Nestled in Pattison Courtyard, last week’s “Student Recital of Works by Women Composers” event was the first in Scripps College history to feature a repertoire exclusively consisting of female-composed works.
Held on Nov. 4, the evening was presented in conjunction with Professor of Music Anne Harley’s class, MUS119: Women and Gender in Music. Students from the class made introductions for each of the composers, having researched and written these remarks themselves. They provided biographical information, spoke to the influence of these women and reminded attendees how female composers seldom receive the recognition and appreciation they deserve.
Harley has envisioned this event for quite some time and was thrilled to finally see her hope come to fruition.
“Since I’ve been here, [this event] is the first regular student recital that has presented more than 50 percent of women’s [compositions],” Harley said. “I hope it can become a tradition. Scripps College, as a traditionally women’s college, should be doing that.”
Speaking to the study of female musicians, Harley also explained why these talented composers go unacknowledged — and how this event hopes to change that obscurity.
“It’s sort of a self-perpetuating cycle that if students don’t know that repertoire is beautiful and available to them, then they don’t ask to study it,” she said. “And so, this [event] is a kind of intervention in the formation of the canon that teaches the audience about what is possible to study, as well as presenting it.”
It was dark by the time the event started around 7:30 p.m., with only a small amount of light coming from the garden lighting and the lights clipped on to music stands.
Annemarie Gerlach PZ ’23 and Amelia Huchley SC ’23 opened the recital, entering from off stage, singing and playing the hurdy-gurdy as they wove through the rows of attendees. Every chair was filled, and many were forced to stand in the back. The pair sang “A chantar” by Comtessa do Dia, a composer from the 12th century.
Gerlach and Huchley are music majors and enrolled in MUS119 this semester, making them both presenters and performers at the evening recital. With these dual roles, both students felt the impact of the event.
“I think that women composers have come a long way since the very beginning with the piece that Amelia and I performed by Comtessa do Dia,” Gerlach said. “Jodi Goble is a contemporary composer who is making … a lot of progress and showing what female composers can do and how their music can change the world.”
Huchley also spoke to the vitality of including female composers in music’s past and present.
“I think that the really well-known, classical pieces have a lot of power,” Huchley said. “People react so strongly when they hear the beginning of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and there just aren’t that many pieces by women composers that are that well known … I think that having these concerts to highlight women composers is super important just to get them in people’s heads, just to get name recognition and to see the history of classical music and composition as what it actually was and is, and not what the most popular pieces would have us think it is.”
Huchley also discussed the effects of power hierarchies in determining how well-known certain musical pieces have and continue to become.
“There is a lot of misogyny that goes into determining what pieces get popular,” Huchley said. “There’s a lot of misogyny, there’s a lot of racism. So many different intersections of marginalization.”
All but one of the recital pieces featured vocal performance, and many songs were accompanied by piano. The Claremont Concert Choir performed four songs: two of the European convent tradition, one 20th century composition and “We Will Stand Up,” a co-commissioned piece premiered by the choir in the fall of 2021. This Karen Siegel song was a call to action, including lyrics like “We will bring change, we will bring hope” and “We have a right to a stable climate.”
“So the whole [event] is both lifting up other female voices — composers, poets — but also learning to hold the stage, hold focus [themselves].”—Professor Anne Harley
Spanning the 11th century up to the present day, the performers offered the audience a broad range of female-composed music in a variety of languages, from French to German to English. While the audience may not have been able to understand all of the words, many vocalists embellished their performances with gestures and facial expressions, adding to the impression of the evening.
The inclusion of professor Harley’s class in the night also deepened the impact. Without background information on the female composers, the audience would not have been able to fully grasp these women’s perseverance, skill and adoration for music.
Public speaking is not always the easiest of tasks, and many of the presenters had to practice their remarks and pronunciations — as well as their volume.
“Whether it’s singing or spoken remarks, what happens in a performance is that the female students are learning to raise their voices,” Harley said. “So the whole [event] is both lifting up other female voices — composers, poets — but also learning to hold the stage, hold focus [themselves]. And I was so proud of all of them.”
The presenters and performers alike intervened upon a white-male-dominated tradition, using their own words to celebrate those female voices which now live on only through their music — and their listeners.