Rhinegold Photo credit: © Carlos Lumiere
Christina McMaster

Christina McMaster

We must let women composers achieve their full potential

2:00, 22nd February 2017

A couple of years ago, I performed a concert including the Preludes by Ruth Crawford-Seeger. As I stood off stage I listened as the concert organiser introduced the programme. He explained with authority how music by women composers was seldom performed because ‘there were not enough good works written by them’. He had of course never heard the music I was about to play, yet amazingly had already formed an opinion.

Can we blame him for this old fashioned view? History has informed these opinions – preventing the promotion, access and even the existence of women’s music. But is it historical if comments like these prevail today and concert programmes still feature minimal women composers?

The fascinating story of American composer Ruth Crawford reveals a composer sometimes defying, sometimes falling victim to inequality of the early 20th century. As a young girl Crawford had a remarkable vision of the shape her life would take. She wrote this poem aged 13 years.

Fireside Fancies
When I sit by the side of the blazing fire
On a cold December night,
And gaze at the leaping and rollicking flames
As they cast their flickering light

I see what I would be in future years,
If my wishes and hopes came true,
And the flames form pictures of things that I dream,
Of the deeds that I hope to do.

One tall yellow flame darts above all the rest,
And I see myself famed and renowned,
A poetess I, and a novelist too,
Who is honoured the whole world around.

That flame then grows dim, which to me seems to say,
That my first hope must soon die away,
Then another one darts on a great opera stage,
The most exquisite music I play.

And then, after many flames rise, and die down,
The first burns even and slow,
And I see myself singing to children my own,
On the porch of a small bungalow.

Oh, I dream, and I dream, until slowly the fire
Burns lower, grows smaller, less bright,
Till the last tiny spark has completely gone out,
And my dreams are wrapt up in the night.

Crawford’s compositional journey began at a time when American composers were seeking an identity. Industrial growth from the 19th century onwards meant there was money to spend, however it wasn’t used to promote new American music but old European imports. Meanwhile a small band of modern pioneers began to ‘represent the forces of American life, to interpret them in a large way’ as observed by critic Charles Rosenfield. These included Crawford, Charles Ives and Henry Cowell. Crawford not only faced the challenge of creating modern American music for an adverse audience but also the difficulty of being accepted as woman in a circle of men.

During the 1920’s she studied at the American Conservatory of Music offering students a refreshing attitude towards female composers, regarding masculine and feminine qualities like yin and yang, both supporting each other without feeling that women lacked anything.

Motivation to learn from the past: Ruth Crawford Seeger in the mid 1940s

Crawford decided to dedicate herself to composition: ‘I shall create music as trees of sound and colour. Whose branches reach up in masses of power…’ Her distinctive sound developed through her use of dissonant counterpoint (influenced by Hindemith), distinctive use of tri-tones, extreme ranges of notes, unusual instrumentation and meticulous pedalling combining sostenuto and sustaining pedals together to offset an intriguing range of overtones.

She sought solitude to write (she lived with her mother) and was envious of male artists such as Thoreau who took himself off for months to be alone and at one with nature.

‘Beastly men, not satisfied with their own freedom, encroach on that kind of women and procure in them a kind of necessitous fear which binds them about,’ she wrote.

The murder of Marion Roberts in 1927, a talented pianist-composer studying in Paris, had a profound effect on Crawford. After a concert in Chicago, Roberts’ sister ran up to her and urgently pleaded Crawford to continue her work saying ‘You have a great talent, you must go ahead – I don’t mean you must not marry, you must not drop your work.’

She did marry – her teacher Charles Seeger 15 years her senior and a chauvinistic man. On one occasion at a discussion among American modern composers he refused his wife entry to their living room as it was ‘not approved’ despite her significant intellectual contributions to his work and others. As a consolation he said she could listen through the open door. When the meeting came, Seeger had firmly shut the door.

Then came children – they had four and she fully embraced the role of mother – composition taking second place. ‘I asked myself what the career was about anyway and why I write music. But then I went further and asked what the children are for anyway, just to grow up and have more children and so on ad libitum.’

Her children including folk singer Peggy Seeger became her apprentices in her new project of American folk song transcriptions. She transcribed not only American tunes, but African American, Cajun, Caribbean, and Anglo American amounting to over 300. Crawford Seeger’s work with folk songs was pioneering, connecting the essence of traditional music formerly passed down through oral tradition with modern music and urban citizens.

Soon afterwards in 1950 she received a letter from composer Edgard Varèse asking her which single work represented her most. She reflected on her musical voice and even saw a psychiatrist seeking out answers. She felt the old Ruth Crawford was by then a ghost. Over the years she was serving her husband and children she had hid letters from musicians and publishers looking for biographical data and copies of her music to perform.

She finally responded to Varèse and the unopened letters. A wave of post-war interest in modern music swept in, and her music began receiving more performances. In 1953 as she was finding her voice again she became sick with cancer. ‘It isn’t fair, I am just getting back to composing,’ she wrote. During her last year Charles Seeger supported her but all the time she could have spent writing was by then lost.

Crawford Seeger’s story leaves residual feelings of admiration and frustration, but also motivation to learn from the past. We can support each other; be an inspiring role model to young composers, seek out new music and historical works integrating them in interesting ways, make records of performances and scores available in conservatoires and libraries. Through programming a richer range of music we can welcome wider audiences benefitting performers, audiences and the arts industry.

Pianist Christina McMaster is performing on Thursday 2 March at 7.30pm St Johns Smith Square Music by Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Ives, Meredith Monk, Dowland and the premiere of Jamaican folk influenced work Playground by Ayanna Witter-Johnson


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