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Composer Biographies

Anonymous
Amy Beach
Edith Borroff
Lili Boulanger
Lee Bratton
Katherine Dienes
Mabel Wheeler Daniels
Hermene Eichhorn
Daniel Gawthrop
Nina Gilbert
Mary Howe
Marylou India Jackson
Thomas Edward Morgan
Alice Parker
Ethel Smyth
Naomi Stephan
Lana Walter
Felicity Williams

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Anonymous c. 1300

In 1300 the wealthy Cistercian convent of Las Huelgas, in Burgos, Spain, housed a large number of noble, well-educated sisters--about 100 singing nuns--as well as lay sisters, priests, and craftsmen. The manuscript from which this conductus comes is a compendium of the Notre Dame repertoire of liturgical and non-liturgical sacred music with Latin texts. It is of particular historical importance because its rhythmic notation is much less ambiguous than that of other manuscripts of the period, providing vital clues to the transcription of concordances with other sources. It also contains a number of pieces found in no other sources, including "Castitatis Thalamum".

Like other examples of the conductus, "Castitatis Thalamum" is not based on a pre-existent liturgical chant but is freely composed, with all voices singing the same rhymed, metric text in a homophonic texture. Historically associated with processions, conductus are the sacred equivalent of troubadour songs, and often have political or satirical texts.

The text of "Castitatis Thalamum" is typical of medieval preoccupations with the paradoxes of the Doctrine of the Trinity and the Virgin Birth: How can a father be equal with a son? How can a virgin bear a child? The central image--of the special valley from which the Son will be borne on a level with the Father--is reminiscent of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:4 that "Every valley shall be exalted". Like settings of that text, "Castitatis Thalamum" is particularly suitable for performance in Advent.

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Amy Beach

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) (1867-1944) was born in New Hampshire. Musically precocious, she sang improvised harmony parts at age two, composed at age four, and began piano studies with her mother, Clara Imogene Marcy Cheney, at age six, giving her first public recitals at seven.

In 1875 the Cheney family moved to Boston, where Amy studied piano, harmony, and counterpoint. Largely self-taught as a composer, she learned orchestration by first translating, then teaching herself the contents of, Berlioz's treatise on orchestration. In 1885 she made her piano debut with the Boston Symphony, and married Dr. Henry Beach, a socially prominent doctor, Harvard professor, and musical amateur. In accordance with his wishes, she limited her public appearances and concentrated on composition until after his death in 1910.

In 1911 she traveled to Germany, where she toured as a virtuoso pianist, playing and accompanying her own works to critical acclaim. In 1914 she returned to the United States, where she maintained an active schedule of winter touring and summer composing, spending many seasons at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Mrs. Beach composed works in many genres, including a Mass, a symphony, a piano concerto, and works for chamber ensembles, piano, mixed chorus, and solo voice. Her more than two dozen works for women's chorus, including several cantatas, are well-crafted in a romantic idiom, always with intelligent text setting.

Mrs. Beach's Three Shakespeare Songs, Op. 39, first published by Arthur P. Schmidt in 1897, all use verses in which fairies' beguiling and alarming magic makes nonsense of human reason.

"Over hill, over dale" (A Midsummer Night's Dream 2.1) follows city scenes of the human lovers' nuptial arrangements and the artisans' clumsy plans to put on a play, moving the action to the enchanted wood outside Athens and introducing Puck.

"Come unto these yellow sands" (The Tempest 1.2) is the teasing song the invisible Ariel sings to the shipwrecked, bewildered (and presumably still dripping) Ferdinand as he reaches the shore of the enchanted island: an invitation to the dance that tells him he's not in Naples any more.

"Through the house give glimmering light" (A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1) is Oberon and Titania's epilogue to the closing marriage banquet, proof that the fairies' happy, if unpredictable, influence now extends to the city, the banquet hall, and even to the marriage bed.

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Edith Borroff

Edith Borroff (b. 1925) was born in New York City, the daughter of Marie Bergerson and Ramon Borroff, both well-known professional musicians. Trained in music from babyhood, she composed songs and piano pieces before she was six. In 1941 the family moved to Chicago; there, Borroff, who already knew she wanted to be a composer, earned a B.Mus. (1946) and M.Mus. (1948) in composition at the American Conservatory of Music, with an undergraduate minor in organ (including two years at Oberlin with Claire Coci) and a graduate minor in voice with the redoubtable singer Frances Grund.

