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18 minutes reading time (3685 words)

Winter 2021: Becoming Weavers: Piano Students and Their Commissioned Arrangements of Music by Under-Represented Women Composers


Weave: The Social Fabric Project is an Aspen Institute initiative that seeks to celebrate people who work to heal divisions in our society. David Brooks, the director of Weave, describes the movement: 

"Weavers are repairing our country's social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives."1

When interviewing young prospective piano students and their families prior to starting lessons, I ask what kind of piano music they would like to learn and what pieces or composers they might have heard about. Most students shrug their shoulders for a moment and, if they are young, they might name Elsa, the main character from the popular movie Frozen. They might mention that they want to learn to play "Happy Birthday" for a family celebration that is coming up. Many beginning students still demonstrate that they can play "Chopsticks," a piece that never goes out of style. With a little prodding, a student will often name Beethoven.

The Boulanger Initiative2 recently took to the streets to ask people a similar question: "How many classical composers of music can you name?" Nearly every adult they interviewed could name Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann—as in Robert, Mendelssohn—as in Felix, Mahler—as in Gustav. However, when these same folks were asked to name a female composer, not a single person could give an answer. How are our students ever going to be able to ask about the work of female classical composers, which according to dictionaries of professional women composers number over 1,000 before 1900, if most people can't name a single one?3 Even those of us in music education would be hard-pressed to come up with more than a handful of names. The reasons are systemic.

For example, my students and I started a yearlong investigation of women composers in my studio last year. I was sharing a newly published anthology of contemporary piano pieces with high school student Mia Yim, when both of us suddenly grasped that not a single female composer was included. This realization set off the proverbial light bulb: in all of our books of simplified and arranged classical melodies for young students, books that are so important for our students as they begin to appreciate the wealth and depth that music has to offer, hardly a single female composer is represented. And yet, the very first tidbits of music that beginning students often bring to their lessons —a theme from the movie Frozen, "Happy Birthday," and "Chopsticks"—were all written, at least in part, by women.

My piano studio is a community project-based studio. Every year I organize our study of music around a theme that guides our choice of compositions to study, what music theory to explore, and which avenue of music history to take. This sets up an annual fundraising initiative where students raise money by practicing for a sponsor at three cents a minute over a period of six weeks. Last year, it was clear that we needed to study the history of women composers before 1950. I wanted students to discover for themselves this absence of women in our elementary level repertoire books. So, I set up a workshop during a weekend that included students, parents, and supporters of the studio's sponsorship program. It was a kind of "school science fair," except it was all about looking for and learning about the absence of women composers in our studies. Working from a list of possible topics, two sisters in our studio set up a station to share information about Patty and Mildred Hill, the composers of "Good Morning to All," the song that eventually became known as "Happy Birthday."4 One of the youngest students chose to look up "Chopsticks" and its composer Euphemia Allen. As part of their presentation, they made a five-minute video, displayed on their iPad, for visitors to learn about Euphemia Allen and where the name "Chopsticks" came from. The student even passed out real chopsticks and also copies of the classic "Chopsticks" arrangement that students and parents still love, because the duet is so easy to learn and play. Everyone in our studio now knows about Euphemia Amelia Nightingale Allen (1861–1948) who composed "The Celebrated Chop-Waltz" when she was sixteen years old.5 Mozart Allen, Amelia's brother, suggested she use the male pseudonym Arthur de Lulli for the 1877 publication of the song by his company.

To allow students to show their parents the lack of women's pieces in our piano books, we displayed dictionaries of women composers, first books of classical themes, and anthologies of classical music. We extended our search to other genres: one student and his father (boys were as equally excited to participate in this workshop as girls) looked at the statistics demonstrating the lack of women represented in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.6 One student familiarized himself with the music of Clara Schumann. He had his iPhone ready with uploaded YouTube videos of her music to share with visitors. He also set out all of our composer statuettes that we hand out at the end of each piano year, to show Clara Schumann is the only woman composer available to order in these collections of twenty- six composer busts. Another student discovered how few composers who worked for Disney were women: she found only Peggy Lee, who composed the music for Lady and the Tramp, and the team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez who composed the music for Frozen. Our workshop was held in early November 2019, just as we were starting music for the December holidays. One student searched for women composers among my collection of holiday music. He found two pieces: Katherine Kennicott Davis' 1941 "Carol of the Drum," otherwise known as "The Little Drummer Boy,"7 and "Do You Hear What I Hear" composed by Gloria Shayne Baker in 1962.8 Both women suffered from lack of recognition and loss of royalty payments during their lifetime.

There are very few pieces by women composers before 1950 that young students can play as originally written. But there are a few gems, even though they are unseen among all the compositions by men. Pieces by T. Salustrinskaya are included in a number of leveled classical compositions in original form.9 In particular is "Shepherd Pipes," a delightful piece that I never tire of sharing with students. It is one of only a handful of known compositions by Russian composer Tat'iana Salustrinskaya.10

Women often used first initials—if they didn't use a complete pseudonym—in order to obscure their gender in a male-dominated music publishing world. Although in Salustrinskaya's case, her full first name is just about all we know of her.11 A situation where a first initial with last name again obfuscates the names of women composers appears in the case of Blanche Ray Alden (1870–1934). Her piece "Christmas Day Secrets" in Suzuki Piano Book 1
is the only piece published by a woman composer in the five Suzuki books for piano. But one would hardly know, because Alden used the pseudonym Theodora Dutton, and then publishers blurred this name even further as T. Dutton. 12 Mélanie Bonis' works are still mostly unpublished except for appearing in IMSLP. We may
not even be aware that "The Sewing Machine," published in The Piano Odyssey, Celebration Series, Repertoire Book 1, is by Mélanie Bonis because she chose to go by the ambiguously gendered pseudonym Mel Bonis.13 Black composer Florence Price, who wrote popular music early in her career under the name Vee Jay,14 wrote not only beginning piano materials, available from Classical Vocal Reprints, but also wonderful character pieces for early- intermediate students. However, we have to download most of her character pieces from IMSLP as well.15 A mazurka by Maria Szymanowska (1789–1831) is included in Denis Agay's The Joy of First Classics, 1987, and simplified slightly more in Progressive Piano Repertoire, edited by Keith Snell for Kjos in 2020.

Women composers before 1950 wrote mature piano pieces, chamber music, symphonies, art songs, nocturnes, concertos, sacred music, suites of pieces for harpsichord, and beautifully complicated romantic-style solo concert works. Many women wrote "Albums for the Young," as did Robert Schumann, Cornelius Gurlitt, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Stephen Heller, and Friedrich Burgmüller—to name only a few of these compilations that make up suggested repertoire for developing pianists. But we are mostly unaware of similar collections of music written by women and devoted to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century fascination with childhood,16 such as Cécile Chaminade's "Album for the Young," Amy Beach's "Children's Album," and Mélanie Bonis' "Album pour les touts-petits."17 However, with the exception of Bonis's "Album for the Very Young," these pieces are a level five.

Clearly there is a need for melodic arrangements for beginning piano students of advanced pieces by women composers, so that they can learn that women before 1950 were also active in writing music! No one needs to count the number of times that arrangements of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," Mozart's "A Little Night Music," Grieg's "Morning Mood from Peer Gynt," and Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony appear in beginning classical melodic collections. With this realization, our studio set out to fill in this gap by raising money to commission composition majors at Boston's Berklee College of Music to create arrangements for young students. I contacted Professor of Composition Dr. Eleanor Aversa and, with her department's support and multiple recommendations from other faculty, we created a contractual arrangement with Eleanor, college junior Cameron Smith, and senior Marc Yu to create nine arrangements. It was these college students' first official commissions! Our project became multifaceted; not only were we going to start to fill in this gap in primary student repertoire, but we were giving my students an opportunity to become a patron of new music and also, creating an opportunity for young composers to work on commission while they themselves learned about women who composed so early in history.

We agreed on $100.00 per arrangement. I selected the pieces to represent different periods of music, varieties of instrumentation, and a mixture of genres. I wanted students to recognize that women often composed on a grand scale: symphonies, chamber music, concertos, and choral works. And always, while exploring this stunning music, I had to keep in mind that we were often aiming for thematic material that could be realized in a five-finger position with very little hand movement. In addition, the melodic themes needed to be "ear worms,"18 transposed to C major or A minor, have an accompaniment reducible to simple chords, and with minimal use of accidentals. It was a process for all of us. We had to clearly define what is meant by early- level music. And, we had difficult decisions to make: how do we represent the loose, flowing, and irregular meter of Gregorian chant when we worked with Hildegard von Bingen's antiphonal psalm "O Frondens Virga"? I was tempted not to use a meter signature, but Marc Yu was able to capture a sense of undulating rhythm in 4/4 meter with the occasional tied suspension across measures. We had a similar discussion when arranging a rag by Adeline Shephard. We did ultimately switch out of 2/4 meter, A-flat major, and sixteenth-note syncopation in favor of 4/4 meter, C major, and the occasional tied-eighth note. I really wanted to include a concerto by Amy Beach, but how could I find that one melodic phrase that would become a memorable ear worm when her Concerto in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 45, moves in daring harmonics that never stay in any one place for very long? And I truly wanted to represent a relatively unknown choral work by Florence Price titled Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight. Our students would certainly relate to this title and the fervently pleading text by American poet Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931). So, our composers ended up generously contributing multiple levels of each piece—as they worked to achieve simpler, more straightforward melodies, yet still manage to reveal the beauty or humor of a theme. I called this process of starting with the original manuscript and winnowing down by levels a version of Schenkerian analysis. Yet Marc and Cameron both saw this process as not that different from creating lead sheets.

Just as the studio was getting ready to start the practice challenge to raise money for these commissions, the pandemic hit. We moved to online lessons right away, but the economic impact of the Massachusetts' stay-at-home order was immediate. Usually, my students earn between twenty to thirty dollars in practice minutes counted over a six-week period. And, I do arrange for extra sponsors who are delighted to help a scholar student contribute to these fundraisers if their family cannot afford to do so. But our composers were already turning in their arrangements and I was not confident that we would be able to make our match. It was shocking to learn just how much our studio families valued this project. We raised $1,300.00 and we will be able to commission four more arrangements.

Our arrangements are now available to download from Sheet Music Plus as individual sheet pieces. Look soon for this collection to be presented in the SuperScore music app as a complete online book. Money raised from sheet music sales will in part be funneled back into our Women's Historic Composer Project for the Developing Pianist, so that students can continue to be weavers, by putting inclusion and relationship-building at the forefront of their musical endeavors.

CAMERON SMITH is a composer and concert pianist studying at Berklee College of Music. A pianist for fifteen years, she has performed and competed in venues throughout the United States and enjoys accompanying other instrumentalists. Her training as a composer is more recent and has been her focus at Berklee. She has especially enjoyed collaborating with other musicians, scoring short films and videos, and has had several of her orchestral, choral, and solo works performed. Cameron is double-majoring in Film Scoring and Music Composition and is pursuing a minor in contemporary conducting.

MARC YU is from Los Angeles and San Francisco, and has performed worldwide and on television as a concert pianist. He currently studies film scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston. From Rachmaninoff to Zimmer, Mozart to Giacchino, his inspirations influence his musical styles and compositions for soloists, ensembles, and orchestra. Beyond his experience as a pianist, arranger, and composer, Marc is also an avid binger of film and television and occasionally enjoys cooking and composing video game music.

ELEANOR AVERSA writes music about things serious, humorous, or thought-provoking. Her work has been performed in twenty cities in the United States and abroad. Honors include the Northridge Composition Prize, the Brian M. Israel Prize, and a MacDowell Fellowship. She has been commissioned by the American Composers Forum, San Francisco Choral Artists, and Amuse Singers. Other performers include the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco, clarinetist Jean Kopperud, the Momenta Quartet, the Rawlins Trio, and the CSUN Symphony. She is an Assistant Professor of Composition at the Berklee College of Music.

1. aspeninstitute.org/programs/weave-the-social-fabric-initiative/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CThe%20Weaver%20movement%20is%20repairing,isolation%20and%20weave%20inclusive%20communities.

2. "Celebrating, Performing, and Supporting Music Composed by Womxn," The Boulanger Initiative, accessed September 13, 2020, boulangerinitiative.org/ boulanger-initiative. See also: "Can you name a woman composer?," Boulanger Initiative, May 18, 2020, video, youtube.com/watch?v=S8pMLIWBM7s.

3. The following list of dictionaries and compendiums of women composers was compiled by Dr. Lynn Worcester Jones, Sue Ruby, NCTM, Penny Lazarus, NCTM, and Sally Ritchie on "Myths, Magic and Mysteries of Women Composers" for Michelle Sisler's Keys to Imagination webinar series:

  • Anya Lawrence, Women of Notes: 1,000 Women Composers Born Before 1900 (New York: Richards Rosen Press, Inc., 1978).
  • Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel, eds. The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1995).
  • Pamela Youngdahl Dees, A Guide to Piano Music by Women Composers, Volume I: Composers Born Before 1900 (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2002).
  • Pamela Youngdahl Dees, A Guide to Piano Music by Women Composers, Volume II: Composers Born After 1900 (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2002).
  • Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music (London: Oneworld Publications, 2016).Karen Dunn and Roberta Walker, An Introduction to Women Composers (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2017).
  • Jennifer Boster, Shades of Sound: Women Composers: A Listening & Coloring Book for Pianists (Ogden, UT: The Playful Piano, 2020).

4. The song "Happy Birthday" is considered to be the most recognized song in the English language. It is most often thought to be based on the song "Good Morning to You," attributed to sisters Patty and Mildred Hill, who, as schoolteachers, used this to greet their students in the 1890s. As Agnes Snyder cites in Dauntless Women in Childhood Education, 1856–1931 (Washington, D. C.: Association for Childhood Education International, 1972, p. 244) the song "Good Morning to You" was originally published in Song Stories for the Kindergarten (Chicago: Clayton F. Summy Co.,1896). Yet,some historians claim that the melody of "Good Morning to You" predates the sisters' use. This charge came about when arrangers of "Happy Birthday" researched the royalty claims by Warner-Chappell Music that they owned a valid copyright. For a summary of this discussion see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Birthday_to_You and "Lawsuit Filed To Prove Happy Birthday Is In The Public Domain; Demands Warner Pay Back Millions Of License Fees," techdirt.com/articles/20130613/11165823451/filmmaker-finally-aims-to- get-court-to-admit-that-happy-birthday-is-public-domain.shtml. Yet, Happy Birthday is still most often attributed to Patty and Mildred Hill.

5. Instructions on the original piece said: "Play both hands turned sideways, little fingers lowest, so that the movement of the hands imitates the chopping from which this waltz gets its name." Allen was trying to make the hands as if they were cleavers cutting a chop. When people stopped recognizing this kitchen technique, the public renamed the piece "chopsticks." (See: classicfm.com/discover-music/instruments/piano/histo- ry-of-chopsticks-music-euphemia-allen/ and rnz.co.nz/concert/programmes/upbeat/ audio/2018658204/the-history-of-musical-chopsticks-and-its-many-variations.)

6. See: David Barnett, "Women Make Up Less Than 8% Of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees," npr.org, accessed September 13, 2020, npr.org/2020/01/14/796012607/ women-make-up-less-than-8-of-rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame-inductees#:~:tex- t=%22Rock%20and%20Roll%20Hall%20of,The%20crowd%20cheered.&text=Mc-Donnell%20discovered%20that%2C%20over%20the,%E2%80%94%20or%20 less%20than%208%25 and Ann Powers, "41 Women Who Should Be In The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame," npr.org, accessed September 13, 2020, npr.org/2020/01/15/796717978/41-women-who-should-be-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame.

7. Katherine Davis wrote over 600 songs and, as was common practice for women composers well into the twentieth century, used several pseudonyms including the name John Crowley. But in 1958 bandleader Harry Simeone re-titled the song "The Little Drummer Boy" and, along with conductor Henry Onorati, claimed and, received royalties as if they originally wrote the song. These names continue to appear with Katherine Davis, who wrote the piece in 1942, as the original composer of the song (historybecauseitshere.weebly.com/katherine-davis-the-little-drummer-boy.html).

8. "Do You Hear What I Hear" was written in 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis of John F. Kennedy's presidency. Baker grew up next door to the Kennedys and, in a switch with husband Noël Regney, Baker wrote the music for this song while he wrote the lyrics (nytimes.com/2002/12/01/nyregion/noel-regney-songwriter-known-for- do-you-hear-what-i-hear-is-dead-at-80.html).

9. "The Cuckoo" in Guild Repertoire, C and D, and the sonatina in Guild Repertoire, Intermediate A (Summy-Birchard, 1960) are listed only as T. Salustrinskaya.

10. See First Steps in Keyboard Literature: The Easiest Classics to Moderns in Original Forms, edited by Lynn Freeman Olson (Alfred, 1988) and Everybody's Perfect Masterpieces, A Collection of Exciting Recital Repertoire for Early Levels of Piano Performance (Alfred, 1989).

11. Other than her birthdate (1915) birthplace (Tambov, in central Russia), and where she studied composition (The Tchaikovsky Conservatory) little else is known (musopus.net/musicians/salutrinskaya-tatiana/).

12. We know very little about Blanche Ray Alden's oeuvre. The full name Theodora Dutton appears on her compositions in a music book for silent movies by Ernö Rapée in 1924. But by the time her name appears in Suzuki Piano School, Volume 1, composers' names were shortened inexplicably to first initial and last name, further obscuring the connection between Blanche Ray Alden and T. Dutton.

13. Sadie and Samuel, The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, 74.

14. Freya Parr, "A guide to Florence Price," Classical Music, BBC Music Magazine, October 3, 2019, classical-music.com/features/composers/guide-florence-price/.

15. Lia Jensen Abbott, ed., A Collection of Florence Price's Piano Teaching Music, Volumes 1 and 2 (Fayetteville, AR: Classical Vocal Reprints, 2016). See also: Leah N. Claiborne, "Hidden Figures," The Piano Magazine 11, no. 3 (Summer 2019): 32–34. The character piece "Ticklin' Toes" is published in Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora, compiled by William H. Chapman Nyaho, Volume 1, Oxford Press, 2007.

16. The Victorian period fostered a fascination with the lives of children, who often did not live to adulthood. Children's mortality rates were generally 149 deaths per 1,000 live births (pbs.org/fmc/timeline/dmortality.htm). See also: Lora Deahl, "Robert Schumann's Album for the Young and the Coming of Age of Nineteenth-Century Piano Pedagogy," College Music Symposium 41 (October 1, 2001): symposium.music.org/index. php/41/item/2177-robert-schumanns-album-for-the-young-and-the-coming-of-age-of- nineteenth-century-piano-pedagogy.

17. I am very grateful to colleague Sue Ruby, NCTM for introducing me to the amazing and prolific work of Mel Bonis. For a listing of levels for her and other women composers see the 2020 MTNA Annual Meeting video recorded session by Camille Jensen-Weber with downloadable spreadsheet "Mothers of Music: Piano Works by Female Composers for Elementary to Early Intermediate Students, 1650–1925" (mtna.org/Virtual/Sessions/ Mothers_of_Music.aspx).

18. An ear worm is a melodic pattern that is easily remembered and memorized because of its simplicity and unexpected "hook" (merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/ earworm-meaning-origin).

19. Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight was edited by Michael Driscoll in 2018 for the 2019 premiere performance by the Andover Choral Society (MA). This work was one of several compositions recently discovered in a box in an attic of an abandoned Illinois home in 2009 (baystatebanner.com/bsb-event/abraham-lincoln-walks-at-midnight-by- florence-price).

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