A Chat with prolific composer Barbara Harbach
By Maria Nockin
Barbara Harbach has an enormous catalogue of works including symphonies, operas, chamber works, choral music, and film scores. She has also arranged numerous Baroque pieces for modern instruments, and she is a keyboard performer of spectacular virtuosity. For her current recording, she has set some of her thoughts on civil rights, women’s rights and their achievements, as well as the treatment of Native Americans in musical terms.
How did you stay busy and sane during the pandemic? Did you compose much? Did you do things you had never done before? What new ideas have jelled in your mind since the beginning of the pandemic?
That reminds me of being asked, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” Only this time the passing of the months was longer, darker, with no finish like the excitement of returning to school with new supplies.
What I did begin during the required hibernation was digitize the dozens of microfilm facsimiles of 18th century women and men’s compositions that I accumulated over several decades. I had ordered most of them from the British Library or Bibliothèque Nationale de France and a few were given by colleagues. Some of the copies were in good shape, some were readable, and some required an imagination to fill in the notes or decipher the film-deteriorated manuscript. I am digitizing these manuscripts not to publish, but to share with interested colleagues who may find them useful for research. Learning several new software techniques was a challenge, but then challenges are supposed to be good for our brains! During the digitization, I came across some interesting tidbits.
Elizabeth Weichsell Billington (1765/68–1818) was one of the greatest singers England ever produced. She was known for her natural voice, perfect technical control, wide range, head register, accurate intonation, and brilliant and original ornaments. She was born into a musical family. Her father, Carl Weichsell, was a transplanted German oboist and clarinet player, and her mother was a well-known singer. At an early age she accompanied her violinist brother on the keyboard. She studied singing with J.C. Bach and keyboard with J. S. Schroeter. After the death of Bach, she studied voice with James Billington, a singing teacher as well as a double bass player. She married him in 1783.
Haydn called her “ein grosses Genie,” a great genius, and she had triumphant tours of England and Italy. After the death of her husband, she married her second husband, a Frenchman, M. Felissent. Apparently, he mistreated her, for she soon left him. Unfortunately, he reappeared in her life, and she went to Italy with him where he allegedly murdered her in 1818. Her story could be an opera in the making!
Weichsell wrote two sets of keyboard music, both before she was twelve. The first, Three Lessons for the Harpsichord or the Pianoforte, c. 1775, Op. 1. The title page adds, “A Child of eight Years of Age.” The title page of her second set states: Six Progressive Lessons for the Harpsichord or Piano Forte composed by Mrs. Billington, Late Miss E. Weichsell, Op. 2. Op. 2 was written when Weichsell was eleven. The title page calls these pieces Lessons, but the title of each individual piece in the body of the work lists them as Sonatas. These compositions, Op. 1, are amazing for an eight-year old or even for an eleven-year-old. Weichsell apparently understood the intricacies of the two-voice texture and two-part form of the times, the complexity of rhythmic variety, and virtuosic technique. Even at this young age, no movements are alike in form; she did not write to a formula. Each of the sonatas of Op. 1 is in two movements. Weichsell surprises the listener with unexpected shifts to sixteenth note passages creating a momentary turbulence. She often creates other surprises by not going to the expected note or chords of resolution but instead going to the higher or lower octave displacement.
Another interesting manuscript I rediscovered as I was digitizing the manuscripts was by “A Lady” with no other identifying information. She flourished in the 18th century, and likely fits the social profile of other women composers of the time. For some reason, though, she chose to remain anonymous, perhaps because her family considered composition an inappropriate occupation for a lady. At this time, women musicians usually came from the aristocracy, the convent, or from a family of musicians and instrument builders. No biographical information or details regarding this publication exist, but her Six Lessons for Harpsichord attest to her talent and intelligence.
All the facsimiles that I work with are a fascinating and intriguing addition in the study of English women keyboard composers of the eighteenth century such as Elisabetta de Gambarini, Elizabeth Turner, Elizabeth Hardin, and Jane Freer. All available from HMP (Harbach Music Publishing). Many of these women were also child prodigies on the keyboard or singers who became acclaimed during their lifetimes. Unfortunately, these women were forgotten and overlooked in the succeeding years by music historians. Every woman composer that is recovered and every new edition that is published provides another link in the history of eighteenth-century women composers.
During the past months of seclusion from the world, I started recording excerpts of my 18th century women composers to eventually post them on my website so others may get a chance to hear some of these intriguing and unknown compositions and judge for themselves the quality of the music. Consequently, I learned so much about self-recording, that I now know why I leave recording in the hands of professionals such as Richard Price of Candlewood Digital who has recorded and edited most of my later CDs.
Your CD contains a piece called Civil-Civility. How would you define it?