It was not easy for American women composers to be taken seriously at that time. In 1954 Borroff went to Ann Arbor, where she earned her Ph.D. in the history of music at the University of Michigan in 1958. Since then, she has taught music history and composed music, retiring from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1992. She now lives in Durham, North Carolina.

From 1950 to 1954 Borroff taught at Milwaukee-Downer College, which was then a school for women students only. There she composed several choral pieces for women's voices, including "The Christ-Child Lay on Mary's Lap". The poem, by G.K. Chesterton, had long been a favorite, and it was natural for her to set it to music. In composing it, Borroff tried to incorporate both the form and the mood of the poem in the music; it suggests looking at the vision of mother and child over and over again, in a rather straightforward wonder.

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Lili Boulanger

Lili (Marie-Juliette Olga) Boulanger (1893-1918) and her older sister Nadia were the daughters of a French opera composer and a Russian singer. Lili's frail health, shattered in infancy by a near-fatal bout of pneumonia, kept her from ever attending school on a regular basis. Nevertheless, at the age of sixteen, knowing that she could never marry and that she must be able to support herself, she determined to become a composer and to win the Prix de Rome.

It took her just under four years. She compressed a three-year conservatory course into a year and a half of daily lessons in theory and counterpoint from Georges Caussade, and in January of 1912 was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire as a composition student of Paul Vidal. Her first try at the Prix de Rome, a competition whose final round required a month's supervised seclusion for the composition of a fugue and a cantata on a set theme and text, ended when illness forced her to withdraw. On her second try, in 1913, she became the first woman ever to win the top prize, with her cantata, Faust et Hélène. Fame, and a contract with Ricordi, followed immediately.

The five years left to her were lonely and painful. Debilitated by the progress of her Crohn's disease, and aware by 1916 that she was dying, she composed vocal and choral works on somber texts. Her masterwork, a setting of Psalm 130 (Du fond de l'abîme) for mixed chorus, soloists, organ, and full orchestra, shows a command of structure, choral writing, text setting, and orchestration which places her in the top rank of composers.

In March of 1918, as the Germans were shelling Paris from the north and east, Lili's family moved her westward to Mézy. There she dictated a Pie Jesu to Nadia, and died. She was twenty-four.

"Les sirènes", written in Gargenville in 1911 and first published in 1919, was premiered at one of Mme. Boulanger's select salon concerts in 1912. Possibly as a tribute to Debussy, who admired her work, Lili chose the opening motif of the harp part in Debussy's La sirène (from his Nocturnes for orchestra) as the basis for the extended ostinato pattern for the left hand of her piano accompaniment. Her treatment diverges sharply from Debussy's, however, both in musical technique and in point of view. Debussy's sirens are heard from shipboard as a distant, wordless haunting, while Lili's sirens sing their fully developed song in the foreground, and boast of their deadly beauty themselves.

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Lee Bratton

Lee Bryant Bratton (b. 1947) was a member of the Columbus Boychoir School (now the American Boychoir) in Princeton, New Jersey, from 1958 to 1961. He has the distinction of having performed both the roles of Amahl (in the NBC Opera Company production in New York in 1961) and Melchior (in Gainesville, Georgia in 1991) in productions of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Mr. Bratton holds degrees in music education and choral conducting from Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas, Austin. Since 1985 he has been head of the music department at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, where he has composed and arranged a number of pieces for the Brenau Chamber Choir. He arranged "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" in 1993 for the choir, which he founded, to sing on tour in England.

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Katherine Dienes

Katherine Dienes, F.R.C.O., was born in New Zealand in 1970 and educated at a girls' school, the Samuel Marsden School in Karori, Wellington. She studied music and modern languages and earned B.A. and B.Mus. degrees at Victoria University, Wellington. From 1988 to 1991 she was also Organ Scholar at St. Paul's Cathedral (Anglican), Wellington.

