Taking Note: Penny Lazarus’s Piano Students learn about women composers!

We are a project based piano studio.  This means that every year I choose a topic that will suggest music to study, recital programs, music history investigations and sponsorship of a related fundraising cause.  Often our programs are related to social justice because music can be a powerful way for students to express their concerns about the world today.  This year, 2019-2020, we are working to find music written by women, from the first woman recognized as a composer, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), through each century thereafter.  Most people would find it difficult to name a female composer before 1950.  Those of us in the field could name maybe a dozen.  Yet the Norton Grove Dictionary of Women Composers lists 900 names up to 1945.  Even more astonishing is how little we know about these composers’ music!  Even the more familiar names such as Amy Beach, Cecile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann have only one or two books of published music containing their compositions.  Moreover, while much of their work may appear in international databases such as INSIP or the Library of Congress, the compositions are not yet printed for easy purchase or use.  Many historic women’s compositions still exist only in original manuscript, written by hand or printed from engravings rather than the cleaner, larger editions that also contain historic commentary and that would help music students become familiar with the music.  

It was one of my high school piano students, Mia Yim, who helped to define this project for the year.  We were looking through a beautifully printed volume of 24 Contemporary Pieces for Solo Piano published by Chester Music, UK, with an eye-catching colorful front cover that I bought at a Music Teacher’s Conference. We noticed that not a single female composer was represented among well-known male composers such as Nico Muhly, Ludovico Einaudi, Philip Glass, James Whitbourn or Max Richter.  Once I started to explore this topic of women and composition, I started to find remarkable music for even early intermediate piano students. Elisabetta De Gambarini, 1730-1765, wrote beautiful and pedagogically sound minuets that could easily be paired with the Bach minuets and dances that are standard piano music studies.  Many women composers of the 19th and 20th centuries wrote versions of “Album for the Young”, that should be played as frequently as the pieces we so often select for our students by Robert Schumann, Peter Tchaikovsky, Bela Bartok and Dmitri Kabalevsky.   If only such works by Cecile Chaminade, Amy Beach and Louise Dumont Farrenc were published!  Well, my students have not only taken on this challenge, they are spearheading the charge to find women’s music compositions, learn them and perform them.

Our first step was a tremendously successful workshop on Sunday afternoon, January, 26, 2020, in which 20 male and female students, half of my studio, presented the history and music of a woman composer.  With iPhones, iPads, earbuds, and headsets in hand (and ear), it was like a science fair but with music instead.  Some of the presentations asked the question “Where are all the women who composed”?  “Where is their music?”  These students did not find a single woman represented in their own classical music study books and their absence was also notable in their rock n’ roll, Christmas music, and Disney Music collections.  In the next room, students at one table presented composers from Hildegard through Florence Price, pointing out how their music was saved. They noted major landmarks along the way, such as first African-American composer (Price) to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (Chicago), or the first woman (Cecile Chaminade) to earn a living solely by composing.  The final table in our “convention” was dedicated to living composers for the piano, such as Emma Lou Diemer, retired Professor of Composition at UC Santa Barbara; Eleanor Aversa, Professor of Composition at Boston Conservatory at Berklee; and Pamela Marshall of Spindrift Music Company.  Pam visited our workshop, spent time speaking with each student exhibitor giving them affirmation of their research, and then spoke to all of us about the difficulty of anyone working for funding and recognition in the arts.  Stay tuned for our next sequences in this project of discovering the work of women composers throughout time.