March of the (Nasty) Women

January 21, 2017 at 12:48 pm

As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are filling the streets of major US cities for the Women’s March on Washington, to protest the Great Farce which began yesterday. It was only a century ago that women in the US were fighting for the right to vote; just like today, protest songs were written and sung.

Ethel Smyth was a Nasty Woman. She was a lesbian who not only wanted to be a composer, but also to vote. Born in England in 1858, her envisioned life was not one to be easily won. She had to keep her homosexuality hidden, and her career in music was suppressed by sexism; her father strongly discouraged her from pursuing music, and Smyth had to forge her own way. She became very involved in the Women’s Suffrage movement, and ultimately did see English women win the right to vote when she turned 70.

Progress is slow, but it can happen, thanks to Nasty Women like Smyth. Here is her “March of the Women“, written in 1910.

While this piece is fitting for this post, I’d recommend digging a little deeper and listening to some of Smyth’s other compositions, which better show her compositional personality. You can start here.

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St. Nicolas Day!

December 6, 2016 at 11:30 am

Saint Nicolas? Oh, you mean SANTA CLAUS!

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He’s the patron saint of materialism, putting chocolate in shoes, and giving cheap plastic toys to undeserving brats … right?

 St. Nicolas is one bad-ass saint; the legends about him range from the mildly interesting to the outrageous. The legend from which Santa Claus comes originated as Nicolas giving a poor man coins to pay for his daughters’ dowry, thus preventing them from being forced into prostitution; in order to be discreet, Nicolas tossed the purses through a window and into the man’s house at nighttime. It is also said that he punched the leader of the Arian heresy at the council of Nicaea (a meeting where the early Christians sought to clearly define their faith, resulting in the Nicene creed). Just your typical meeting of bishops, ending in a brawl, that’s all. And then, the greatest legend of them all … the pickled boys.

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There’s a famine throughout the land – everyone is hungry. A desperate cook kills three boys, butchers them, and pickles their flesh. Nicolas shows up in town, and the people offer him some tasty meat. Nicolas, in a vision, realizes what is being served – he stops the feast immediately. He calls to the barrels containing the pickled boy flesh, and the meat comes back together and becomes three boys again. Naturally, the resurrected boys begin to sing the praises of God.

Benjamin Britten wrote a cantata based on the legends of Nicolas in 1948. He could have ignored  these impossible-to-believe legends and produced a work of religious piety. Instead, Britten sets the legends in a fun way which pokes fun at the exaggerated medieval stories and the difficulties of modern faith. The result is in a marvelous work which is both pious and frivolous, serious and fun, sincere and goofy.

 

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Rest for the Weary

December 4, 2016 at 10:00 am

If there was a “composer with the most ridiculously long name contest,” the winner would probably be César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck; second place would go to Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély, with third perhaps going to Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry.

Parry was among a handful of late Victorian musicians (like Elgar, Stanford, and later, Vaughan-Williams) who crafted a clearly identifiable “English” sound in a time when nationalism was the norm. It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that he was among those who ushered in England’s second musical golden age (which, perhaps, peaked with Britten?). Parry, like a good, twee, English gentleman, wrote a set of songs at the end of his life as a farewell to his friends and an epitaph for his life. They are all beautiful, and, as they are appropriate for use in church, they continue to be performed regularly. His setting of Thomas Campion‘s poem, “Never Weather-Beaten Sail” is fitting for the end of one’s life, but also particularly appropriate for the season of Advent.

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