequinade, with moods as changeful as the key; a remarkably interesting composition. Four “Pensées Poétiques” make up opus 16. They include a blithe “Chansonette” and a “Valse Impromptu,” which, unlike the usual impromptu, has the ex tempore spirit. Of her songs, “Mystery” is a charming lyric; “Maisie” is faithful to the ghoulish merriment of the words; and “An Opal Heart” is striking for interesting dissonances that do not mar the fluency of the lyric.

Margaret Ruthven Lang’s ‘The Spirit of the Old House, An Elegy, Op. 58, performed by Philip Sear, PSearPianist on YouTube

Of much refinement are the fluent lyrics of Mrs. Mary Knight Wood. They show a breadth in little, and a fondness for unexpected harmonies that do not disturb the coherence of her songs. They possess also a marked spontaneity. An unexpected effect is gained by the brave E flat in her “Serenade.” Her popular “Ashes of Roses” also has a rich harmonic structure. Among other songs, one with an effective obbligato for the violoncello deserves special praise. She has written also for the violin and piano, and trios for ‘cello, violin, and piano.

Other women who have written certain works of serious intention and worthy art, are Mrs. Clara A. Korn, Laura Sedgwick Collins, the composer of an ingenious male quartette, “Love is a Sickness,” and many excellent songs, among them, “Be Like That Bird,” which is ideally graceful; Fanny M. Spencer, who has written a collection of thirty-two original hymn tunes, a good anthem, and a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of real strength; Julie Rivé-King, the author of many concert pieces; Patty Stair, of Cleveland; Harriet P. Sawyer, Mrs. Jessie L. Gaynor, Constance Maud, Jenny Prince Black, Charlotte M. Crane, and Helen Hood.

Rupert Hughes’s Contemporary American Composers  is available free online at Project Gutenberg.