Women’s sacred music featured in a new anthology

22 November 2019

ANDREW STEWART

Louise Stewart (left) and Olivia Sparkhall, with the anthology

Louise Stewart (left) and Olivia Sparkhall, with the anthology

A 16TH-CENTURY prioress and a 21-year-old music graduate are among the composers featured in a new anthology designed to bring sacred music written by women to greater prominence.

Launched on Sunday evening at choral evensong at Selwyn College, Cambridge, the collection, “Sacred music by women composers”, has been compiled and published by Multitude of Voyces, a community-interest company that seeks to support under-represented communities through the creative use of music and words (News, 25 May 2018).

The aim was to expand choirs’ repertoires to include women com­posers “both recognised and over­looked”, the director of Multi­tude of Voyces, an editor of the collection, Louise Stewart, said this week.

“The greatest challenge was not to find beautiful liturgical music writ­ten by women composers: there is plenty of that,” she said. The diffi­culty had, rather, been practical: “pre­­­paring our first publication with­out a major sponsor, and with­out any of our team having pub­lished a book before”.

While some of today’s leading com­­­posers are included, such as Judith Weir, the collection also fea­tures those starting out in their careers, including Joanna Ward, a 21-year-old Cambridge music grad­uate from whom Jesus College com­missioned “She is More Precious than Rubies” to celebrate the 40th an­­niversary of the admission of women to the college.

ANDREW STEWARTThe editors, composers, and performers of Multitude of Voyces. Front row, left to right: Olivia Sparkhall, Sarah MacDonald, and Louise Stewart

The earliest composer is Raffaella Aleotti (1570-c.1646), an Italian or­­ganist, prioress, and composer who wrote for much of her life under a male pseudonym. The second volume of the anthology will include pieces for upper voices; and the third volume will contain litur­gical music including mass set­tings, responses, and psalm chants. “Even experi­enced directors of music have ex­­pressed surprise at the variety and breadth of compositions which we have brought together within these three volumes,” Ms Stewart said.

On Sunday evening, music by eight women composers was heard dur­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ing evensong, including several compositions by the director of mu­sic at Selwyn, Sarah Mac­Donald. The service began with an introit ar­ranged by the African-American composer Professor Undine Smith Moore, and a con­cert followed.

Olivia Sparkhall, another editor and a composer featured in the col­lection, said that the aim had been to include works for use throughout the Church’s year, and to represent each of the main periods of music. She had been “thrilled to discover Louise Reichardt to represent the Classical era”.

The “small audience” that had heard the works to date was due to a lack of availability — their absence from anthologies — and the “lack of motivation of most choir directors to do the ‘leg-work’ and identify them”, she suggested. “It’s not that choir directors are lazy per se, it’s more that they are strapped for time, and drawn to repertoire already familiar to them and already on the shelves of their music libraries.”

The works had been specifically chosen for being accessible, she said. “One of the main factors for rejecting some brilliant pieces was that they would take too long for many choirs to learn. . . The pieces are purposefully short, often strophic or with repeating sections, and the unaccompanied repertoire can be easily and effectively supported with optional organ or piano accompaniment, if desired. We have also made sure that the music and lyrics are very clearly printed, being mindful of dim or distant lights in some churches.”

A “realistic expectation” for 2020 would be “including at least one woman composer a week”, she suggested.

The sermon on Sunday was preached by an ordinand at Westcott House, Lizzie Campbell. “Without a multitude of voices . . . we end up with a one-dimensional interpreta­tion of what that truth is supposed to mean for us,” she said.

Ms MacDonald, who advised on the collection, also contributed to it, writing “Crux Fidelis” to be sung in Passiontide. She praised the range of the collection, which included both “substantial anthems” and a large number of works that were “doable after a Thursday rehearsal for Sunday morning” for a parish choir.

Two pieces that had stood out on Sunday had been Cecilia McDowall’s “The Lord is Good” and Alison Willis’s “I Sing of a Maiden”, but it was Rani Arbo’s setting of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” that had left “not a dry eye in the house”, she said.

“By the end, pretty much everyone in the room — including myself — had changed their music request for their funeral. . . It is life-changingly stunning.”

The anthology is available from multitudeofvoyces.co.uk at £14.99 plus P&P.

ANDREW STEWARTElissa Johnston and Sarah Harrington, both students from the United States currently studying at Oxford University, look through the anthology

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