Fanning the Flames of Tonality: The Music of Barbara Harbach

Fanfare Magazine – September/October 2014
By David Deboor Canfield

Fanfare readers have met Barbara Harbach in interviews by Robert Schulslaper in 33:3 and Colin Clarke in 35:6. In the latter issue, I also reviewed three CDs of her engagingly tonal music, expressing my considerable admiration for her compositional gifts. This is not, however, a one-sided woman, as she is also well-known as a keyboard player, most recently specializing in the organ. That she is still busy as a composer is evidenced by the CD on which I interviewed her in late May of 2014, attempting not to re-walk the paths explored by my two colleagues.

Q. Barbara, in the earlier interviews, you mention having worked with, and having been influenced by Samuel Adler and Mel Powell. Yet your music sounds nothing like theirs. Who or what formed your romantic musical aesthetic and language?
A. I was fortunate enough to take classes with Mel Powell at Yale University as well as a semester with Sam Adler at the Eastman School of Music. From Mel I learned to appreciate improvisatory ingenuity and from Sam rhythmic athleticism. Composers often write what they like to hear, and I adore listening to Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Mary Howe, Thea Musgrave, Gian Carlo Menotti, Adolphus Hailstork, and, of course, Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as many others. Many of the mid-twentieth century composers studied with one of my heroes Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) in Paris. She was an outstanding pedagogue, composer, organist and pianist. Some of my favorite pieces are Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Overture (c. 1830), Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto and the operas of Ethel Smyth.

Q. Do you feel vindicated, now that tonal music has been embraced by most of the best-known current American composers? I sometimes joke to people that I was writing tonal music before it was fashionable. Is this your sentiment too?
A. I am delighted to hear the growing trend towards tonal music among contemporary composers! It has seemed that most awards and competition winners are given to more dissonant and atonal music, but the resurgence of tonality is refreshing. I believe that performers and audiences like lyrical and melodic sections that relieve the edginess and nervous tensions of other sections. I like your response that you were writing tonal music before it was fashionable, and I feel the same way. I have tried to write pieces that were closer to the “beep and squawk” style, but they never came to fruition. I guess it’s difficult to write against your own type and style.

Q. You would seem to be a soul sister to your predecessor American composers, women such as Amy Beach, Peggy Stuart Coolidge and the English-born Rebecca Clarke. Have these women influenced you, and are there others?
A. Yes, they are all wonderful composers! I mentioned earlier Mary Howe, Thea Musgrave and Ethel Smyth. There are other terrific contemporary composers from the late 20th and early 21st centuries such as Emma Lou Diemer, Beth Anderson, Joan Tower, Libby Larsen, Cindy McTee, Judith Statin, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Jennifer Hidgon and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first woman Pulitzer Prize winner in 1983. I am especially drawn to the works of Grace Williams and the string quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy, as well as the music of her daughter, Nicola Le Fanu. And who can forget the music of the French composer Germaine Tailleferre? These are just a few composers whose aesthetic ideals we all share, and there are many more women creators writing stunning and exciting music, and I wish I had space to list them all!

Q. In your interview with Robert Schulslaper, you state that you knew you wanted to be a musician from the age of five. How is it that you came to have such a conviction at such a tender age? Did you grow up in a musical family in which you had a lot of exposure to classical music?

A. Like Amy Beach, my mother was my first piano teacher. She and her two sisters had a vocal trio and sang at church services, weddings, and funerals. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and my paternal grandparents had an inn that was one of the north-south horse and buggy stops through central Pennsylvania. I would play the harmonium for church services in the inn’s saloon (not an active saloon, because the county was dry) when it was too cold to go to the little church down the road. In the fall, the inn boarded hunters from all over the area, and I would play the pump organ for them. I played my first church service when I was nine years old. The nearest town and little grocery store was eight miles away. When I needed another piano teacher, my parents would drive an hour each way to take me to lessons every Saturday. I owe my parents so much for their support and love, and they never complained about the sacrifices they made for my musical education. Our family was always pleased and proud to claim Otto Harbach as one of our distant relatives.

Q. What gave you the idea for your Night Soundings?
A. As all nocturnal creatures, I have a tendency to wander about during the night, embracing and relishing in its mysteriousness, unexplained sounds, and thick aura of darkness. As a pianist I was drawn to compositions with the titles of Nocturne and Notturno – from Maria Szymanowska’s Nocturne in B-flat to John Field and Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes, not to forget the nocturnes of Carl Czerny, Faure, Debussy, Satie and Poulenc. The night offers a myriad array of emotions from solace to absolute horror. I tried to infuse some of these terrifying thoughts, as well as solace that only night can bring into Night Soundings.

Q. The symphonic works I’ve encountered by you to this point have been smaller-scale works, at least in terms of length. Have you written larger-scale symphonic works?

A. I have written six symphonies, and as you noted, they are smaller-scale works. I seem to emit my themes, work them out, combine and intertwine them, and then come to a close. I usually feel that there are no superfluous extras, but probably most composers feel that way about their works. I have written large-scale pieces such as O Pioneers! – an American Opera and Booth! – an American musical. Booth! won a competition and was presented at Skirball Theatre in New York City for a short run Off-Broadway in 2009. Booth! is about a strong man, Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth. The story is about what happens to a family when one of the members commits a horrific deed. That same year in 2009, O Pioneers!, based on Willa Cather’s novel of the same name, was premiered at the Touhill Performing Arts Center in St. Louis.

Q. How was it that the present CD came to be conducted by David Angus? Did you have a connection with him beforehand? He seems most sympathetic to your work.
A. David Angus is a consummate musician and conductor! I knew of his recordings and liked his style, and also was intrigued that he is the Music Director of the Boston Lyric Opera and has a true empathy for the voice. I knew he would do well interpreting my pieces since many of them are vocal and lyric in style. In 2011 I went to London to hear him record the London Philharmonic Orchestra in several of my string orchestra pieces. I was thrilled with his conducting and interpretations. Then when I had my latest four symphonies ready to go in 2014, he was the natural choice.

Q. The present CD features two works, A State Divided – A Missouri Symphony and Gateway Festival Symphony, with connections with your adopted state. Given the symbolism of the St. Louis arch as gateway to the West, do you see these works in any similar light?

A. For some reason I seem to absorb the landscape and cultures where I am planted. A State Divided was inspired by the 150th anniversary of Missouri’s entry into the Civil War. Gateway Festival Symphony was for the 50th anniversary of the Gateway Festival Orchestra in St. Louis, and Jubilee Symphony was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. In Pullman, Washington, I loved the Palouse region, and its mesas and rugged terrain. I wrote Frontier Fancies for violin and orchestra with an Americana flavor in its three movements, “Fiddleflirt,” “Twilight Dream,” and “Dancedevil.” Pioneer Women: From Skagway to White Mountain for soprano, clarinet, and piano was about four women who helped settle Alaska, and Daystream Dances for oboe and piano showcased the hot summer air. St. Louis has been an inspiration in many genres for me: the three symphonies that are mentioned above, Freeing the Caged Bird for woodwind quintet inspired by the lives of four St. Louis women (Maya Angelou, Sara Teasdale, Kate Chopin, and Emily Hahn), Freedom Suite for string orchestra inspired by Harriet and Dred Scott, Lilia’s Polka for string orchestra based on a polka written by Kate Chopin, Carondelet Caprice for chamber ensemble, Harriet’s Story for soprano, violin, and piano, Sounds of St. Louis for low brass, as well as many pieces not directly related to the St. Louis environs.

Q. Ironically, Maya Angelou passed on just about the time I received your answers. Your music sounds unambiguously optimistic to me. Are you, indeed, an optimist?

A. As all creative people, we have our optimistic side and a darker side. Yes, I would say that I am more optimistic than not. I have written some very lush pieces when I was at low ebb, and some highly energized pieces when carrying a great sadness. It seems that I am getting more optimistic as I get older – life is a lot of fun!