Active as a conductor, recitalist, accompanist, and composer, she was Organ Scholar at Winchester Cathedral, England, from 1991-1994. She was Organist and Acting Master of the Music at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, from 1994-1997, and is now Assistant Organist and Director of the Cathedral Girls' Choir at the Anglican cathedral in Norwich, England.

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Mabel Wheeler Daniels

Mabel Wheeler Daniels (1878-1971) was born in Swampscott, Massachusetts, and graduated from Radcliffe College, magna cum laude, in 1900. She studied composition with George Chadwick of Boston, and with Ludwig Thuille in Munich, where she was the first woman ever to enroll in the conservatory's score reading class. She wrote a lively memoir of her studies abroad, An American Girl in Munich (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1905), and was director of music at Simmons College from 1913 to 1918. Her larger choral and orchestral works were performed by the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society with the Boston Symphony, at the Worcester Festival, and by orchestras and choruses throughout the United States.

The central image of "Dum Dianae vitrea" is the moon's (Diana's) kindling her light at twilight from the sun's (her brother Apollo's) setting rays, and the soothing, drowsy comfort her rising brings to nature and humanity. Miss Daniels's setting, first published in 1942, is technically strong and emotionally evocative, an unusually satisfying union of music and text.

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Hermene Eichhorn

Hermene Warlick Eichhorn (b. 1906) was born in Hickory, North Carolina. She studied piano, organ, and composition with Alla Pearl Little, a Lutheran church organist in Hickory, and became backup organist for her family's German Reformed church at age thirteen. Matriculating at Woman's College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in 1922, she studied composition and graduated with bachelor's degrees in piano (1926) and organ (1927). For many years she served as organist and choir director of Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro, and wrote a weekly music column for the Greensboro Daily News.

The Euterpe Club, a Greensboro music club numbering 180 musician members in the 1920's, and her informal continuing association with Woman's College, were venues for Mrs. Eichhorn's formidable organizational and musical talents. In 1939, the thirty-voice women's chorus of the Euterpe Club premiered her most intense choral work for women's voices, "A Woman Plowing in the Field," and in 1940 a 140-voice chorus at Woman's College premiered her Easter cantata, Mary Magdalene.

"Housekeeper's Tragedy" was first published by J. Fischer & Bro. in 1945, and revived by Women's Voices Chorus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1995. We found it had lost none of its freshness. It was particularly effective when we sang it with an irritable edge to our tone, and the altos hammed up the punchline in measures 71-72.

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Mary Howe

Mary Howe (1882-1964) was born to a prosperous Washington, D.C. family and educated at home. An accomplished pianist, she played solo and duo-piano recitals privately and professionally. After her marriage and the birth of her three children she enrolled at Peabody Conservatory to study composition with Gustav Strube--and the exams she passed, at age 40, to earn the diploma in composition in 1922 were the first exams she had ever taken. With Amy Beach she organized the Society of American Women Composers in 1925.

She spent many summers at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and with her children gave madrigal concerts to raise funds to support it.

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Marylou India Jackson

Marylou India Jackson was the daughter of a restaurant owner and a nurse. She studied piano and violin as a child, sang in high school choruses, and studied at Oberlin Conservatory from 1920 to 1923, earning a teaching certificate. She taught public school music in Elkhorn, West Virginia from 1923 to 1925, and earned a B.A. from Hunter College in 1927 and a B. Mus. from New York University in 1930.

In 1930 Miss Jackson joined the faculty at Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, an historically black college which originated as a Methodist mission school for freedmen in 1873. Under her guidance, music department curriculum and activities expanded rapidly. She established a four-year program leading to a degree in music education, invited prominent black musicians to give recitals on campus, scheduled Christmas and Easter cantata performances for the college choir, and arranged for joint concerts with the Morehouse College Glee Club. Bennett alumnae remember Miss Jackson as a serious and determined teacher, brown-skinned, tall, and a strong role model for her students.

Miss Jackson also took the Bennett College Choir on tour to raise money for scholarships, following a custom begun by Fisk University in 1871. Traditionally, concert tour programs of classical repertoire ended with a set of spirituals, songs from the slave era, which moved listeners as no other music could.

