Doing What We are Told We Shouldn't

Posted by Steven Russell on Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sometimes I do things people tell me I shouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong. If it’s for good reason, like not stepping into wet concrete, or not going into shark-infested waters, then I obey. Considering, though, our fondness for giving direction to others, it can be wise, and even fun to do things that others may warn against. Last Saturday I gave a concert of music written by women. I wasn’t told directly not to do it, but I did get several inquisitive reactions when I told friends and colleagues of my idea, that smelled of criticism and censure. But I did it anyway.

The concert included works for chorus, performed lovingly by an excellent group of friends and colleagues, vocal solos, sung by me accompanied expertly by three friends on the piano, (not at the same time, of course, although I’ve done three at one piano before, and, as a matter of fact, I did sing one song with two people playing at one piano at this concert), piano solo, played by me, and organ solo, played by me, and my three friends who also played the piano. Three of the composers are no longer living. As I prepared for this concert I read biographies on these women. Each was often discouraged from pursuing any kind of career in music, and also told that women of a certain social standing shouldn’t perform or compose, or that women didn’t have the brains or the emotional strength to compose serious music. Yet each chose to compose and perform in spite of these warnings. And compose they did. Music comparable to what was being written by men at the time, and certainly well worth repeated performance then and now.

Those three women were Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck Schumann, wife of the composer Robert Schumann, and Amy Beach, known at the time as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach because her husband insisted that she use as much of his name as possible. We also performed music by three living women composers, who, as far as I could tell, were not discouraged from studying, composing, and performing music, nor from pursuing a viable career in music. Those three were Barbara Harbach, who obtained a PhD in composition from the Eastman School of Music, Emma Lou Diemer, who also obtained a doctorate from Eastman, and, incidentally, who turns 90 this November as she continues to compose and perform, and Joan Szymko, who is one of the most often-performed American choral composers.

As the concert ended I conveyed this to the audience, right after I sang Amy Beach’s song, “Wouldn’t That Be Queer":

"We often tell each other that we shouldn’t do things. Sometimes it’s for good reason, but all too often it’s for no good reason. Women being told that a career as a performer was beneath them, or not proper because they were female. Women being told they didn’t have the brains, the emotional fortitude, or the potential to be world-class composers of anything remotely serious. Men who are told something they do is not masculine enough. We like to tell each other what to do, or what not to do. It is my sincere hope that you will hear as much music in the future by women as you do by men. If I have done anything tonight to move us farther down that path, I will be happy."

Then after the concert, at a local restaurant with many of the performers, one soprano raised her glass in a toast and said, “To women.”

I raised my beer and said, “To doing things we’re told we shouldn’t.”

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