Clara Schumann – First Woman Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa at the Austrian Court (1838)

In honor of the bicentennial of the birth of Clara Schumann, Byron Schenkman & Friends performed a special concert to honor her last weekend. It was a delight to hear some of her rarely-performed music, especially in such an exquisite performance. The musicians played like a single multi-faced instrument, weaving in and out of one another with energy, compassion and grace.

Clara Schumann was the First Woman Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa at the Austrian Court. She was one of those rare women who had a monetarily-successful career with her own compositions and performances. In fact, she was successful enough to support herself and her struggling husband, Robert Schumann. After Robert died, Clara was the one who kept his music alive for posterity, facilitating his preservation in the classical canon. She, on the other hand, is largely ignored.

With the permission of Byron Schenkman & Friends, I am sharing the program notes from that concert (lightly edited). References to particular pieces of music were included in the performance.

Clara Schumann Bicentennial Celebration by Byron Schenkman & Friends

Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was one of the most influential European musicians of the 19thcentury. She began her career as a child prodigy whose performances dazzled international audiences and who published ten volumes of music while still in her teens. At 18, she was named “Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa” at the Austrian court, a first for anyone so young, let alone foreign, Protestant, and female. For most of the century she was at the center of a circle of German musicians dedicated to preserving and continuing the legacy of what would come to be known as Western classical music.

Following her triumph in Vienna, Clara composed a piece she calledSouvenir de Vienne,which included variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn. Early in their marriage she and Robert Schumann jointly studied scores of chamber music by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Clara’s only piano trio was composed in 1846 and published in the following year. Clara indicated in a letter that she had dedicated her trio to the pianist and composer Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn); however, that dedication never appeared in print. Johannes Brahms performed the work in 1854 in Hamburg, and the violinist Joseph Joachim reported that it was a great favorite at the Hannover court where he was employed.

In 1835 Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of sixteen year old Clara’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 7, with her as soloist. The middle movement, a romance in the surprising key of A-flat major, is a luscious song without words for piano solo.

Robert and Clara Schumann were lifelong companions, lovers, and close colleagues who studied music together and often critiqued each other’s work. Clara outlived Robert by four decades. After his tragic early death she worked tirelessly to edit, arrange, and oversee the publication of his complete works while also supporting their large family.

During one of their few happy years together, Robert wrote a series of exquisite chamber works including his only quartet for piano and strings. Clara premiered this work at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on a program which also included Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor and Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata.

 

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Nataki Garrett – First Woman Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Earlier this year Nataki Garrett was appointed the First Woman Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A bit of history about the Festival will put the significance of this accomplishment in perspective.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival began presenting plays in 1935, beginning with Twelfth Nightand The Merchant of Venice. Angus Bowmer, the Southern Oregon University drama professor who founded the festival, directed and starred in both productions. His wife Lois created costumes and scenery.

The city of Ashland helped fund the first productions as part of their Fourth of July celebrations but was fearful the festival would not be profitable, so they convinced Bowmer to include a boxing match. The rowdiness of the match suited Bowmer’s Shakespearean mindset, so both events were held. Charging $1 for reserved seats, and $.50 for adults the theatre festival made money—and covered the losses of the boxing match.

The Festival has been in continuous production since (except for a few years during World War II). During the 1950’s performances were abridged and presented on radio as well as on stage in Ashland.  By 1971 the festival had entertained one million visitors. All 37 of Shakespeare’s plays have been presented multiple times. Several decades ago other classic plays were introduced and now at least one original play is presented each season. In its 85 years of performances, it has had only five directors, and Nataki Garrett is the First Woman.

Garrett is a director, producer, playwright, educator, activist, and arts administrator, all skills that will be required to run this extensive theatre empire. She is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts with an MFA in directing, a skill that has taken her to theatres throughout this country and to other countries as well.

In the past she served as associate dean at the California Institute of the Arts School of Theatre, and acting artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She is a champion of new works and has collaborated with Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Old Globe. Her passion is presenting new works and she continues to include those in the Festival’s programming. She believes it is important to consider the needs of the traditional audience, usually older patrons with time to travel to Ashland and the means to sustain an organization, but also to attract young audiences. She likes to “create spaces where both can rub elbows with each other.”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has blossomed during its history. Founded to present the works of a male playwright who used only men as actors, it has grown to include traditional and new plays, with casts of all genders, even women portraying “male” roles. Today more than 20 million people have attended performances in Ashland. Each year there are 750 to 850 matinee and evening performances in three theatres. Between five and eleven plays rotate six days a week. The festival has 675 paid staff, about 700 volunteers, and budget of $44 million. Garrett’s responsibilities will be significant, but she says it best, “As a little girl from Oakland raised by a single parent who was a teacher, growing up under Reaganomics, this is something beyond my wildest dreams.”

Margaret Bourke-White – Photojournalist

Margaret Bourke-White went where few women, and not too many men, had been. She was the First Woman war correspondent, the First Woman allowed in combat arenas. She was also the First Westerner to photograph Soviet industry and the First Woman to have a photo on the cover of Life magazine.

Margaret White (Bourke was her mother’s maiden name, which she appropriated later) had a rocky academic career. She attended seven different universities, studying herpetology paleontology, zoology, art, swimming and aesthetic dancing. She also studied photography at the Clarence H. White (no relation) School of Photography in New York City. By the time she graduated from Cornell University in 1927, after providing the school newspaper with pictures of the campus, her love for photography had intensified. She set up her own commercial photography studio in Cleveland where she specialized in industrial photography. Her success contributed to her invitation to photograph Soviet industry in 1930.

