Lighting the way

Conductor and composer Odaline de la Martinez on programming the upcoming Focus 2020 | Trailblazers festival in New York, which will look at the work of pioneering female composers. 

I was very honoured when Juilliard School in New York approached me to co-curate a festival to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in the US. The result is Trailblazers – the Pioneering Women Composers of the 20th Century.

With concert halls and festivals waking up to commissioning women composers, I am very conscious that in all the excitement about today’s young women, it’s all too easy to overlook those who came before. Trailblazers gave me and my co-curator Joel Sachs the opportunity to explore 32 works by 20th-century women composers from 15 countries and five continents and to reconsider their legacy.

Since conducting a performance of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers in 1994 and forming my own London Festival of American Music, I have championed new works by many living composers, as well as recording several operas by the suffragette Smyth.

I’m used to programming works by well-known women composers of the 20th century, including Lili Boulanger and Vítězslava Kaprálová – who both died young – Amy Beach, and Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of Les Six. But for the festival I wanted to seek out lesser-known names from across the globe such as Liu Zhuang, whose music I first heard in a classic French film Une Histoire De Vent (A Tale of the Wind)

The festival is also a chance to explore the work of several American composers who have been real change-makers, from the Harlem jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, to Florence Price – the first female composer of African descent to have a symphonic work performance by a major American symphony orchestra – and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Mary Lou Williams © William P Gottlieb / restored by Adam Cuerden
Mary Lou Williams © William P Gottlieb / restored by Adam Cuerden

Nowadays, Seeger’s music is difficult to find. While she is relatively well known for her involvement in American folk music, she was also a modernist who could “sling dissonances like a man”, as one critic wrote.

The festival also traces the reticent legacies of Louise Talma, Margaret Bonds and Priaulx Rainier. Bonds has a number of Juilliard connections; she studied with Roy Harris, who was on the Juilliard faculty, and she was enrolled in Juilliard’s Extension Division, where she studied with Robert Starer (on the faculty from 1949-70).

All these women overcame multiple obstacles to establish themselves as professional composers, whether personal, societal or professional. Rebecca Clarke gave up composing almost entirely after her marriage despite various successes, in particular when she wrote under a male pseudonym in the US. She once commented: “There’s nothing in the world more thrilling, or practically nothing. But you can’t do it – at least I can’t, maybe that’s where a woman’s different – unless it’s the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I got to sleep.”

Even when they were fortunate enough to find a publisher, the archives of these ‘shadowy’ figures of the 20th century are inadequate and have often been entirely neglected following their deaths; when I first picked up the manuscript of Smyth’s The Wreckers, it began to crumble in my hands.

Ethel Smyth © George Grantham Bain Collection / restored by Adam Cuerden
Ethel Smyth © George Grantham Bain Collection / restored by Adam Cuerden

There is space, too, for the work of living composers, with the opening and closing concerts featuring work from Betsy Jolas, Thea Musgrave, Sofia Gubaidulina and Galina Ustvolskaya. In total, there will be seven US premieres and one local New York premiere by Gubaidulina.

Perhaps Smyth, the first female composer to have an opera performed at the Metropolitan Opera (titled Der Wald), summed up the situation best: “The exact worth of my music will probably not be known ‘til nought remains of the writer but sexless dots and lines on ruled paper.”

Trailblazers – Pioneering Women Composers of the 20th Century – takes place in New York’s Lincoln Center from 24-31 January.

Extracts from Martinez’s opera Imoinda will be performed at the Marc A Scorca Hall, Opera America, on 21 March.