Juilliard Celebrates 32 Female Composers of the 20th Century

Juilliard Celebrates 32 Female Composers of the 20th Century


The music of Beethoven will be inescapable this year, as orchestras around the world celebrate his 250th birthday. But the Juilliard School has another anniversary in mind for its upcoming Focus Festival: the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

To commemorate the hard-fought moment when women could vote in the United States, the Focus Festival — “Trailblazers: Pioneering Women Composers of the 20th Century” — will present six free concerts, Jan. 24-31, in a globe-trotting program that features 32 composers from five continents. (The New York Philharmonic, Juilliard’s neighbor, is also celebrating the amendment with a commissioning initiative, Project 19, and a series of concerts beginning Feb. 5.)

Joel Sachs, Focus’s founder and longtime director, enlisted the Cuban-American composer and conductor Odaline de la Martinez to help assemble the program. Their work has been, to some degree, investigative: correcting mistakes in outdated or obscure published scores, and unearthing pieces that haven’t been heard for decades.

“A lot of these composers have disappeared because people don’t know what to look for,” Ms. de la Martinez said in an interview with Mr. Sachs. “And musicology used to teach only men. It’s about time to make cases for other composers, and women.”

It was difficult enough for Mr. Sachs and Ms. de la Martinez to narrow down the list to 32 composers. But then The New York Times asked them to speak about 10 whose music they were especially eager to share during the festival. Here are their picks.

The music of Florence Price (1887-1953) — whose milestones included being the first black woman to have her music played by a major American orchestra, the Chicago Symphony — has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past decade, after a trove of her manuscripts was discovered in 2009.

Now her music is being programmed more often; it’s even returning to Chicago this spring. And record labels have responded in kind with a flourishing catalog of albums.

This sonata, Ms. de la Martinez said, is “an absolutely major work, and it can be in anybody’s repertoire.” She added that it reflects how Price’s writing was truly American, “not Europe transposed to America.”

Ursula Mamlok, who died in 2016, was a close friend of Mr. Sachs’s, though for a long time he didn’t know how old she was. Her birth year was often listed as 1928, but that was a reflection of her early life: Her family had fled Germany during Nazi rule and settled briefly in Ecuador. By the time she arrived in New York and attended Hunter College, she trimmed five years off her age so she wouldn’t seem so much older than her classmates.

She became a New York fixture, and an influential teacher at the Manhattan School of Music. Mr. Sachs recalled a woman with “an incredibly powerful musical conviction,” who composed with a loose adherence to Schoenbergian technique, contemporary yet transparent. “Girasol,” he said, is an example of her style at its best.

“It’s modern in the context of modernity,” he said. “But it’s also extremely accessible. You never feel that it’s cluttered.”

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53) is the only composer to be programmed twice during the Focus festival. Mr. Sachs said he couldn’t help it: “She really is one of the great American composers.”

Once you hear her music, he said, “you know it couldn’t have been written by anyone else.” She belonged to the school of American avant-gardists like Henry Cowell and Charles Seeger (her eventual husband), and was the first female composer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, to study in Europe.

But the majority of her works come from before the worst days of the Great Depression and World War II; after those events, for reasons both personal and societal, her output slowed and she was programmed far less than her male peers.

“She has always had a following, but not a big one,” Mr. Sachs said. In these songs and the string quartet, he applauded what he called “a strange combination of seeming spontaneity within strict construction.”

Ms. de la Martinez and Mr. Sachs wanted to program a vocal selection from the opera “The Wreckers,” one of the finest works by the British composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). But they found the score too continuous to pull out any particular moment, so they opted for this orchestral interlude, which Ms. de la Martinez said she sees as a precursor to the frequently excerpted interludes from Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”

“It’s very tonal,” Ms. de la Martinez said, “and it has these beautiful melodies. It’s so approachable.”

The Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina is now nearing her 90s; she has lived through Stalin and the fall of the Soviet Union, along with waves of musical fashion that have washed over, more than influenced, what Mr. Sachs praised as her singular voice. She was encouraged and mentored by the likes of Schnittke and Shostakovich, without sounding like either one.

“She has such a fine ear for the nuances of her own writing,” Mr. Sachs said. This piece in particular, which is having its New York premiere in the festival, allowed Focus to showcase Juilliard’s organ program, but it is also a favorite of the curators.

The drama of it, Mr. Sachs said, is very clear. And for the players, Ms. de la Martinez added, the music is intelligent without being overly difficult. “It’s full of power and emotion,” she said. “It’s something the audiences will understand very well.”

In an interview with the BBC, Thea Musgrave — born in Scotland in 1928 but based in the United States since the early 1970s — once said that she is a woman and a composer, but “rarely at the same time.”

This work was commissioned for the Scottish city of Glasgow. Ms. de la Martinez noted that the piece has a painter’s sensibility: “When a rainbow appears after a storm, she creates that musically.”

Lee Young-ja, born in 1931, is considered one of the most important South Korean composers of her generation, if not the 20th century as a whole. Her style is a global one that reflects her education in both Europe and the United States. This trio — for piano, violin and cello — is a work in a decidedly French mode that Ms. de la Martinez said verges on Impressionism.

“She was a pupil of Messiaen, so she has that French flavor to the music,” Ms. de la Martinez said. That, combined with Eastern musical idioms, “takes on a wonderful quality.”

The Romanian composer Myriam Marbe (1931-97) was not closed off from the musical trends of the 20th century, but she rarely left her country — even during its worst years under communist rule. As such, Ms. de la Martinez said, “she’s very much an original composer.”

Mr. Sachs described this quintet as “pretty comprehensible,” though it doesn’t come off that way, at least not at first. Ms. de la Martinez said that once players understand the idiosyncratic color of Marbe’s music, it should begin to “feel almost improvisatory.”

The early works of Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-69), a Polish string player and later full-time composer, were inspired by her homeland’s folk music. And her country has responded with honors including a competition in her name in Lodz.

That city is where Mr. Sachs first conducted her Second Cello Concerto, which remains a relatively obscure work in Ms. Bacewicz’s output. By the time she wrote the piece, her style had evolved into a modernism on par, Mr. Sachs said, with “the best music in Europe in the 1960s.”

“It has such distinct personality and a clear dramatic structure,” he added. “It’s very unpredictable. It almost seems improvisatory, and uses the cello as a kind of dramatic singer. It’s a great display piece.”

Galina Ustvolskaya’s centennial quietly came and went last year, but those familiar with this reclusive Russian composer’s temperament might say she would have preferred it that way. She does, though, have a cult following, including increasingly popular marathons of her six piano sonatas — with a total running time of only an hour, but the physical and emotional demands of something much longer.

This octet — for four violins, two oboes, one piano and timpani — makes for “a kind of demonic musical energy,” Mr. Sachs said. Like much of her music, he added, “it has almost a superhuman force. You know you’re talking about someone who has true conviction in her ideas.”



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