Civil-Civility depicts the acts and writings of courageous women who I felt defied all odds to help women and humanity. Women have historically struggled to achieve their rights in patriarchal societies since the time of 9th-century composer Kassia. She was born to a wealthy family in Constantinople and refused to accept the dictums for feminine behavior. Therefore, she founded a convent. The chamber orchestra piece, Civil/Civility, continues the resistance by highlighting six women who made a difference in their lifetimes despite prejudice, ignorance, arrogance, and chauvinism. All were quintessential role models.
Written in six movements, the various ensembles capture the spirits of these intrepid women and create musical portraits. Sentiments: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was an American suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women’s rights movement. The melody passes from one instrument to another in equality to ensure that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Perhaps fighting for equal rights produces unexpected allies and unusual sentiments among the participating instruments in the string orchestra.
Gift of Mystery: Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) is revered as a political figure, diplomat, and activist. She was the longest serving First Lady of the United States, and even campaigned and gave speeches for her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Gift of Mystery is a wordless vocalise for soprano, violin, and piano. Often when a woman speaks, her words go unheeded. Perhaps a wordless movement gives more prescience than if words are used and sung. Certainly, in the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, her words did not go unheard.
Memories of Our Lives: Rosa Parks (1913–2005) is known nationally as the “mother of the modern-day civil rights movement” in America. In Memories of Our Lives, there are twelve complete variations of the eight-measure passacaglia theme, with the thirteenth only a partial statement of the theme.
Committed: Margaret Mead (1901–1978) was an American anthropologist, author, and speaker in the 1960s and 1970s. In Committed I was inspired to write a two-part piece for string orchestra with flute and piano. The first part is newly composed and projects the feeling of peace, while the second portion is based on the German chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (In Peace and Joy I Now Depart). This joyous chorale was written by Martin Luther (1483–1546).
Light of Truth: Ida Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) was a former slave who became a journalist and launched a virtual one-woman crusade against the vicious practice of lynching. Light of Truth is a set of variations for string orchestra, and perhaps the variations could be interpreted as searching for truth. The slight tango feel that begins in variation five is usually expressed by the viola. All instruments enjoy tossing the melodies back and forth.
Ain’t I a Woman?: Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) She was born into slavery and became an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. In 1828, she went to court to regain custody of her son, and she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. Written for soprano, piano, and chamber string orchestra, the short introduction opens with a dramatic and declamatory statement “And ain’t I a Woman?” At the end of the piece, she contemplates the celestial, and begins to assert her strength and independence, “I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” This is a musical tribute to the strength and courage of Sojourner Truth and all the women, who each in their own way, exhibit boundless courage and fortitude against sometimes unseemly odds.
How would you describe Hildegard’s music for modern listeners?
I have admired Hildegard of Bingen for years! Her music with the soaring melodic lines is almost spiritual and unworldly in its beauty. My Visions of Hildegard was inspired by Hildegard (1098-1179) and her writings and music. Amazingly, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. Known as Saint Hildegard, or Sibyl of the Rhine, she was known as an abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, and visionary. Many consider her to be the founder of natural history in Germany. She was a composer of sacred monophony and is the most recorded Medieval composer in modern history. It was an interesting and mysterious journey to be inspired by the words that Hildegard used and then create melodies and harmonies that would enhance the texts, all the while conscious of the fact that Hildegard was inspired by these same words.
The first movement, O vis eternitatis (O power within eternity) is a Responsory for the Creator and Redeemer. O nobilissima viriditas (O noblest green viridity), the second movement, is a responsory for virgins. The last movement, O ignee Spiritus (O fiery Spirit) is a Hymn to the Holy Spirit. The movements have varying meters; sections that reflect the words from a gentle lullaby to rhythmic and exciting, energetic, and propelling tempos, all using the vivid colors of the violin and piano.
How did you come to use aspects of Spanish Flamenco and Argentine Tango in Cuatro Danzas?
Cuatro Danzas para Flute y Piano is a four-movement piece with a Spanish flavor and frenzied outer movements. The music anticipated my move to the Southwest with its Spanish influences.
Danza Flamenco begins with a whirling waltz made of toccata-like sixteenth notes in the high register of the piano, and then rapidly descends to the lower range. Beginning with a trill, the flute joins with the melody while the piano again whirls down the keyboard but only halfway. Odd juxtapositions of intervals, swiftly changing modes, sequences, clashes of seconds, interjections of 4/4 time, phrase repetitions but with different accompaniments in the piano, until a descending section with trills in the flute and tremolos in the piano introduce the Tango section. The Tango in 2/4 is introduced by the piano with dotted rhythms typical of the tango. The right hand has clusters of chords with seconds and sevenths. Glissandi and trills abound leading to the last section which combines the two styles Flamenco and Tango. The opening material of whirling sixteenth notes returns, and then the piece ends abruptly with a staccato note in both parts.
