Living Female Composers

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember 2014Repertoire Forum • December 3, 2014

By John C. Hughes

In his poem, “Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day,” the great twentieth-century poet W.H. Auden wrote, “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions/ To all musicians, appear and inspire:/Translated Daughter, come down and startle/ Composing mortals with immortal fire.” Despite the symbolic role thaat Cecilia plays as patron saint of music, female composers are dramatically underrepresented on most choral programs and recordings. This edition of Repertoire Forum aims to highlight a few of the many wonderful current female composers. Additionally, many of the pieces below are settings of poetry by women. As a relatively new father of a daughter, I see how important it is for the next generation (both male and female) to encounter women succeeding in every expression of every vocation.


“Frozen In”
Dale Trumbore
Over the past several years, composer Dale Trumbore has burst onto the choral scene. Her talent has been recognized by numerous commissions and prestigious awards. “Frozen In” balances an atmospheric depiction of winter with a passionate and evocative setting of a poem by contemporary American poet Annie Finch. The work is scored for piano and violin, which nicely complement the soprano and alto voices. Advanced rhythms and harmonies may present challenges to some ensembles; however, the required rehearsal time is worth the artistic reward. A score preview and an audio recording are available:



“Os Justi”
Eleanor Daley

Canadian composer Eleanor Daley writes quite idiomatically for voices, especially women’s. Her “Os Justi” (a Latin setting of Psalm 37:30–31) sings very well. Its chant-like phrases, expressive harmonies, and rich textures combine to make this a powerful setting. Not overly long (only two pages), this piece is fairly straightforward; its difficulty lies in achieving a depth of sound across four unaccompanied voice parts. A score preview and an audio recording are available online:


“Agnus Dei”
Jocelyn Hagen
Independent Music Publishers Cooperative
I’ve been an avid supporter of Hagen’s work for years now, and I recommended another work by her in the November-December 2013 installment of this column (“Living Minnesota Composers”). Hagen’s characteristically innovative text selection is apparent in this piece, which combines the traditional “Agnus Dei” text from the Latin Mass (sung by the choir) with 1 Corinthians 15:51–52 (sung by a baritone soloist). Intended for mature voices and advanced musicians, the sustained, thick chords of “Agnus Dei” require solid intonation and sense of ensemble. A score preview is available:


“O Come Let Us Sing Unto the Lord”
Emma Lou Diemer
Carl Fischer
Many choral conductors are familiar with Diemer’s Three Madrigals, and rightly so – they are wonderful pieces. But the totality of Diemer’s oeuvre is much more extensive than people might realize. She has composed several large-scale choral-orchestral works and a significant amount of church music, as well as several keyboard works. In fact, Diemer’s music has been the subject of a number of doctoral dissertations. “O Come Let Us Sing Unto the Lord,” a setting of texts drawn from Psalms 95 and 96, is appropriate for both religious services and concert settings and would be a wonderful piece with which to begin a concert. Accompanied by a joyous, energetic piano part, the vocal writing is fairly straightforward and has some unison passages. “O Come Let Us Sing Unto the Lord” is also available for SATB ensembles.


“If You Can Walk You Can Dance”
Elizabeth Alexander
Seafarer Press
Elizabeth Alexander’s music was also featured in the “Living Minnesota Composers” column from 2013. More than many other composers, Alexander is able to capture a joie de vivre in her works. This Latin-inspired piece contains contagious rhythms and melodies, as well as fun surprises. The text is a Zimbabwean proverb that encourages an inclusive environment. Because of its flexibility, accessibility, and energy, this piece would be an excellent selection for a festival or honor choir setting. In addition to this SAB voicing, “If You Can Walk You Can Dance” is available for TTB, SSA, and SATB ensembles. A score preview and an audio recording are available:



“Has Sorrow Thy Young Days Shaded”
arr. Alice Parker
In many ways, Alice Parker has set the modern standard for American choral composition and arranging. Choral conductors are undoubtedly familiar with Parker’s beloved arrangements of Christmas carols and spirituals, many of which she completed for the great Robert Shaw. Parker’s arrangement of the Irish tune “Has Sorrow Thy Young Days Shaded” displays her characteristic style of arranging. She creatively manipulates the existing material, but she does so in a sincere way that does not take away from the original tune. I’ve found that high school students in particular attach deeply to this text by Thomas Moore: “… Come, child of misfortune, come hither, I’ll weep with thee, tear for tear.”

“Gifts from the Sea”
Gwyneth Walker
ECS Publishing
Gwyneth Walker’s music has long been a staple in choral repertory. “Gift from the Sea,” a newer work (2007) by Walker, is the middle of a three-piece set titled Three Days by the Sea, all of which are available through ECS. The sweeping piano part and attention to text stress combine to make this a very lyrical setting of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s poem about the contemplative nature of the ocean. The opening material of “Gift from the Sea” returns at the end of the piece, making learning this song fairly straightforward. Because of its expressive nature, this work lends itself to great artistic interpretation on the part of the conductor.


arr. Carol Barnett
Colla Voce

Throughout his career and especially during his time leading the Dale Warland Singers, Dale Warland has commissioned and premiered dozens of works and brought recognition to many composers. Carol Barnett’s arrangement of the traditional tune “Cindy” was the product of a commission for the Dale Warland Singers. A creative and fun arrangement, this work keeps the audience’s interest with twists and turns. But don’t confuse the piece’s whimsy and novelty with simplicity. The frequent meter changes and slight alterations to the melody require advanced musicianship. A score preview and an audio recording are available:


“In the Bleak Midwinter”
Abbie Betinis
One of the fastest rising stars in choral music, Abbie Betinis has made a hauntingly beautiful arrangement of Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The well-known melody is presented throughout the work in various voice parts, while the other parts sing newly composed material extrapolated from the original text and melody. The expressive piano part adds further freshness to this arrangement. A score preview and an audio recording are available:


“Panda Chant II”
Meredith Monk
Boosey & Hawkes
Meredith Monk has been a pioneer in music composition for decades. Her works are always innovative and thought-provoking. By incorporating various syllables, flexible voicing, hand claps, foot stomps, and ostinati, “Panda Chant II” is unlike any other choral work. While the notes are not difficult in this piece, it will take some time to unify the work’s various components across the ensemble. Before rehearsals on this piece begin, I’d recommend reading Giselle Wyers’s article, “Performance Practice Issues in the Choral Works of Meredith Monk” in the May 2006 issue of the Choral Journal and watching numerous performances on YouTube and see what other groups have done. (Typically, choirs stand in a semi-circle for performances of this work.) The uniqueness of Monk’s “Panda Chant II” will make it stand out on any concert program.

“Song for a Dance”
Libby Larsen
E.C. Schirmer
In her four-piece set of madrigals Songs of Youth and Pleasure, Libby Larsen reimagines the Renaissance madrigal in a modern compositional framework. “Song for a Dance,” the first movement of this suite, certainly references the madrigal style with is rhythmic drive and use of non-sense syllables. Appropriate only for advanced ensembles, this piece for unaccompanied choir is difficult because it requires each part to be rhythmically and melodically independent as the work progresses through various tonal centers. The free use of harmonic 7ths and 9ths and angular vocal lines also make this piece challenging. However, when performed well, Larsen’s “Song for a Dance” is quirky and fun.

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