Q. In a previous interview, you stated that you admire “strong women.” What in your judgment makes for such a woman?

A. In spite of all the cultural restrictions, in spite of marital or political difficulties, a strong woman continues to create and makes the world go round, such as Abigail Adams and Alexandra Bergson (in O Pioneers!), Harriet Scott, and Emily Dickinson all did. History is full of women creators in the arts, many of whom created under oppressive circumstances, including Kassia, Anne Boleyn, Fanny Mendelssohn, the contemporary Chen Yi, and various Soviet and Ukrainian composers.

Q. At the risk of being provocative, may I ask if there is still any place in America for strong men?
A. Absolutely yes! Men have been in the forefront of music for centuries, and they have written glorious music, loved and appreciated by many. In some ways, men are still in the forefront. There is a lot of room for composers of all types of music by both men and women, nowadays. In some ways, it is difficult for contemporary composers to find an audience. Both men and women would love a culture that embraced and hungered for new music, as they did in the Classical period. I tell my students that they should just keep writing, write what pleases you, and don’t worry about what people or critics may think about your music.

Q. That is certainly an approach I agree with. Now that so many women composers have achieved international renown, are we past the point of needing to identify or associate composers by gender? It seems to me that the days of discrimination against the music of gifted women are mercifully behind us.

A. Thankfully, it is getting better for women composers. We now have five women Pulitzer Prize winners in music since 1983: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Jennifer Higdon, and Caroline Shaw. When Marin Alsop was asked what it felt like to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, she said, “I am exceedingly proud to be ‘the first’ but I am also a bit shocked that there can still be firsts for women in 2013!” Is there a gender gap in the music industry? It is true that there are more professional male music creators than female. For some reason, it’s taking a lot longer in music than in literature and the visual arts to reach equilibrium. It was almost acceptable by the 19th century for female writers to be published, yet it’s only in the last couple of decades, since about 1980, that historical female composers have really emerged. Just a few other statistics: as of 2014, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City has never performed a work by an American woman composer; only five percent of paintings hung in museums are by women artists; and about one percent of pieces played by orchestras in the US are by women, according to the League of American Orchestras. Yes, it is getting better, but we’re still working on parity. Perhaps until that time, there is a need to focus on “women composers,” competitions for women composers, and conferences that highlight the creativity of women. Or as Nadia Boulanger said, “I’ve been a woman for a little over 50 years and have gotten over my initial astonishment. As for conducting an orchestra, that’s a job where I don’t think sex plays much part.” Nadia Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Q. What are your latest compositional projects?

A. Right now I seem to be in a vocal phase, and have just finished three Dorothy Parker poems for soprano, violin and piano. The poems reflect Dorothy’s wry humor and keen observation of urban life. Now I am working on five songs of children’s poetry from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the poetry of which is surprisingly uplifting and beautiful. By July I will begin another silent movie score and then some more orchestral pieces.

Q. You clearly have your projects lined up well in advance! Is there any genre that you haven’t yet written in that you hope to someday?

A. I would love to do another opera, but finding the right libretto will be the key. I have also written several musicals other than Booth!, and would love the opportunity to orchestrate them for the stage.

Q. Now that your compositional career is flourishing, do you still have as much time to perform as you did earlier in your career?

A. The first part of my career was indeed as a performer and recording artist, and I am still keenly involved with both. While rummaging around in the British Library, I found many delightful and interesting compositions by 18th-century men and women composers. MSR Classics recently released Thomas Haigh’s, Six Concertos for Harpsichord, Op. 1, which are great fun to play. Another 2-CD set by MSR contains Bach’s: Art of the Fugue and Pachelbel’s Canon, Chaconnes, and Chorale Preludes. Over my career I have logged many hours on the organ bench playing the works of great Baroque composers such as Bach and Pachelbel. It is a great tribute to their music that it still speaks eloquently to us. I am also looking forward to release later this year of the integral 120 harpsichord sonatas by Antonio Soler in the Rubio edition, a 14-CD set.