March is Women’s History Month! In honor and celebration of women past and present, Shelter Music Boston presented the Women Composers Project in March 2017. This artistic program brought the often unfamiliar work of women composers to our shelter audiences. One audience member wrote to us after hearing this program, “Thank you for performing the music of women. If no one tells our story, how can we be a part of history?”
Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (9 Dec 1745-18 May 1818) was the only musician to emerge from her family and she became famous entirely through her own efforts. She was born in Venice and in 1753 was admitted to the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, a school for orphans. Though she was not an orphan, her impoverished parents could no longer care for her and the school sought her musical talent. She was an outstanding violinist and in 1760 was allowed to go to Padua to study with Tartini, the most important violinist of the time. In 1766, after 13 years at the Ospedale, she wanted to leave. Tartini tried unsuccessfully to find her a husband; in the next year she married the violinist and composer Lodovico Sirmen. In 1768 the couple started a highly successful European tour, playing in Turin and Paris, where six of her string quartets were published in 1769. Two of these works will be performed on our concert. In January 1771, Lodovico was settled in Ravenna with their daughter and Maddalena was in London, advertised as ‘the celebrated Mrs Lombardini Sirmen’. She had two very successful seasons there as a violinist, playing in various concert series and at the theatres, then a third season as a singer. Following her time in London she played or sang in various Italian cities, in Paris, Dresden and as a principal singer at St Petersburg (1783). After 1785 she settled in Venice and Ravenna, where she spent the rest of her life. Sirmen's music was well-known and widely published in Paris, the Netherlands, Germany and London during her lifetime. One of her violin concertos was performed in Sweden in 1774, and Leopold Mozart wrote of ‘a beautifully written concerto by Sirmen’ in a letter to his wife and son Wolfgang.
Born into a military upper middle-class family in London, Ethel Mary Smyth (22 April 1858-8 May 1944) was educated at home and at a London boarding school. In 1877, despite her father's opposition to the idea of women studying music as a professional career, she entered the Leipzig Conservatory. In 1878 she left the school but remained in Leipzig, taking lessons and receiving encouragement for her musical ambitions from the most important musicians of the city and time: Brahms, Grieg, Joachim and Clara Schumann. Upon her return to England in the 1890’s, she found that the British musical establishment did not welcome an unconventional, German-educated female composer, and Smyth faced difficulties in obtaining public performances of her music. Her opera Der Wold, (The Forest) mounted in 1903, was until 2016 the only opera by a woman composer ever produced at New York's Metropolitan Opera. In 1911, when Smyth had attached herself to the suffragette cause she produced the anthem March of the Women. She was arrested in London in 1912, along with 100 other suffragettes, for throwing stones at the houses of suffrage opponents. While in Holloway prison, Smyth led the women in a rousing rendition of The March of Women, conducting them with her toothbrush, in what would become the most famous performance of the song. During World War I she worked as a radiologist in France, realized she was losing her hearing and after the war, turned her creative energy to writing memoirs and essays. This provided a source of income when hearing loss prevented her from composing. Later in life, she used her celebrity and campaigning abilities to fight for causes that included opportunities for British composers and women's right to play in mainstream professional orchestras. Smyth became a feminist icon. The piece performed on our concert was published in 1912, the year Smyth was arrested.
Germaine (Marcelle) Tailleferre (19 April 1892-7 Nov 1983) was the only female member of the important post-World War I group of French composers known as Les Six. She remained a prominent musician long after the disintegration of that group, during the middle and late 1920s. Tailleferre was born Marcelle Taillefesse to a family living in the outskirts of Paris. Despite having exposed her to music from an early age, Marcelle’s parents considered music to be an inappropriate activity for a young lady, and it was not until her twelfth year that she convinced them to allow her to pursue serious studies at the Paris Conservatoire. There she studied accompaniment, harmony, and counterpoint, eventually taking first prizes in each. Upon reaching adulthood, she changed her name to Germaine Tailleferre, partly to spite her father’s prohibition of her artistic pursuits. During the years following her graduation she received a few informal lessons in orchestration from Maurice Ravel, one of the most prominent French composers of the time. The work on our concert, written in 1919, emulates the musical style of Ravel, particularly in the second movement. Tailleferre had two unhappy marriages that proved a considerable drain on her creative energies. Her natural modesty and unjustified sense of artistic insecurity prevented her from promoting herself properly, and she regarded herself primarily as an artisan who wrote optimistic, accessible music as ‘a release’ from the difficulties of her private life. Even so, she left behind, at her death in 1983 at the age of 91, a large number of successful musical works and numerous film scores representing almost 70 years of active composition.
Florence Beatrice Price (9 April 1887-3 June 1953) was born to Florence Gulliver and James H. Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas, one of three children in a mixed-race family. Despite racial issues of the era, her family was well respected within their community. Her father was a dentist and her mother was a music teacher who guided Florence's early musical training. By the time she was 14, Price was enrolled in Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, with a major in piano and organ. Initially, she pretended to be Mexican to avoid the stigma people had towards African Americans at the time. She graduated in 1906 with honors. In 1912, she married Thomas J. Price, an attorney, and moved back to Little Rock. After a series of racial incidents in Little Rock, particularly a lynching that took place in 1927, the family moved to Chicago, where Price began a new and fulfilling period in her compositional career. Financial struggles led to a divorce in 1931, and Florence became a single mother to her two daughters. To make ends meet, she worked as an organist for silent film screenings and composed songs for radio ads under a pen name. During this time, Price lived with friends and eventually moved in with her student and friend, Margaret Bonds, also a black pianist and composer. This friendship connected Price with writer Langston Hughes and contralto Marian Anderson, both prominent figures in the art world who aided in Price's future success as a composer. Though her training was steeped in European tradition, her melodies were often blues-inspired. Her compositions reveal her Southern roots and, at the urging of her Boston mentor George Whitefield Chadwick, she incorporated elements of African-American spirituals. Her music was widely performed during her life but her output, comprising of over 300 compositions, remains largely unpublished. The critical edition of the work on our concert was compiled by Anthony R. Green.