She was an associate editor and staff photographer for Fortunemagazine when, in 1936, Henry Luce hired her as the First Woman photojournalist for Lifemagazine. That same year she became the First Woman to have a cover on Life. Her photos of the Fort Peck Dam project were featured in an article as well.

Bourke-White took photos during the depression that are said to rival those of Dorothea Lange (another student of the Clarence H. White School of Photography). After publishing her photos in Fortune, she published the book You Have Seen Their Faceswith Erskine Caldwell (whom she married for a short while). She later took photos of how Nazism was affecting Europe and how Communism was affecting Russia. It was at this time that she captured a rare picture of a smiling Stalin.

She spent World War II capturing history as it exploded, literally, around her. She was the only photographer on the scene in Moscow when the Germans raided the Kremlin, was with the Air Force in North Africa, and photographed Buchenwald as she traveled through Europe with General Patton as the war concluded. She admitted later, that “Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.”

In all, Bourke-White was “torpedoed in the Mediterranean, staffed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on an Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow, and pulled out of the Chesapeake when her chopper crashed.” Her nickname became “Maggie the Indestructible.”

After the war she photographed the violence in the Pakistan-Indian partition and, at that time, took an iconic photograph of Ghandi, shortly before he was assassinated. She also photographed the unrest in South Africa, and the Korean War.

In her 50’s she recognized the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease but did not succumb to it readily, undergoing painful surgeries and treatment. Although her work was limited she continued to write and published her autobiography,Portrait of Myself. In all she published eleven books.

Bourke-White said that if you “saturate yourself with your subject…the camera will all but take you by the hand.” This may be accurate, but her eye for truth, her ability to see more in others than their faces, her appreciation for architectural detail, and her sense of the beauty of the ordinary were innate gifts. Today her photographs are in museums throughout the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aretha Franklin, First Woman in Fact and in our Hearts

Many have paid tribute to Aretha Franklin but few have outlined all her achievements as a First Woman:

     –First Woman inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame (and second in the UK)

     –First Woman to have 100 titles on Billboard’s top R&B/hip-hop songs chart

     –First Woman to win the newly created Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. She won this award in 1968, the year it was created. The first eight years the award was given, she won every year. She later received the award three more times and was nominated for the award a total of twenty-three times. She won seven other Grammys as well.

Aretha was an innate musician. As a child she taught herself to play the piano by ear. She was ten years old when she began to sing in her father’s church. She toured on the gospel circuit and made her first secular album in 1961. Her last album was produced just last year. She has so many Grammys, degrees, and medals her mantle must have sagged from the weight—if one mantle could even hold them all.

When musicians we loved as younger people and continued to follow as adults take their final bows, we reminisce about all the joy they gave us through the songs they sang. We do reflect on their lives, their struggles, and their successes, but more often it is the music that connects us to them, and to the world. A favorite tune becomes an “ear worm,” and rather than be annoyed at its intrusion, we rejoice in all the blessings it bestowed upon us.

We remember the special places where we heard those songs played, during our first kiss, while we pondered ending a relationship, when our love was overwhelming, when our hearts were broken. We relive those times, we rejoice in them, and we regret the passing of the voice of those memories.

For me, that connection feels even stronger with Aretha Franklin. She sang words that defined who we were, that gave us power as women, that wrenched our souls. She spoke forwomen and she made us feel like “A Natural Woman.” It is as if she, through her music, did exactly what that song said, “When my soul was in the lost and found, You came along to claim it.” Aretha Franklin built us up and comforted us in our struggles. It is with enormous “Respect,” that “I Say a Little Prayer,” for her, and for me, that I might be the woman of her songs.

Ella Higginson, First Poet Laureate of Washington State

In 1931 the state of Washington named Ella Rhoads Higginson as its first poet laureate. Not its First Woman poet laureate, its first poet laureate, period. Higginson was known throughout the United States for her depictions, both in prose and poetry, of the Pacific Northwest. And yet she received only a minimal obituary in the local paper when she died, and her name was lost to history. This changed in 2014, the day that Professor Laura Laffrado discovered Higginson’s archives in a Western Washington University library.

Ella Rhoads was born in Kansas, raised in Oregon, and settled with her husband, Russell Higginson, in Bellingham, Washington. She first published a poem when she was 14. Her early poems were published anonymously, as was the case for many women. After she married, she began to write under her own name (actually her husband’s name). She wrote more than 300 poems, published short stories, a novel, a travel book, and a newspaper column. Her novel, Mariella; of Out-West, was compared to Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Émile Zola. Her travel book, written over four summers spent in Alaska, poetically describes this unknown land, with words like “the mists, light as thistledown and delicately tinted as wild-rose petals.” The rest of the country felt invited to this distant land that was almost foreign to them.

Higginson was also an editor, having learned typesetting and editorial writing at the age of 15, while still living in Oregon. She was an editor for the Portland, OregonWest Shoreliterary magazine and an associate editor of the Pacificmagazine in Seattle.

Higginson, like many First Women, helped other women to succeed. In 1912 she was campaign manager for fellow Bellingham resident Frances C. Axtell when she ran for the Washington State House of Representatives, even though no women had served in the legislature since the state’s founding in 1889. Axtell was elected as was Nena J. Croake from Tacoma, the First two Women to serve in the Washington State Legislature.

Professor Laffredo, the hero who rescued Ella Rhoads Higginson from the dustbins of history, has given her a new life. Not only is her work being studied by Laffredo’s students, her archives are being used as a means to teach a new generation how to do research. One can only hope that this education will lead to the discovery of more women who have been erased from history.

 

P.S. Thank you to The Seattle Times for writing a superb article about Higginson and Laffrado in their Pacific NW magazine, and for re-writing her obituary to recognize her significance.