4 posts from December 2014

December 22, 2014

Song of Myself: Autobiography in Pop Music

Kendra Leonard (Loveland, OH)

Many artists draw on personal experience when they create art, and music is no different. Like Tennessee Williams’s plays, Hemingway’s stories, or Van Gogh’s self-portraits, composers and songwriters often include elements of autobiography in their works. Female composers have had to make their way in what was traditionally a male-dominated field, and the ways their innovations have contributed to the world of music are still being explored. How are music and autobiography connected? How do women tell their stories through music, particularly through song? And why might some women be drawn to use music as the medium for their autobiographies?

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December 15, 2014

Handel’s Messiah: A Seeming Miracle Itself

HandelThe following excerpt focuses on two of Handel’s most famous oratorios, Israel in Egypt and Messiah, considering the political and religious context of their composition and the impact of their music. Oratorios are dramatic compositions, usually set to religious, and often Biblical, texts, as is the case here, and performed without any staging as concert pieces. At the time these oratorios were composed, Protestant England was in conflict politically with Catholic Spain and France. English Protestants, however, were concerned less about the religious threat of Catholicism than with the rise of Deism, a rationalist philosophy that denied the existence of miracles or prophecy. While including reference to these political and religious issues, the two oratorios also contain some of the most astonishing music ever written.

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December 8, 2014

Women Can’t Do That: Delia Derbyshire and Electronic Music

Kendra Leonard (Loveland, OH)

British composer Delia Derbyshire (1937–2001) was probably one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, but most people—including professional musicians—have never heard of her. Derbyshire’s best-known work was the theme music for the original Doctor Who, as well as the sound effects for the TARDIS, the title character’s space- and time-traveling police box. Yet like many women of her time, Derbyshire was initially kept away from the tools for creating music because, as she was told, “women can’t do that.”

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December 1, 2014

The Innovations of Ruth Crawford Seeger

Kendra Leonard (Loveland, OH)

What does it mean to be a “female composer”? Even today, in our music history books, women who compose music are often called out because of their gender; in some books, women hardly even get mentioned at all. The reason isn’t because we don’t know much about women who write music—we know lots and learn more every year—but because the traditional story of music history has marched along from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms for a very long time, and that path has worn a groove in the way we talk about music history. Lots of composers never make it onto this path and disappear, including composers who are anything and everything except the familiar white, European men. We lose black composers, Asian composers, Hispanic composers, women composers, disabled composers, and so many more. And in losing those composers, we lose an incredible amount of amazing music that we would know, perhaps, if the composer had not been one of those “Others.”

Women have always been composers, but they haven’t always gotten their fair share of attention. And it wasn’t always easy being a composer in a world where they were a minority: some music schools wouldn’t accept women as students until well into the twentieth century; conductors didn’t want to program their music; critics wrote more about what they wore than how well they played (a phenomenon that hasn’t changed). So when we talk about “female composers,” we’re referring to a whole history of exclusion from the mainstream music world, and the work that earns them a place on the path of all great composers: into the books, where they belong. 

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