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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusrss

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusrss

Two Organs are Better than One

November 20, 2016 at 3:59 pm

How do you fill a massive cathedral with sound? A really loud organ. But, if the organ is too loud, how do you accompany the choir? Easy – build another organ.

Believe it or not, it is not uncommon for large churches to have more than one organ. Even so, there’s not exactly a wealth of music written for two organs. First of all, these organs tend to be placed far apart (there’d be no point in putting two organs next to each other); this means that they two organists would struggle to stay together, musically. Second, these organs tend to be designed with very different things in mind (there’d be no point in building two identical organs in the same building); one will often be the “main” organ for solo repertoire, while the other will be a “choir” organ for accompanying. Or, one will be designed for Baroque repertoire and the other for Romantic, and so the two instruments would sound like oil and water.

There is, however, a unique piece for two organs and choir which makes a strong argument for this instrumentation – the Messe Solemnelle of Louis Vierne, longtime organist of Notre Dame. The choir sings with the softer organ in the chancel, and the loud organ gets the play the fun parts, a football field away, in the west gallery.

French organs are known for their fiery, dark, thunderous sound (they are also known for never, ever being in tune). I often wonder what it was like for a 19th century French farmer to come to the Paris and hear the organ at one of the cathedrals. I imagine they may have needed new underpants after the experience.

Things I love about this video: 1) this is a REAL MASS, not a concert performance; 2) The French mispronunciation of Latin; 3) you can hear the two organs get out of sync with each other if you listen carefully; 4) the last chord is held so long that you can see the singers taking extra breaths to get through it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusrss