Wednesday, December 4, 2013
By CHRISTOPHER HYDE
The closing event of the Festival of American Music (June 27-30) at the Shaker Meeting House in New Gloucester, sponsored by the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community and the Portland String Quartet, will be "Out of the Box! -- Women Composers Break Barriers with Masterpieces." The program will consist of a lecture and demonstration by noted pianist and champion of women's music Virginia Eskin, with the quartet and guest violinist Dean Stein.
Maine's Kay Gardner is among the female composers who will be featured.
The composers featured will include Maine's own Kay Gardner (1947-2002), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), Marion Bauer (1882-1955), Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) and Amy Beach (1867-1944).
I met Gardner once when one of her works was being performed by the Portland Ballet. We talked for a while about her book "Sounding the Inner Landscape: Music as Medicine" and her career in promoting music for spiritual and physical healing, in which she was a pioneer.
Like Scriabin, Gardner was interested in combining all of the arts, and I mentioned the neglect of the sense of smell. We thought that dancers could wear distinctively colored veils and scarfs, each permeated with a different scent. The problem would be in clearing the palates of the audience between acts, and we settled on wafting the smell of freshly brewed coffee through the air-conditioning vents.
Gardner is known in Bangor for suing the Bangor Symphony Orchestra for sex discrimination because it circulated a questionnaire during a search for a music director that asked orchestra members if they could tolerate a woman as conductor. That was more than 20 years ago.
The stories of the women on Eskin's list reflect earlier examples -- not so much of sex discrimination but of women voluntarily limiting themselves in favor of their husbands, like Alma Mahler (although she found different outlets for her energy).
Beach's husband, a Boston surgeon 24 years older than she, limited her public appearances as a pianist to one per year, suggesting that she devote her time entirely to composition. After his death, she toured Europe for four years, playing her own compositions as well as the classics.
Clarke, who to my mind is one of the great modern composers of either sex, married a pianist and did her best not to outshine him. She was forced to publish her works under a male pseudonym -- in the 20th century! She died at the age of 93 in 1979, and a lot of her work is still tied up in legal tangles with her heirs, so she is still not as well known as she should be.
Seeger (Pete is her stepson) began as a composer in the style of Scriabin and was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Berlin and Paris. Most of her best-known compositions were written in New York in 1930-33, with dissonant counterpoint (learned from her husband, Charles Seeger) and serial techniques involving rhythm as well as pitch.
The family moved to Washington, D.C., during the Depression, and Seeger devoted herself to American folk music rather than original composition. Arranging folk songs (and her arrangements are the standard) does not put one quite as far out over the abyss as composing atonal music.
Bauer is a special case, being a music critic, writer and editor as well as a composer and a representative of a musical family that no one wanted to antagonize.
She helped found the American Music Guild, the American Music Center and the American Composer's Alliance and took leadership roles in the League of Composers and the Society for American music, most of the time the only woman in an executive position at any of these organizations. She also experimented with serialism, but most of her work is within the realm of tonality. Her "Sun Splendor" was played in 1947 by the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski.
Bauer's prelude, which will be played at the festival, sounds rather like "Tea for Two," said Eskin.
The tribute will conclude with one of Beach's best works, her Piano Quintet.
The concert starts at 7 p.m. June 30. Tickets cost $25 ($20 for seniors and free for students under 21), and reservations are required. Call 926-4597 or visit www.shaker.lib.me.us.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: