They worked in convents. If they showed talent, it was stifled when adulthood approached. “Women wrote to their physical reality,” says Cappella Clausura’s music director Amelia LeClair. “Not being able to leave home, or the convent, they had to write smaller pieces. They weren’t trained to write big pieces. But some did.”
Women’s place in the concert hall—participating equally in every way, as composers, conductors, instrumentalists—should be a given. It has gotten better—there’s an entire generation or more of women composers with large bodies of work. But for every Joan Tower, or Augusta Read Thomas, Jennifer Higdon or Caroline Shaw working now, there are untold composers from previous generations whose work was never achieved.
LeClair is reviving some of it. Lots of it, in fact, as Cappella Clausura’s entire repertory this season features women composers. The group’s upcoming performances (Jan. 19 in Boston, Jan. 20 in Newton) include multiple Baroque cantatas and motets, along with two commissions. A fall concert, First Ladies, centered around works by Rebecca Clarke, Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach, all of them now being recognized as accomplished 19th century composers. A spring program is dedicated to cantatas by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.
“It takes a seismic shift,” LeClair says, talking about inclusion, “and there has been a shift, in some ways, with the #MeToo movement. What starts out as a recognition of the harassment of women, leads to showing their viability in the world. We can’t continue the mythology that men are the giants of music.”
When it comes to re-visiting the past, LeClair, who lives in Newton, works in the trenches, doing scholarly work herself or relying on others to bring early music pieces to light. “The history of composition is super-important to the composer of today,” she says. “I was a young composer with no female models—none.
“I think of it this way,” she says. “The classical idiom is comprised of spinning out ideas—at least the major works. That’s where the discipline and the art come in. Women didn’t have that chance. Many wrote songs for home piano, just tunes, a lot of songs. There was even a term for it in the early 20th century—ladies music. But only a few were able to spin out their ideas into larger pieces—like Ethel Smyth.”
On this month’s program LeClair includes Baroque works (and earlier) by Isabella Leonarda, Chiara Cozzolani, Raffaella Aleotti, Sulpitia Cesis, and Hildegard von Bingen, with new pieces from Patricia Van Ness and Suzanne Sheppard. The Clerici Quartet provides continuo support.
“I wanted to include all the nuns that I’ve encountered in previous programs,” LeClair says. “Cozzolani was the most accomplished and most talented of all them, with a number of choral pieces. With Patti Van Ness’s piece, we had been talking about the children who were being harassed at the border, and I asked her to write something about that. That how her new work, ‘Child of the Borderlands,’ came about.”
Cappella Clausura, directed by Amelia LeClair, performs Baroque and contemporary works on Jan. 19 (Emmanuel Church in Boston) and Jan. 20 (Eliot Church in Newton). For tickets and information call 617-993-0013 or visit www.clausura.org.