Recently, the British news was filled with the story of a high school student who had protested her music curriculum. It seems that in an A level exam of 100 composers, not a single woman was featured. After a massive letter writing campaign, five women were added- four of whom are still living. I am afraid it came as no surprise to me that the works of women were so invisible. In my own graduate musical education, I learned not a single work by a woman composer. In fact, I only heard one single work of a woman composer (Ruth Crawford Seeger's String Quartet of 1931, thanks to Robert Greenberg's seminar on 20th century American music). Later on my own, I discovered that Clara Schumann's Lieder deserve to be as widely esteemed as her beloved husband Robert's. I found that Fanny Mendelssohn's compositions had been published under her brother Felix's name, and I had my mind blown by the amazing melodic imagination of Hildegard von Bingen. What has been truly surprising for me, however, is how very many extraordinary women composers I have discovered just this month as I have dug into library shelves and internet archives to prepare a lecture-performance series in honor of Women's History Month. The composers include saints, nuns, courtesans, wives, mothers, princesses and blind aristocrats. Every single one is an inspiring story- and every one a composer worthy of our attention and reverence
Take for example, Kassia. My music history classes generally began the study of composition in the 12th century with the Notre Dame School of composition, with Leonin and Perotin often indicated as the first composers we know by name. What a marvelous surprise to discover Saint Kassia, a 9th century abbess whose music not only predates those fine gentlemen by a good couple of hundred years, but whose music has continued to be performed.as part of the Orthodox liturgy.
And what a life! Kassia was a leading candidate to become Emperor Theophilus's bride, but her inability to keep silent when the worth of woman was questioned caused her the crown. Instead, she become a nun, rising to become an Abbess where she was revered for her wisdom. She endured public scourging for her support of icons, published witty epigrams and poetry and wrote exquisite hymns. Her most famous composition, The Fallen Woman, is chanted in the Orthodox liturgy on Holy Tuesday and is considered a musical high point of Holy Week. You can listen to this and other works by this woman, sainted in the East for her divine music, by clicking into the recording by Voca Me below.
Kassia, Hildegard, Fanny, Clara and others will be featured in the upcoming Flowers in the Shadows lecture series at the Petaluma Historical Museum (learn more here). . I'll be sharing about them and their music in the weeks to come, with a culminating concert of Women Composers featuring contralto Karen Clark, mezzo soprano Bonnie Brooks, violinist Julija Zibrat, the Euphora Consort and other marvelous musicians.