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Music by female and non-binary composers to listen to in lockdown

Jenny Frost

In these strange and unsettling times, we continue to see that music brings us together, as it always has. From the virtual choirs and orchestras emerging online to the people singing from their balconies in Naples and Rome, it is clear all across the world that music is an important means of coping with this lockdown. Here are a few pieces by female and non-binary composers which all evoke the great outdoors, when we can’t access it ourselves.

From Blackbird Hills by Amy Beach

Written in 1922, this piece evokes sunny days spent in the countryside. It is based on a traditional Native American tune which Beach discovered in Alice Fletcher’s work A Study of Omaha Indian Music. The piece begins with a lively folk-style section, followed by a slower, more thoughtful section which gradually transitions back into the faster melodies from the beginning of the piece. After another slower section, the music then becomes faster and faster as it reaches its climax at the end of the piece. This is one of many short works written for piano by Amy Beach.

More by this composer: Nunc Dimittis (SATB), Romance (violin and piano)

Stories by Chrysanthe Tan

Chrysanthe Tan is a Cambodian-Greek-American composer, and Stories is their debut album, released in 2015. It is filled with hugely varied music, scored mostly for violin and piano. My personal favourite piece from this album is White Lilies, thanks to its rich and hopeful violin and piano melodies – its simple, yet thought-provoking nature is just what is needed in these uncertain times.

More by this composer: if you lived in your body (violin and spoken word), Climbing the caterpillar tower (cello/violin duo)

Leiston Suite by Imogen Holst

This short suite, of around seven minutes, was written by English composer Imogen Holst for brass quartet in 1967. It is likely named for the town of Leiston in Suffolk, near Aldeburgh, where Imogen Holst lived and worked during the later part of her life. Each of the five short sections is distinct in character, and together they succeed in conjuring up an image of an English country town, as Holst would have known it. (in five separate tracks)

More by this composer: A Hymne to Christ (SATB), Fall of the Leaf (solo cello), String quartet: Phantasy (string quartet)

Church Bells Beyond the Stars by Cecilia McDowall

Cecilia McDowall is one of the UK’s best-known living composers and this piece, written for solo organ, was first performed in 2013 in St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow. It is the third of a trilogy of organ pieces based on the work of the poet George Herbert; the title of this piece is taken from his work Prayer (I). The piece is intended to interrogate the relationship between heaven and earth and, being the last in a trilogy, may be interpreted as looking predominantly towards heaven. It contains a bit of everything – jubilant and lively melodies, a pensive and atonal section, and the triumphant and earth-shattering chords that the organ is capable of.

More by this composer: If There are Angels (Soprano and Piano), Adoro Te Devote (SATB + Soprano Solo)

June Twilight by Rebecca Clarke

This piece, for soprano and piano, was first published in 1926. It uses words by John Masefield which uses sensory imagery to evoke the sleepy summer evenings that we will all be looking forward to after this quarantine is over. Clarke’s setting of these words gives equal importance to the soprano and piano lines, each playing off the other to create this atmosphere, culminating in a climactic exclamation at the end of the piece, when the speaker appears to question how such beauty is possible on earth. Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was an English classical composer and violist best known for her works for the viola, which are often performed today, but also wrote a number of songs for voice and piano.

More by this composer: Morpheus (Viola and Piano), Shy One (Soprano and Piano)

D’un matin de printemps by Lili Boulanger

Composed in 1917, this was one of the final works that Lili Boulanger wrote before her death in 1918 at the age of just twenty-four. Unlike many of her other works, which are more melancholy in character, this piece is sprightly and playful, suiting entirely its title which translates to ‘Of a Spring Morning’. The piece is characterised by its reoccurring ostinato in the violin or flute line, and the runs which appear in both instrumental lines which provide the piece’s lively character. It was originally composed for violin or flute and piano, but has since also been adapted for full orchestra. (flute and piano) (violin and piano)

More by this composer: Clairières dans le ciel (song cycle for soprano and piano), Pie Jesu (Soprano and orchestra), Trois morceaux pour piano (piano)

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