When Miss Jackson came to Bennett, the only published collections of spirituals were arrangements for mixed or men's choruses. She made her own arrangements, choosing to honor the earliest stages of the harmonized spiritual by setting each tune simply. Her Negro Spirituals and Hymns, first published by J. Fischer & Bro. in 1935, a collection of twenty-five arrangements, sound almost as if they could have been improvised; yet each setting is different from the others, using one or two techniques not repeated elsewhere, and is musically effective.

Miss Jackson also honored the dialect pronunciation of the spirituals' texts. Her preface states, "To displace the dialect would rob the spirituals of one of their most vital elements and direct meaning, which is so necessary to the interpretation of the songs. After all, these are songs of the soil that have sprung with the natural and easy speech of the people."

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Thomas Edward Morgan

Thomas Edward Morgan (b. 1962) is the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Ars Nova Singers of Boulder, Colorado. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in music from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and the Master of Music degree in Composition from the University of Colorado. He currently serves as Music Director of St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder.

Mr. Morgan has studied choral and orchestral conducting with Dale Warland, Helmut Rilling, and Giora Bernstein, and has taken master classes with Eric Ericson and Herbert Blomstedt. As a composer, he has received the prestigious BMI award (1987) for his Psalm 88 for orchestra and mixed chorus. His 1984 choral work Four Poems of e. e. cummings was presented on the opening program of the eighth Internacional Musica Nueva festival in Mexico City. He the composer and arranger of numerous choral works and church anthems.

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Alice Parker

Alice Parker (b. 1925) was born in Boston and studied piano, organ, clarinet, and violin. She majored in organ and composition at Smith College, and received her master's degree in choral conducting from Juilliard, where she studied with Julius Herford, Vincent Persichetti, and Robert Shaw. From 1949 to 1968 she was the arranger and assistant for the Robert Shaw Chorale, writing many folk song, spiritual, and American hymn settings which have become part of the standard choral repertoire.

While Miss Parker has composed a number of instrumental works, she continues to concentrate on works for chorus. She has composed several operas, including The Martyrs' Mirror (1971), The Family Reunion (1974-1975), and Singers Glen (1978), all incorporating folk and hymn tunes; and cantatas and other works for orchestra and chorus.

"Women on the Plains", a setting of three Canadian folk songs, was commissioned for the Women's Choir of the University of Calgary, Alberta, Malcolm Edwards, conductor, in 1988. The source for "Old Grandma" and "Away, Far down the River" ("Adieu de la Mariée") is Folk Songs of Canada , vol. 1 and 2 (Waterloo, Ontario: Waterloo Music Company, 1954 et seq.). "Punching the Dough" was sung by the late Bev Bandur of Calgary in 1982; his family believe it to be of folk origin. Always speaking from the pioneer woman's point of view, these songs pay tribute to the spirited energy and the loving loyalty (as well as the hard work and loneliness) of the women who left settled lives to build new homes on the frontier.

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Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1944) overcame the constraints of her prosperous English military background by open rebellion. Taught piano and theory as ladylike accomplishments, she horrified her family by demanding to be sent to Leipzig to study at the Conservatorium. At age seventeen she financed surreptitious trips to hear concerts in London by borrowing cash from local Aldershot tradesmen and charging it to her father's accounts. When this scheme was discovered and the inevitable blowup occurred, she announced that she wouldn't need to go to London if her father would send her to Leipzig.

In General Smyth's circle no respectable woman traveled or lived unchaperoned abroad, and he told Ethel he would rather see her dead than send her to Leipzig. Daily scenes ensued, and Ethel went on a two-year progressive domestic strike, finally confining herself to her room and refusing to go to church, sing at dinner parties, go riding, or speak to anyone.

The embattled General Smyth conceded defeat and sent Ethel to Leipzig in 1877, where she studied with Carl Reinecke and Salomon Jadassohn at the Conservatorium and privately with Heinrich von Herzogenberg. She met, and was encouraged by, Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorák, and developed a Brahmsian idiom in her own compositions.

In 1893 her Mass in D, for mixed chorus and orchestra, was performed in London at the Albert Hall; her operas were occasionally staged in Germany and in England. Durham University granted her an honorary D.Mus. degree in 1910, and she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1922.

A woman of boisterous vitality who fell prey to inconvenient passions for persons of both sexes, Smyth was affectionately caricatured in E.F. Benson's Dodo novels and mocked by Virginia Woolf. In 1910, Smyth met Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the British women's suffrage movement and head of the militant and extremely well organized Women's Social and Political Union. Struck by Mrs. Pankhurst's mesmerizing public speeches, Smyth pledged to give up music for two years and devote herself to the cause of votes for women.

"Laggard Dawn" and "The March of the Women" were composed in 1911 and premiered by a chorus of Suffragettes at a fundraising concert at the Albert Hall on March 23, 1911. "The March of the Women" became the battle cry of the British suffrage movement, and was published in arrangements for mixed voices (in G) and unison voices (in F) as well as in this version in A-flat for women's voices.

Its most famous, though least public, performance occurred at Holloway Prison in London in 1912: over 100 suffragists, including Mrs. Pankhurst and Ethel Smyth, who had smashed windows of suffrage opponents' homes in well- coordinated simultaneous incidents all over London, were arrested, tried, and sentenced to two months' imprisonment. Ethel Smyth found her time in prison an exalting experience of communal determination and sacrifice by women of all ages and classes. One day, when her conductor friend Sir Thomas Beecham called at the prison to see how she was faring, the warden laughed and showed him the exercise yard. The suffragists were taking their exercise by marching and singing "The March of the Women," while, from a window overlooking the yard, Ethel Smyth conducted by vigorously waving her toothbrush.

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Naomi Stephan

Naomi Irene Stephan has been involved with vocal music since she was six, when she sang her first solo at her sister's baptism. She has a B.A. in voice from the Conservatory of Music in Berlin, Germany, and a Ph.D. in German literature with a minor in music history. She resides in Asheville, North Carolina, where she has her own business as a Life Mission coach, and teaches interdisciplinary courses, such as Women in Music, at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

After many years of singing in church choirs, madrigal groups, and chamber ensembles, as well as performing in oratorios and singing solo sacred music and art songs in Germany and the United States, Naomi returned to her original love, composition. Naomi is particularly interested in choral writing, and especially for women's voices, using unusual combinations of voices and instruments, combining neo-medieval styles with fugal, percusive, or rhythmic experimentation.

Hildegard of Bingen's antiphon text, "Hodie aperuit nobis" ("Today there appears to us"), depicts the battle between evil (the serpent/tempter in the Garden of Eden) and good (the Virgin Mary, bearer of the redeemer). Naomi's setting deploys traditional tone painting techniques, such as the use of wide intervals for the word "aperuit" ("opens") and close, compact, and strident chords for "clausa porta" ("closed portal").

Rhythmically vigorous and complex, this piece for five-part a cappella women's chorus has independent writing for all voices, and a very wide range. It is as rewarding as it is demanding.

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Lana Walter

Lana Walter (b. 1948) was born in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and attended Oregon public schools. She received her Bachelor of Music degree in music theory and history from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and the Master of Arts degree in music history from the University of Oregon, Eugene. She has taught college level music theory and voice.

Ms. Walter is the founding director of the Umpque Youth Choir in Roseburg, Oregon, and teaches elementary school music in Sutherlin, Oregon. She lives in Roseburg with her husband Peter Graff and their three cats. She recently played Yum Yum in a production of Mikado.

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Felicity Williams

Felicity Williams (b. 1954) was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. She still lives there with her husband, Grant, and their two children, Clemency and Samuel. Felicity holds a B.Mus. (Hons) degree in composition from the University of Canterbury as well as performance diplomas in violin, piano, and voice. She also holds a Diploma in Teaching from Christchurch College of Education. In 1988 she was appointed National Composer-In-Schools, a one year residency designed to stimulate original composition for and by young people. Her list of compositions is diverse, from songs and rhythm games for early childhood through full length musicals and ballets. In 1994 she established her own school, "Mozarts", which encompasses a Performing Arts Pre School, as well as (in 1995) a Performing Arts Centre offering classes for students aged five years through adult. She is also Composer-In-Residence at Elmwood Primary School, where she writes original music for each class in the school, composing for the specific abilities of the class in question.

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