August is the time many church musicians begin planning for Advent through Pentecost. There is a multitude of composers to choose from for new music and, of course, well-known favorites. As we begin our preparations, we try to reflect the readings and prayers of a day through our organ selections, choir anthems and hand bell repertoire. However, there are many compositions of a general nature that fit many different contexts. One of these is Organ Music by Women Composers before 1800 - VIV 303. We know that women have been composing organ music for at least five centuries. Calvert Johnson, the editor of the volume writes in the preface, “The first organist, Thais, was the wife of Ctesibos, the inventor of the organ, in the third century BCE, at Alexandria, Egypt, but very few organ compositions by women before 1800 have survived. There is considerable iconographic evidence from antiquity of the activities of women organists, many of them Christian, because their sarcophagi depict the organ.”
Also included in the volume Organ Music by Women Composers before 1800 is a piece by a Gracia Baptista, a Spanish nun. This is one of the first publications of organ music in Spain (1557), Libro de Cifra Nueva para tecla, harpa y vihuela (Book in the New Tablature for keyboard, harp and vihuela) and contains Gracia Baptista’s organ piece Creator alme siderum (Creator of the Stars at Night). Although an Advent hymn, the text is general enough to use throughout the year. In addition, the editor has supplied an ornamented version of the hymn with fingerings and added rhythms typical of the performance practice of the time.
Another early woman composer in the volume is Caterina Assandra, an Italian nun active in the music scene near Milan in the early seventeenth century. She published motets as well as two organ pieces, Ave verum corpus and Ego flos campi. Similar in style to Creator alme siderum, there is also the possibility of additional rhythmic variations and ornamentation.
Very little is known about Miss Steemson, the last composer in Organ Music by Women Composers before 1800. The lack of information about historical women composers is not unusual, unfortunately. Miss Steemson was a church organist in Lancaster, England and wrote this funeral piece, A Dirge for Funerals, around 1780, and uses the swell box to great advantage. Interestingly, the music does not reflect its somber title. If played at a quicker tempo, it resembles a charming trumpet tune. A CD recording of the pieces by Miss Steemson, Gracia Baptista and Caterina Assandra is available from Vivace Press, Organ Music by Women Composers (Gasparo) CD 294.
Another piece not to be missed is Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s (1805-1847) newly discovered wedding recessional that she wrote for her own wedding in 1829, Prelude in G Major, from Organ Works in G Major. A stately march, it alternates between sections of full chords and imitative passages. It is available on Hester Park CD 7704 from Vivace Press.
Meet Vittoria Aleotti – aka Raphaela Aleotta (c. 1574-1646), an accomplished composer of madrigals and motets. She was a nun from the San Vito convent in Italy. Her madrigals and motets, transcribed for brass ensembles, have just been released by Encore Music Publishers in 2012: Ripresa – the music of Vittoria Aleotti, Madrigals Vol. I; and Motets Vol. II. An example of her motet style is Exurgat Deus (Let God Arise and Scatter His Enemies), from Psalm 67. This is for brass quintet, trumpets I and II, horns I and II, trombone, and tuba. A delightful Christmas arrangement is Angelus ad pastores ait (Gabriel Said unto the Shepherds) from 1593 for trumpets I, II, III, horn, and trombone. Another Christmas arrangement is Facta est cum Angelo (With the Angel There Suddenly Appeared) transcribed for trumpets I and II, horns I and II, and trombone. Easter time brings Ascendens Christus in altum (Christ has Ascended to Heaven) for trumpets I and II, horns I and II, and trombone. These are outstanding arrangements of late Renaissance motets and madrigals and would be appreciated by the congregation.
You need not wait until Women’s History Month to explore the exceptional organ compositions of women composers, such as Gracia Baptista, Roberta Bitgood, Amy Beach, Elizabeth Stirling, Jeanne Demessieux, Ethel Smyth, Sharon Willis, Gwyneth Walker, Christina Harmon and Emma Lou Diemer, just to name a few.