Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Programming: Part I

Interpreting and communicating the role of women in music.

PART I: Feminea Sacra

An overview of the ideas behind my recital program (the first half).

I have previously mentioned how broad and complex the idea of "women in music" can be. As I have said, music "by women, for women, and about women" is a concept that can take a lifetime to really fully explore and realize in musical performance. To further complicate things, I am also on a mission to represent a fairly complete history and chronology of this concept (i.e. representing to the best of my ability examples from every era) starting with Hildegard von Bingen and ending with music by present day women I have come into contact with and know personally. This has been a complex task, but, slowly and painstakingly, with much love and excitement for each effort and resulting discovery, I have pieced together a program that is not only representative of women composers, but of women IN music (as themes and composers, as subjects and reasons for compositions) throughout the history of what we know as Western music.

The first half of my concert deals with the sacred and holy women in music. Early music and the sacred go hand in hand, since the Church was most often the source (and in many cases the exclusion) of education and kept most of the earliest records we know in manuscript form (handwritten on parchment). This means the earliest written record of music we have is sacred in nature. Of course, I mentioned previously my affinity for Hildegard von Bingen (and I will still write a future post discussing her more in depth). Many of my fellow graduate students will recall my excitement over her and my overly-long presentation about her Ordo Virtutum. I wanted to begin the program with something from that work itself, but this is difficult for two reasons. 1) Most of this medieval liturgical music drama is dialogue-like in nature, brief phrases back and forth between characters. It is difficult to take these out of context and put them in a sand-alone solo form. 2) Anything that is long enough and could possibly pass as an individual piece if taken out of the context of the whole is in the low alto and middle mezz0 range, making it impractical for a soprano graduate recital. Therefore, I took my cue from a recording of the Ordo Virtutum by Sequentia, who used songs outside the formal score of the music drama as "interludes" (sort of like the "insertion arias" used in operas during the Classical era - arias taken from other operas to give the diva more solos with which to show off). The song that most captivated me on the album, used in this "interlude" moment, was "O quam mirabilis." It speaks of the creation of mankind, using the Ordo Virtutum as a context, about a Soul (feminine in form and Latin case) who is contested for by the Divine Virtues (also women) and the Devil (the only male role in the play, who in Hildegard's theology does not sing because he is unable to attain the sublime and beautiful as a base, earthly, and sinful creature). Therefore, the text of this song, celebrating God's creation, can be in reference to the Soul (feminine), as well as the "beginning," creation, and formation of the recital. My plan is to sing this piece from offstage, as the mysterious "informing breath," a "voice of creation" in iteself.

Following my Hildegard set (which will also include songs dealing with St. Ursula, who will be discussed later), I partially dealt with a large gap in the timeline by programming simple but lovely devotional songs to and about Mary the Mother of God. Of course, this is also a huge field. I started with the female troubadours (or the trobairitz, as they are also known), discovering a marvelous little piece by Blanche de Castille, but this only covered the century immediately following Hildegard. Gradually, I discovered Codices - collections of music written for devotional purposes, found in places where Marian devotion was at a fever pitch in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Llibre Vermeil was a collection of songs gathered over the course of the 14th century, encompassing many different styles, completed in 1399 for the pilgrims who visited the famous shrine/church/monastery of the "Blessed Virgin of Montserrat," home of a miraculous Black Madonna. Amidst the excitement over this find came another even more significant to the connection of my themes: the Codex Las Huelgas de Burgos, which was a collection of the music sung by the nuns in a Cictercian convent of that name in an area of what is now known as Spain. This Codex was very large, again encompassing several genres and styles, representing the liturgical traditions of a large and wealthy community (who were favored by the royal family).

This last Codex links to an important initial inspiration for my graduate recital theme and subject matter, which was that of the nuns of Siena. A Doctor of Musicology, a Professor of Music and Associate Dean in the School of the Arts at UCI, Colleen Reardon caught my attention when I first considered my application to the University for my Master's Degree. Her work in the archives of Siena documenting the lives and musical traditions of the convents there is very impressive, documented most significantly in the scholarly work, "Holy Concord within Sacred Walls: Nuns and Music in Siena, 1575-1700." When I was thinking about my project in late May and early June, I wondered if she could suggest something I could use in my recital. Upon inquiry, I discovered she had just edited two motets for soprano by Alessandro Della Ciaia. In 1650, he had written an entire collection of music specifically for the nuns of Siena, who (like many communities of religious women) had a rich and virtuosic musical tradition, richly steeped in the rites and liturgical rituals of their orders. These serve as a centerpiece for the first half of my recital.

Closing the first half is a set of pieces devoted specifically to Mary Magdalene, for whom I also have a special love, respect, admiration, and devotion. This can be the subject of another entire blog. Suffice it to say that I have discovered several instances where the Magdalene alone has been a principle subject of composition throughout the history of music, but it took some digging in older sacred music collections and pieces that no one has heard of today, but that were known (and written) even as late as the beginning of the 20th century, and somehow disappeared from the repertory. I hope to present some of them to an audience, although this itself could also be the subject of an entire recital, if I really investigated into the history of music. (Case in point: a collection of purely Medieval music dedicated to Mary Magdalene was produced by the group Joglaresa in the recording, "Magdalena: Medieval Songs for Mary Madgdalen.")

As you can see, there is no end to the discoveries to be made in this field. Stay tuned for more on what I have discovered for my recital. Part II (dealing with my second half) and lots of details yet to unfold for the Soul of a Soprano.

Copyright © 2008. All textual materials are the sole property of Lorraine Joy Welling and may not be reproduced, copied, or used in any way without permission.

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