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Selwyn College Choir will perform pieces from all three volumes during the launch Evensong in November

Harriet Clifford

Louder than words

9:52, 31st October 2019

In November, Selwyn College Choir will help launch a new sacred music anthology. The curator, Louise Stewart, speaks to Harriet Clifford about her social justice project and what it means for the future of church music.

The invisibility of one half of the population within sacred music has gone relatively unnoticed, until now. Within the next year, a new sacred music anthology will be on our bookshelves. Like any other good collection, it will include pieces from historical, established and emerging composers, in a range of difficulties, accessible to all choirs which sing church music. However, this anthology, in its three separate volumes, will be the first of its kind: every piece of music will have been composed by a woman.

On International Women’s Day three years ago, Louise Stewart and Olivia Sparkhall envisioned producing a church service written, led and composed entirely by women. However, this endeavour proved almost impossible through lack of existing resources, so they decided to create the kind of material they had been hoping to find.

Dame Judith Weir with curator Louise Stewart (image credit: Andrew Stewart)

Stewart grew up as a chorister in her parish choir, before reading music at Exeter University. During these three years, she did not study a single piece of music by a female composer, although at the time found this entirely ‘unsurprising’. She then went on to train in primary education, and worked with the first girl choristers in Salisbury Cathedral School. Since then, she has remained in music education and the church, and has engaged in social justice work within her community. Her passion for this evolved alongside her community interest company, Multitude of Voyces, the aim of which is ‘to support those who are under-represented, marginalised and vulnerable … through church music.’

Stewart’s collaborator on the project, Olivia Sparkhall (image credit: Ash Mills)

While researching music for their service, Stewart was confronted with the invisibility of women in the church music world: ‘There are many women composers of church music, but they are less easy to find, because they don’t yet appear on the shelf.’ Stewart and Sparkhall were driven by the realisation that women were ‘grossly under-represented’, as was the future for the girl choristers they have worked with. Having moved to Salisbury 25 years ago to work in a groundbreaking environment, Stewart has become increasingly aware that for these singers today ‘the church music they come across does not reflect the roles that they, as middle-aged women, have in their society.’ Sparkhall has acknowledged the stark reality that in her local cathedral, the cathedral choirs have not sung anything composed by a woman in the last five years.

The Anthology of Sacred Music by Women Composers aims to celebrate women’s gifts of composition and fulfil the need for women to see themselves reflected in church music, while at the same time ‘setting people up as role models’ for younger generations. The youngest featured composer is Joanna Ward, a 21-year-old Cambridge graduate, who, thanks to an alphabetised content, will be beside Judith Weir in the anthology. Stewart believes this is one of the benefits of creating a hard-copy, as people will discover new music simply as a result of being exposed to work on the adjacent page: ‘She might be the next Judith Weir, and now she might have a better chance.’

The anthology’s cover art, designed by Caroline Grint

Ward believes strongly in the powerful impact of the anthology: ‘Projects that let women work together for each other will ultimately be what allows us to break away from the current model of composing success, which ultimately keeps individualised women composers as a novelty among the male norm of composing, silencing the rest of us.’ It is this silencing that Multitude of Voyces are working hard to undo, while also acknowledging that it is not the case that female composers cannot speak for themselves. Rather, they intend to produce something that is ‘greater than all its parts’.

The full interview features in the Choir & Organ November issue. Subscribe today to receive your copy. 

Visit multitudeofvoyces.co.uk and follow @MulofVoy on Twitter.

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