Focus on women: Soli Deo Gloria concert includes works by the fascinating Clara Schumann, and much more
Soli Deo Gloria’s spring concert (7:30 p.m. Friday, April 28, at University Presbyterian Church) includes an eclectic program. Artistic director Julie Carter, who leads the women’s ensemble, puts a lot of thought into those programs. I enjoyed talking with her about some of the concert highlights.
Q: You are performing several pieces by women composers. Why is that important to you?
A: I love good music by any composer, male or female. However, there is such a dearth of music written for women by women (especially prior to the 20th century). So when I find music in those eras, I leap at it. Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn are a few excellent examples. I think female composers can give new depth and a broader palette of texts, vocal sounds, and styles to women’s choral music. Side note – I dearly wish Mozart had written fugues and double fugues for treble voices! Or Bach write a great motet for women’s choir. More SSAA music! Hildegard von Bingen was a stand-out and I’ll talk about her in question 7. However, even today many female composers write more for SATB than for SSAA. A great amount of music is composed for SA and SSA (great for use in school settings) but not as much advanced women’s choir music.
Q: Tell us about Clara Schumann. You’ll be performing seven of her lieder. What exactly is that?
A: A lied is a lyrical poem of several stanzas with a folk or folksong like quality, intended to be sung, with a melody that is repeated for each stanza and able to be sung by the average singer with or without training. The principal center for Lied composition was Berlin and then later Vienna as well. Lieder is the plural form of the word. Became popular in the late 18th century and generally was a solo accompanied by piano. Several composers arranged them for choirs.
Q: Clara was married to Robert Schumann, of course. Society discouraged female composers and few could publish their music then. What do you think it was like for Clara to be stymied in that way?
A: Clara Schumann lived in Germany in the 19th century. She married another composer, Robert Schumann, and together they had eight children. During her life she was a virtuoso pianist and toured around Europe. She taught piano, wrote piano music, lieder, part-songs, and was an important musical figure in society. She was the first to play full concerts from memory and founded the traditions of the piano concert as we know it.
Yet until recently she was known as Mrs. Robert Schumann! It’s pretty amazing that 200 years ago Clara could have a career as a concert pianist while at the same time have a large family and care for her husband as he suffered with mental illness. All in a society that didn’t approve of female composers and believed a woman’s place was in the home.
Robert’s songs were published yet many of hers were not. Two hundred years later, her music continues to be discovered and made available. (For which I’m very grateful!) Apparently after Robert entered a mental asylum and died two years later, she composed little.
She later wrote: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”
I think this is a sad reflection and so disappointing for such a talented composer.
So, she was incredibly gifted but the norms of society pinned her wings!
Q: I’m intrigued with the theme “Voices of the Universe.” That’s a pretty broad topic! What do you think Walt Whitman was saying in that poem? You sing a song by that title by Nicholas Ryan Kelly for women’s choir. How eclectic does the composer get?
A: I did a little research on Walt Whitman and his poetry. Nature, unity, music and the soul are major themes in much of his poetry. He was also very fond of opera. In this poem, nature and music are highlighted. As the choir studied the text, we felt that he was trying to say: “I want all the sounds and voices of the universe. Give me all of it from water, wind, opera, chant, marches, dances….. i.e. everything!” There is a passion in the poem to experience all the sounds possible and a yearning to experience the vast abundance and wild diversity of the natural world. Nicholas Ryan Kelly sets the poem very powerfully. His music beautifully reflects the power, the passion, and the intensity of the poem! For many of us, we love music in many of its forms so its a good fit for us!
The music choices fit well with the theme Voices of the Universe in that there is great variety of genre, language, style: text by 12th century’s Hildegard Von Bingen, music of Bach and Clara Schumann, Ave Maria/Nunc Dimittis/Crucifixus ancient texts set by modern composers, a spiritual, and new compositions of the 21st century. Nine hundred years of choral music!
Q: I should ask you a question about Soli Deo Gloria in general, because some people aren’t familiar with its structure. How do composers take a piece set for mixed voices (men and women) and translate that to a treble choir?
A: It can’t always be done. The bass line is typically quite low so you have to invert the parts and bring that line up higher. Some songs lend themselves to this quite well. For others, not so much. Sometimes you can raise the key but you must be careful how high the sopranos must sing! A conductor has to choose these kinds of pieces carefully for those reasons. I’m not a purist who says that treble choirs can only sing music written specifically for those voices. I have found many works originally for SATB mixed voices that have been beautifully adapted for SSAA. A good example of that is Mozart’s Mass in C (“Sparrow Mass”) that we performed last year. Barenreiter publishers created an outstanding version for SSAA. I wish they would do more adaptations for SSAA!
Q: One of your favorite pieces in the program, it sounds like, is by American composer Frank La Rocca. He created a stellar arrangement of “Nunc Dimittis” that you think is gorgeous. Describe it for us.
A: It’s set for SSAA divisi so sometimes it has eight parts. It’s full of close, beautiful harmonies which SDG does so well. It’s a cappella, which allows the voices to be laid bare, so to speak, and the close harmonies to shine. The beginning and end have a lovely soprano solo soaring over the choir. La Rocca beautifully sets the drama of the text and the piece has such a wide variety of dynamics. He also uses some canon (imitation) to express “all peoples.” People really don’t want to miss hearing this piece!
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Q: If there were such a thing as a candidate for the Hildegard Von Bingen International Fan Club, I’d nominate you. What can you tell us about this 12th century muse, saint and musician? How many of her pieces have you performed recently, and why?
A: She was an awesome woman in an age where women stayed in the home or convent and were unseen, basically! She was a 12th C mystic, musician, nun, writer, philospher, doctor… she was a modern woman way back then!!!
For her music or poetry to be heard today, almost 900 years later, is quite an accomplishment! In “Caritas Abundat” we have her poem which describes the power, the life-giving creativity, and the grace (unmerited favor) that God lavishes on the world – and on us. Though written 900 years ago, the words are inspiring and relevant as if they were just spoken. Several years ago we did one of her chants, “O Viridissima Virga,” written in the Medieval chant style she lived during. We’ve also performed songs which used her poetry: “Caritas Abundat” this concert, and Ave Generosa by Ola Gjeilo at Christmas.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say about the concert?
A: We have such a talented group of singers, and I’m extremely excited to present this concert. It’s been such a joy to work with them this year! Come at 7 p.m. for my pre-concert talk if you wish to learn more about the music. I do this so people might enjoy the concert more, knowing a little more about the music/composers. A reception of desserts and refreshments hosted by the Soli Deo Gloria Board members will be held after the concert. We would love to meet and greet each member of our audience!
Robert Steven Schumann
Proud of you, Great Great Grandmother, Clara. ♥️