When we recall the names of the world’s greatest composers, it is generally the male names that come to mind — Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms.
But what of the women? Are they less represented in the history of classical music because they were less creative and talented, or because it was simply impossible for female composers to be taken seriously in a man’s world during the 18th and 19th centuries?
“Before the 1900s, we had Clara Schumann, wife of Robert, and Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s sister, but most female composers came from families where they had a close sibling or husband as a composer,” said Marya Martin when asked this very question. “They were both pianists in their own right and they wrote and did phenomenal work. Robert gave Clara’s work to a publisher.
“But I bet there were a lot more we didn’t know about.”
Ms. Martin, is a flutist and the founder of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival (BCMF). For the next several weeks, she is bringing the work of many female composers, including several contemporary voices, to the East End as part of “Winds of Change,” the 36thannual season of the BCMF which will present 12 concerts from July 21 to August 18.
Most of the concerts will be held at the BCMF’s home performing space at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, but during the three week festival, there will also be concerts at Channing Daughter’s Vineyard and the Parrish Art Museum.
While wind instruments are well represented in the pieces that will be offered in the “Winds of Change,” including all of Mozart’s chamber works for wind instruments, also featured in the line-up will be a metaphorical take on the theme with music written by 13 women taking center stage.
The oldest music written by a female composer on the schedule is Louise Farrenc’s “Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano” from the early 1850s, and the newest is “Saans (Breath)” by Reena Esmail from 2010.
Each year, Ms. Martin puts a great deal of time and thought into designing a unique festival season with a compelling theme. She notes that with this year’s “Winds of Change,” she wasn’t specifically looking to offer a response to the wider political realm in terms of women’s issues that have been taking center stage as of late, but rather simply wanted to bring more music for wind instruments into the lineup.
“A couple years ago we did a wind concert with piano and the audience loved it. I started thinking I haven’t done enough wind music,” Ms. Martin explained. “In the beginning, that was part of it. Then we thought of ‘Winds of Change’ in terms of the #MeToo movement and the strength of women and how the various roles they have been seeking out has changed significantly in the last couple of years.”
“It’s funny how this came out. Women and what’s going on in the world is not something I really thought about. I love composers and whatever work I choose I love,” she said. “I suddenly thought there are a lot of great women composers out there. Not just the new generation, but the older one as well.”
Among them is Lili Boulanger, a French child prodigy and composer who, in the early 1900s, was not permitted to enter a music conservatory so had to train with a private teacher. In 1913 at the age of 19, she won the Prix de Rome for “Faust et Hélène,” a composition she wrote in four weeks. The first woman to win the prize, she died just five years later at the age of 24.
“In the early 1900s women had to fight to get their work published. They were told they should be in the home and publishers didn’t think they would make enough money from them,” Ms. Martin noted. “Now with the internet, everyone pretty much self-publishes and you can download the pieces.”
One of the more recent compositions Ms. Martin discovered, which will be performed at the “Mozart, Brahms, and More” concert on August 4, is “Good Night Kiwi” for solo piano. The 2004 piece by Victoria Kelly is a composition that holds special meaning for Ms. Martin, in that it was written by a composer from her native New Zealand based on a cultural reference from Ms. Martin’s youth.
“We first got TV when I was 10 in the mid-1960s,” Ms. Martin explained. “We had one channel in black and white and the TV stopped broadcasting at 10 p.m. Then a piece of music wishing good night to everyone would come on.
“This is an homage to the one channel at 10 o’clock at night, like a lullaby.”
A special program highlighting the music of six female composers comes on August 5 with “BCMF @ the Parrish,” the festival’s sixth annual concert at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. This year’s concert is inspired by the museum’s exhibition devoted to abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler.
“I think of music as color. This is a colorful performance that has all sorts of shades in it,” Ms. Martin said. “Frankenthaler, of course was a woman and a stunning artist, and these are a collection of female composers, some of whom have a feeling of relating to art in some ways.”
The program includes Amy Beach’s “Dreaming” for solo piano from the late 1800s and Boulanger’s “D’un matin de printemps” for flute and piano from the early 20thcentury, as well as contemporary works like “Pizzicato,” a string quartet piece by Vivian Fung who is currently working in New York, and “O’Keefe” for flute, cello and piano from American Canvas, a series of compositions by Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon. Also on offer is Helen Grime’s “Three Whistler Miniatures” for piano trio, a composition inspired by the work of painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
In putting together this year’s festival, Ms. Martin has found that that not only are today’s female composers exploring very fertile ground, there is often a social component to their work as well. By way of example, she points to Reena Esmail, composer-in-residence for Street Symphony, an organization that brings classical music to the homeless and other disenfranchised populations in California.
“Some of these women are doing incredible work gathering people in the community and getting them involved,” she said. “I feel they are able to think out of the box.”
“While this festival is really about the wind instruments, it’s also about how life is changing and what makes it change,” Ms. Martin added. “I like to think the more we go forward, the more we realize how backwards we were.”
The Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival kicks off on Sunday, July 21, at 6:30 p.m. with “Composer Portrait: Dvořák in the New World.” Narrated by East End resident and writer Roger Rosenblatt, the program explores Antonin Dvořák’s journey from his native Prague to the United States in 1892 where he fell in love with the music of African-Americans and Native-Americans and was inspired to write the “New World Symphony.”
Other special events include the BCMF annual benefit on July 27 — a one-hour program of music followed by dinner at the Atlantic Golf Club — and the annual Wm. Brian Little Concert (named for the late BCMF board member) on August 9. Titled “Music from the Movies,” that concert will take place under a tent on the grounds of Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton.
Most concerts take place at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church (2429 Montauk Highway, Main Street), whose grounds will be the site of the festival’s annual free outdoor concert on July 24.
Tickets for the festival may be purchased at bcmf.org or 212-741-9403. A student tickets are $10 for most concerts.