Program notes for ‘Out of Silence’

During this time of uncertainty and separation, as we willingly sacrifice opportunities to gather in the hope that we might shorten the virus’ hold on all of us, Ryan and I offer this small program, “Out of Silence.” We are extraordinarily grateful to The Stissing Center and to the generous donors who made this concert possible. After three months of only making music in our own living room, it is hard to describe what an ecstatic experience it was to sing and play in The Stissing Center’s beautiful acoustic. While we know the live-stream won’t be the same as the communion of gathering together in a physical concert hall, we hope that you’ll be able to sense our joy at sharing this music and this incredible venue with all of you.

As we carefully considered what pieces to share on this program, we thought about the forced silence we musicians find ourselves in now, with shuttered concert halls worldwide. From that silence emerged the countless voices of those composers who have struggled to be heard for centuries, composers who have struggled for inclusion in the canon: in short, composers who aren’t (dead) white men. In that sense, we hope that the title of this program—inspired by a work by William Grant Still—helps to convey the music blooming in the newly-renovated Stissing Center, our own music-making in this time of quarantine, and, most importantly, the urgent need for the classical music community to reconsider the works we canonize and to make lasting commitments to program and commission music by underrepresented composers. Today, our small contribution to this effort features tremendous works by Clara Schumann, William Grant Still, Adela Maddison, and Florence Price.

Of the four, Clara Schumann (1819-1896) is perhaps the closest to a household name—after all, her husband, Robert Schumann certainly looms large in the canon! During her own lifetime, Schumann certainly attained her own fame and fortune despite her gender: as one of the most well-regarded pianists of the 19th century, her transcendent virtuosity permanently transformed piano performance in ways which still reverberate today. As a composer, Schumann was less well known than her husband, and far less prolific, though no less skillful. The songs presented this afternoon, her Op. 13, showcase her imaginative use of harmony and sensitivity to text. Published in 1844, these songs were written during a period of several years, beginning with her 1840 marriage to Robert, largely as Christmas or birthday gifts to her husband. Schumann, an active performer until five years before her death in 1896, frequently performed a number of these songs on her concerts, including with the renowned soprano Jenny Lind. Despite the beauty and popularity of this opus—republished multiple times during her own lifetime and included in anthologies—Schumann considered herself a second-rate composer. In March 1840, she wrote a letter to her husband saying she couldn’t write songs, for “a person has to be a genius to compose a Lied and to understand everything about a text.”[1] Later that year, she reflected in their joint diary that “All the time that Robert was away I spent trying to compose a Lied (which was always his wish), and then I finally succeeded to produce three, which I want to present to him for Christmas. But they are of no value, only a very feeble effort, so I count on Robert’s forbearance, and that he will think it was surely done with the best intention.”[2] Despite the fact that she was a child prodigy, despite the fact that she remained a peerless performer and pedagogue her entire life, Schumann was so indoctrinated in a world of female inferiority that she seemingly could not see the value of her own compositional output. And yet in these songs, we find true sensitivity to the varied texts; idiomatic piano and vocal writing; and, in our favorite song of all, “Die stille Lotosblume,” an infinite harmonic loop that mirrors the circular water lily, the moon’s orb, the swan’s circuit, the unanswered question: “Can you understand the song?”

Though his name is more of a rarity on today’s programs, to list William Grant Still’s accolades would easily take more time than the recital you’ll hear this afternoon. Still (1895-1978) was the first African-American to conduct a major US orchestra, and the first to have a work performed by one. Until 1950, Still’s Afro-American Symphony was in fact the most widely-performed American symphonic work. Still’s opera Troubled Island was the first American work produced by New York City Opera—and thus also the first by a Black composer. A later opera, A Bayou Legend, was also the first to be performed on national television. A musical prodigy like Schumann and native of Little Rock like Florence Price, Still taught himself to play the violin after building his own instrument. He went on to learn to play the viola, cello, double bass, oboe, clarinet and saxophone, helping to explain his reputation for writing idiomatically for any instrument. Though his family urged him to pick a sensible career—Langston Hughes noted that “William’s parents, as most parents did in those days, looked upon music as an insecure profession”[3]—and though Still tried his best to acquiesce, studying science at Wilberforce University, he ultimately finished his degree at Oberlin. Later studies took him, again like Price, to New England Conservatory, where he was a student of Edgard Varèse. In addition to his career highlights outlined above, Still was a successful Hollywood composer, contributing the scores of films like Pennies from Heaven. Still’s vast output and varied works reflect the multitude of his influences, from the spirituals sung by his grandmother to his days in the pit of Shuffle Along to the “sound-masses” of Varèse. The pieces chosen for this program, selections from Seven Traceries and his Three Visions, were chosen as both a pivot point between and as a parallel to the two vocal works by Schumann and Maddison. It is no mistake that many of the composers excluded from the classical music canon worked in miniatures: the domestic art song, the piano suite were far easier to publish and far more reasonable to expect to be performed than major works like symphonies and operas. Though Still did achieve a fame and renown that eluded many of his contemporaries, the sublime piano works presented today are much in the same form as the other works on this afternoon’s program: five mystical jewels, with Debussian scintillating harmonies amidst Classical architecture.

In 2012, I found Adela Maddison’s name buried in a footnote, tossed aside as loose woman, certainly better known as an adulterer than for her own musical merits. Née Katherine Mary Adela Tindal, Maddison (1862-1929) was born in London to a well-to-do family. She began composing at an early age and published her first works at nineteen, in the same year that she married a music publisher, Frederick Brunning Maddison of Metzler & Company. Together with her husband, Maddison began to host important musical events for London society: her husband’s firm was the first in Britain to publish Gabriel Fauré’s works, and Fauré in turn gave Maddison composition lessons. Maddison later followed Fauré to Paris, seemingly not for an affair—as has been suggested by some prominent musicians[4]—but to pursue her own musical career. Even as she lived on her own, taking in lodgers for income, she began to forge relationships with other important musicians and musical patrons in Paris, including Frederick Delius, Claude Debussy, Georges Enesco, Maurice Ravel, and the princesse de Polignac. Her works were published by prominent French publishers, and she was favorably reviewed by numerous important journals. The songs you will hear this afternoon were published in two batches, though all likely written at the end of her time in France, one year before Maddison moved to Berlin with her partner, Marta Gertrud Mundt. They are redolent with the sounds of her artistic milieu: Wagnerian harmonies, French musical sensibilities, and her British roots. Edmond Haraucourt’s poetry—ranging from realist to symbolist—takes on particular significance when it is viewed from Maddison’s perspective: a pilgrim in a foreign land, a woman for whom countless smiles were meaningless, someone who hopes for the oblivion of forgetting, and ultimately someone who knows that with true companionship, “our hearts are larger than the sea is deep.” Maddison’s relationship with Mundt, a German national, made for political trouble during World War I; ultimately, Maddison returned to England but found her Continental musical language was more complex than what pleased Londoners. She struggled to make inroads in British musical society, and her precarious health and finances led to her death in 1929. Sadly, most of Maddison’s works are lost.

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), the first African-American woman to have a work performed by a major American symphony, is finally getting her due—thanks in large part to a lifetime of work by scholar Dr. Rae Linda Brown, whose posthumously-released biography of Price was published just this past Monday, June 22. In celebration of this occasion, and in honor of this great composer, Ryan and I decided to close this program with a postlude of one of our favorite songs, “Night.” In this paean to Black femininity, Price’s setting of Louise C. Wallace’s poem conjures a moment which is both domestic and infinite, in which the universality of a mother’s love is painted in this Madonna’s scented blue, in her red lips, in her deep eyes.

Thank you for listening.

[1] Schumann, R, et al.. The Complete Correspondence of Clara And Robert Schumann. Critical ed. New York: P. Lang, 1994. 142.

[2] Schumann, Robert, 1810-1856, Gerd Nauhaus, Peter Ostwald, and Clara Schumann. The Marriage Diaries of Robert & Clara Schumann: From Their Wedding Day Through the Russia Trip. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993. 44.

[3] Guess not much has changed…
Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967. Famous Negro Music Makers. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955.

[4] Evidence for an affair between the two is scant; furthermore, Maddison traveled in lesbian circles and likely had no romantic interest in Fauré. And if she did, can we please paint Fauré with the same brush?

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