La Mente (Only in the Mind) is a three-part ABA form. A plaintive, soaring, improvisatory, and decorated solo flute opens the movement and is repeated for seven times often starting on a different beat in the measure. A flourish in the piano introduces the B section with several variations that have rhythms reminiscent of tango rhythms. In the final section, the tango rhythm continues while the flute and right hand play melodic adaptations of the first section.
Andante para vihuelo de penole begins with the left hand of the piano resembling the sound of a plectrum-plucked Spanish Renaissance guitar. The first part has a slow-moving lyrical melody in the flute over a walking bass in the left hand. The next section is faster with a swing, a wider range, with the right hand and flute in duets at the octave, thirds, and canons until a fortissimo dynamic is reached along with demanding chords in the piano and trills in the flute.
Danza-Delirio is a two-part movement with a coda. Each part has its own ostinato bass part, rapid scales, three octave glissandi, fast arpeggios, and dramatic left-hand clusters. The coda deceptively sounds like a recapitulation, but it is whimsically truncated. I have often written pieces incorporating tango rhythms as in Midnight Tango from the symphony, Night Soundings for Orchestra which can be heard on my CD, Orchestral Music II.
How did you get interested in Jane Johnson Schoolcraft? Did you once live near the Ojibwe Reservation? What is her name in Ojibwe and what does it signify?
I wrote The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, a cycle of four pieces for soprano, violin, and piano, inspired by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe name. Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800–1842) was an extraordinary Native American princess in the Ojibwe tribe of the North Shore of Lake Huron and both shores of Lake Superior. The Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Ojibwe Indians lived in this region of the Great Lakes for more than 500 years. Jane’s Indian name was Bame-wa-wa-ge-zhik-a-quay, which translates as “Woman of the Sound that Stars Make Rushing through the Sky.” She was the granddaughter of the famous Ojibwe Chief Waub Ojeeg, and her mother, Susan, or Shau-gush-co-da-way-Quay was the daughter of the chief. Jane’s father, John Johnston, was a white fur trader. Jane was educated, which was unusual for a young Ojibwe girl at that time. She gained a great deal of education from her Anglo-American father teaching her English, reading, writing, the Bible, and his love of history and poetry. Her father even took her to study in Ireland and then to England. She married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a white man, as did her mother. Since Jane spoke both English and Ojibwe, she provided access to the Ojibwe community for her husband. He learned its oral history and traditions and he published the stories.
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was the first known Native American poet and the first known Native American woman writer. Her husband published her poems and stories. Her writings and poems in English paralleled those of Anglo-American and British writers such as William Wordsworth and Lydia Sigourney.
And Musing Awhile, the first movement of the song cycle, is an excerpt taken from her poem, “Pensive Hours.” The last line of the poem is “So pensively joyful, so humbly sublime.”
The author of the second movement, Ojibwa Prayer, is unknown. The language of the Ojibwa Prayer is also known in Chippewa, Saulteaux, Southern Ojibwa, and Mississippi Ojibwa. The prayer was taken from Bishop Frederick Baraga’s Catechism written in the middle 1800’s. The setting portrays in music the wind of the Great Spirit, the weakness of the many children, the beauty of the sunsets and the many things that the Spirit has made. The prayer asks for wisdom from the lessons that come from earthly beauty, so when life fades, their beauty comes to you.
Inspired to write the lyrics and music for the third movement, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, I comingled virtuosity and lyricism to musically portray the many diverse facets of Schoolcraft’s short life. The following is an excerpt from the movement:
The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky
A woman –
Ojibwe and French-Canadian,
American, Irish, and English.
Eloquent, lyrical, emotion stirring.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie,
Upper peninsula, Michigan.
Of mixed bloods, a métis,
She was red and white at once.
Her mother, Susan, daughter of a famous war chief.
Her father, John, was Scotch-Irish.
Jane was raised to be an Ojibwe elite,
And a member of white, high society.
For the last movement, Trail of Tears, I was moved to write the lyrics of the Cherokee’s tragic journey. Evicted from their Southeastern homelands by the federal government in the 1830s, Native Americans were forced to march to eastern Oklahoma. The long walk became known as the Trail of Tears, an ordeal of disease, starvation, and death. The Cherokee Nation was one of the largest native groups in America, and their removal took the longest. The Cherokee were forced to leave their homes and march more than 1200 miles inland to present-day Oklahoma. Beginning in the summer of 1838 and continuing into the winter, approximately 15,000 Cherokee were relocated, and more than 4000 died from disease, exhaustion, or exposure. In the Cherokee language, this event is referred to as “the trail where they cried,” giving rise to the English Trail of Tears. The entire story is told through a child’s eyes. The following is an excerpt from the movement:
The banging was so loud!
They broke through the door.
The soldiers hit my father.
They pushed my mother at sword point.
My little sister cried and whimpered.
“Shut up,” they said, “Shut up.”
O Great Spirit we had hope.
When did you first learn of the Trail of Tears? Was it in your schoolbooks? Do you hope to teach people about it with your concert piece?
I have known the Ojibwa Prayer for many years and knew that I wanted to write a piece on the moving and mystical lyrics for soprano, violin, and piano. During my research I became intrigued with the story of Jane Schoolcraft, and the Trail of Tears became the song cycle’s culmination in telling a small part of the story of our First Generation’s triumphs and tragedies.
I understand you have retired from full time teaching. Do you still have some students? Are you mentoring young women composers?
We moved to New Mexico right before the pandemic became the world-wide crisis, and I am looking forward to making new contacts within the musical communities. I would love to mentor young women composers as well as young male composers. It is difficult for women composers to receive the acknowledgement that their music deserves – a centuries-long struggle. According to a report from Donne (donne-uk.org), Equality and Diversity in Concert Halls, their in-depth analysis of composers’ works scheduled for the 2020-2021 season in 100 orchestras from 27 countries, show that only 11.45% of the scheduled concerts worldwide included compositions by women. That is a small improvement over the last few years. 88.55% of the music played was written by men. I should also mention that contemporary male composers have difficulty getting their orchestral works programed since many orchestras tend to do pieces in the historical orchestral canon.
I look forward to reaching out to the local musical community, and this fall I will present a video lecture to the American Guild of Organists, “Women Composers for the Organ” featuring historical and contemporary composers and their works.
Where did you come from?
Both my husband, Thomas George, and I are from Pennsylvania, but we met at Yale. Tom is a chemist/physicist/administrator, and pianist, who just released a jazz trio CD with MSR Classics, Stardust, based on the tunes of Hoagy Carmichael. This follows two CDs of his, also on MSR Classics, that featured women jazz composers. We are what I would call “academic gypsies,” having been in academic communities all our careers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, New York, Washington State, Missouri, and now New Mexico. I even did a year at the Frankfurt Musikhochschule studying classical pipe organ with the renown-pedagogue Helmut Walcha.
Did you find your musical outlook changed with the climate?
While here in New Mexico, I was commissioned by the Missouri American Wild Ensemble’s septet for flute, clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello, and percussion, and the piece will be performed in celebration of the Missouri Bicentennial this year 2021. The title of the composition is Following the Sacred Sun – Suite for Chamber Ensemble and is a four-movement suite that follows the adventures of Sacred Sun or Mi-Ho’n-Ga, (1809?–1836?), an eighteen-year-old young woman who left her Osage fur-trapping family and friends in Saline County, central Missouri, to travel to France. She was a beautiful woman, and the French embraced her and her fellow Osage travelers. Lauded and treated royally, she stayed in luxury hotels, ate rich and exotic foods and attended French operas arriving in fancy carriages. As the French tastes turned to other exoticisms, the Osage people along with their manager became destitute. Sacred Sun had twin daughters that were born in Belgium, and she gave one away to a wealthy Belgium woman. The Osage spent the next few years traveling in Europe. Fortunately, when the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolutionary War, heard about Sacred Sun and her Osage companions, he sent them back to America. When she returned to St. Louis in 1830, her tribe had moved to the Oklahoma territory near Fort Gibson. This piece continues my interest in First Generation’s stories, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky, and now Following the Sacred Sun. Hopefully, I plan to write another orchestral CD for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and I look forward to seeing if New Mexican culture and cuisine attracts my muse.
What do you find is the current direction of new classical music?
To quote Cole Porter, “Anything Goes!” From tonality, to atonality, jazz with classical, rap with classical, etc. It is an exciting time for music in all its forms. Each composer has his/her niche, and I believe that we write what we want to hear. I feel that some interesting and exciting music is written for video games, film, and TV music.
What do you do for amusement in this COVID world?
I have friends and colleagues who have told me that they have never been as busy as after retirement. And I agree! I put off many projects until their time ‘had come,’ like digitizing manuscripts, taping excerpts for historical editions, and creating a new website. I have discovered that I love to cook especially with hot peppers. One reason we moved to New Mexico was that it is the Chile Capital of the World! My usual starters for stir-fry include Chile peppers or habaneros, garlic, and onions—it almost doesn’t matter what else is in the mix! Hot Italian sausage and pasta is great with that.