Jennifer Clarke

(WOMENSENEWS)–As the numbers of women’s choral groups increase, many are jettisoning the old pattern of playing second fiddle to mixed-voices choirs. Instead, they’re opting to sing music by and for women.

Just in New York City alone, three new women’s choral groups sprang up in the last year, says Jennifer Clarke, founder andpresident of Melodia Women’s Choir of NYC, a 20-member ensemble that makes its debut performance on May 17 at the landmark St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan.

Clarke says women’s choral groups are burgeoning across the United States and “reinvigorating an age-old tradition where people from all walks of life come together to sing and to explore something they love.”

A big part of that “something they love” is music written specifically for women’s voices. Many female choral groups are also opting for female conductors and fashioning a strong repertory of songs composed by women.

Melodia’s debut concert, for instance, features a piece by the contemporary U.S. composer Meredith Monk as well as a premiere by Canadian composer Eleanor Daly. “There is so much music for women’s voices that is not being sung,” says Clarke, citing a wealth of classical choral sacred and secular music dating to 17th century Italian convents and even earlier.

Lisa Fredenburgh, national chair for women’s choirs for the Oklahoma-based American Choral Directors Association, says she routinely receives notices of newly formed women’s choirs. She says female choral groups in the United States, including high school groups, number in the tens of thousands. And she says they’re raising their profiles along with their numbers.

Music Written for Women

One explanation for the trend is that in many places, especially colleges, an overwhelming number of women would turn out for auditions for the mixed-gender choral group. Unable to join these limited-entry mixed-voice groups, singers would not give up. Instead they began forming all-female groups. The all-female choral movement is also traced to the 1970s, when many women–including many lesbians–were gathering to give voice to liberating ideals.

Once treated as a sideshow, Fredenburgh says all-female groups are gaining artistic recognition. “Unless you were a mixed-voices choir for a long time you weren’t taken seriously musically,” she says.

Many of these groups have made it their mission to revive classical music scores written for women’s voices by female and male composers that had fallen into obscurity.

Antonio Vivaldi, for instance, wrote for the Venetian ospedali, a group of four orphanages in the city. Due to a loophole in the policies of the Catholic Church in Venice in the 18th century, the women and girls associated with the orphanages were able to flout a long-standing prohibition against females singing in the church, and blossomed under the tutelage of Vivaldi, Porta, Brusa and other composers. Some of their pupils also became noted music teachers and composers in their own right, including Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen, whose work was highly praised by Leopold Mozart.

Researchers are also uncovering rich, intelligent musical scores composed within the thick walled compounds of 17th century Italian convents by choir nuns, that were given short shrift because they were written for women’s voices and informed by women’s experiences and not men’s. Compositions are also being rediscovered from the 19th century German Frauenchor period, when urban, educated women got together to sing and marked the beginnings of the modern women’s choir.

Marginalized by Misconception

Mary Lycan is the owner and editor of Treble Clef Music Press, a desktop music publishing business based in Chapel Hill, N.C., devoted to music for women’s voices.

She says a misconception continues to exist that such music is “marginal and not very good.”

Lycan began the business of dredging up hidden, forgotten musical gems for women’s voices about nine years ago after frustrating efforts to find such repertory for her own women’s choral group, Women’s Voices Chorus. “I was a discontented consumer,” she says.

Today, 50 percent of Lycan’s catalogue lists compositions by living and dead female composers, many she found by searching uncatalogued material at the Library of Congress’ Music Division.

Another time, while conducting a search at Stanford University in California, she stumbled across “Three Shakespeare Songs” written by composer Amy Beach and first published in 1897. “I nearly fell over. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t in print,” says Lycan, who considers Beach [1867 – 1944] “a staggering natural talent and solid proof that you don’t need a Y chromosome to be a composer.”

Treble Clef Music Press currently makes that score available to the general public and Lycan’s choral group regularly performs it along with other Beach compositions. She says, “I’m just really happy that a lot of people now have Amy Beach in their heads.”

Longest Running Feminist Choir

Catherine Roma, artistic director of MUSE, a 10-year-old choral group based in Cincinnati, also founded the Philadelphia-based Anna Crusis Women’s Choir in 1975, the country’s longest-running feminist choir.

From the onset, Anna Crusis, as well as MUSE, sang songs stemming from the folk, peace and social justice traditions, says Roma, “in order to voice things that weren’t being voiced,” including songs reflecting the lives of lesbians. MUSE prioritizes cultural diversity in its ranks too. Twenty percent of the group is women of color.

Roma says that early on, she wanted to get out from under the direction of male directors whose repertory selections usually did not include scores written for women’s voices. Many of the early choral members also wanted the experience “to be more about empowering all women rather than focusing on soloists on stage,” she says.

She’s excited to see that the same momentum and motivations from the 1970s are inherent in today’s upcoming choirs. “It’s all about women getting to sing something deep and powerful and substantive.”

Brooklyn-based freelance journalist Ann Farmer is a former writer/producer for Court TV, who currently reports for The New York Times, and contributes articles to More, Emmy, the Christian Science Monitor, Yahoo! Internet Life, and other publications.

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For more information:

Treble Clef Music Press:

MUSE Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir: