Women Composers

Throwback Thursday to composer Ruth Gipps. Here’s her Symphony No. 2:

When I first began to focus my blogging more specifically on composers who are women I knew a handful of earlier works (i.e., not-contemporary) and quite a lot of contemporary works; I counted several women composers among my friends and acquaintances, after all. I was expecting to find a lot more contemporary composers, and maybe a couple dozen (at most) women in the past who were composers. What I was not expecting was for my conception of music’s past to be completely reworked, nor was I expecting how angry this endeavor would make me.

Women have been writing music all along, and not just one composer writing a few pieces here and there throughout history; as I walk backward in time I can find several women writing prolifically in any giving historical “moment.” I had never heard of them in my nearly three decades of studying music because even those who were successful during their lifetimes were studiously written out of history (and, later, concert programs) after their passing. Many of them wrote dozens (sometimes hundreds) of pieces that were stored away and are only now being performed and recorded. That past (and current) historians and programmers have deprived us of such an enormous wealth of art makes my blood boil. That there are wonderful performers/groups and record labels righting this wrong prevents me from completely Hulk-ing out.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a recent release from Wave Theory Records, pianist Samantha Ege’s Four Women, which contains a mix of composers who gained at minimum some notoriety during their lifetimes and whose music is occasionally programmed and recorded (Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Vítězslava Kaprálová) and one composer—Ethel Bilsland—whose music is almost impossible to find in published form and therefore to perform and record; it is indeed through Ege’s efforts that we now have access to one of Bilsland’s pieces.

Today I’m reviewing Navona Record’s release Piano Works by Sara Feigin, performed by Benjamin Goodman, which consists almost entire of previously unperformed and unrecorded works. Produced by the composer’s daughter Carmela O’Flaherty, the album contains a full 22 tracks (5 multi-movement pieces), providing a comprehensive record of Feigin’s highly developed and coherent compositional style. Feigin, born in Latvia and known both as an educator and as a composer, wrote dozens of pieces throughout her adult life, and her music was frequently performed on the radio in her chosen home of Israel.

Here are some of my favorite tracks from the album:

“Storm” from Two Pieces: One of the many showpieces on this album, “Storm” is a captivating piece of programmatic music with is perpetual motion accompaniment and dramatic melodic gestures.

Toccata: As pianist Benjamin Goodman states in the liners notes, Feigin’s pieces often require a virtuosic level of playing, not only in terms of technical difficulty but also in its wide emotional range. Toccata traverses several textural landscapes, each with its own frenetic gesture, and Goodman navigates them with seeming ease.

“Memories” from Four Scenes: Featuring a gorgeously angular recurring melody in a dancelike setting, Goodman stretches and compresses the time to maximize the yearning affect of this short piece.

Variation III from Variations: One of the few gentle pieces on the album, this variation has folklike, pastoral feeling.

Movement III from Sonata: Inspired by Joseph Kuzkovsky’s painting, “Led to the Slaughter –  Babi Yar” and dedicated to the victims of Urkaine’s Babi Yar concentration camp, this movement begins and ends with a ponderous ground bass that rises gradually before a steep octave drop. Though one might expect such a piece to feature a lament bass line, the rising bass with its final drop is much more unsettling. The ground bass is interrupted by a visceral and violent middle section with spiky textures that climaxes with high, accented repeated chords. The ground bass then returns and the music slowly dies away. Goodman portrays deeply the emotional force of this harrowing journey.

I’m listening to: composer Eve O’Donnell. Here’s a wonderfully crunchy choir piece of hers:

Throwback Thursday to composer Dinorá de Carvalho. Here’s a short character piece for the piano by her:

I’m listening to: composer Thea Musgrave. Here’s a mystical orchestra piece by her:


Released in May by Wave Theory Records, today I’m going to write about pianist Samantha Ege’s beautiful album Four Women. When I interviewed Ege for my podcast last month, it was abundantly clear that this recording project was the outgrowth of deeply meaningful interactions both with the compositions and the histories of the composers themselves. Ege understands these pieces on a fundamental level, and her rapport with the music comes shining through in her playing.

Florence Price, Sonata in E Minor

A gorgeous, emotive piece that seamlessly incorporates the melodies (or the flavor thereof) of the early African American diaspora (slave songs and spirituals), it is a crime that Price’s Sonata in E minor is not a standard in “music appreciation” classes and piano studios alike—which is my way of nudging any educators who are reading this review.

The first movement (Andante — Allegro) is expansive and symphonic, hinting at Price’s facility in writing for orchestra, while the second movement (Andante) is a lovely setting of an African American folk melody. In both movements Ege displays an exquisite ability to shape the music, both in terms of phrasing and the larger formal sections, always guiding the listener as if through a cherished home.

The third and final movement (Scherzo) is my favorite, partial as I am to big and stormy gestures. The main theme dances like large, splashy raindrops in a downpour and alternates with calmer moments. Ege makes the alternations between the dance and the calm with grace, the two affects self-contained and juxtaposed without any jarring transitions. The peak moment toward the end is satisfyingly dramatic, Ege skillfully stretching the time as she pushes up the volume.

Ethel Bilsland, The Birthday Party Suite

This is the première recording of Bilsland’s Suite, and the story of how Ege came to be the performer to bring this music to the world is one of fruitful happenstance. Playful and adventurous and exceedingly gentle, you can hear in these pieces the foreshadowing of later English film music, such as that of film composer Rachel Portman. I am very much looking forward to see what’s next for Ege’s Ethel Bilsland Project.

Vítězslava Kaprálová, April Preludes

The April Preludes flow organically from Bilsland’s Suite, as they are also little self-contained character pieces, though more elaborate than the Suite. Kaprálová’s Preludes are wonderfully angular and spiky, and you can hear the pathos in Ege’s playing: This is music that draws you in while simultaneously asserting itself against the listener with its chromaticism and changeable textural landscape.

Vítězslava Kaprálová, Sonata Appassionata

Listening to the expansive and complex construction of the first movement of this two-movement sonata it is hard to believe Kaprálová was just 18 years old when she wrote it; even more so when, in the second movement, she inserts a wonderfully written fugue into the theme and variations form (more than once!). It is perhaps this piece in which Ege’s sophistication as a performer shines most clearly, encompassing as it does so many moods and variety of style within its 20 minute duration, all of which Ege executes with stirring confidence.

Margaret Bonds, “Troubled Water”

With rhythmic motives evocative of choppy waters, Bonds’ setting of “Wade in the Water” alternates between turbid and ebullient, capturing the dual essence of the spiritual (waters parting for the Israelite’s escape from Egypt and a pool of healing water). Ege expertly creates these moods while making the melody sing, to the point that I begin to sing along with it in my head.

I must note here also the high quality of the recording; the production is clean and intimate and perfectly suited to Ege’s nuanced performances.

Be sure to check out this album of wonderful and too-often-neglected pieces: they’re in good hands.

Throwback Thursday to composer Claude Arrieu. Here’s a cheery piece by her:

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