Educational research has told us that students feel valued and empowered when they see themselves in the curriculum. It is our imperative, then, as well as our privilege, to select music by women for our women’s choruses.
Music “for women by women” spans the vast gamut of choral styles, from the chants of Hildegard von Bingen to pieces of today’s composers. I could not possibly write about all the composers I cherish or the pieces I love in this blog post, but my hope is to share a few with you, and hear about some of your favorites as well. Below are some pieces “for women by women” that I have found particularly satisfying. Please add your favorite “for women, by women” selections in the comments, so we can all add to our repertoire!
Be Like the Bird, Abbie Betinis
Betinis is a young composer in the Minnesota area with compositions regularly performed by professional and collegiate choruses. This canon is a rare piece of hers that will sound stunning with a group of ANY skill level. Written as a Christmas carol in the tradition of her great-uncle, Alfred Burt, the text of “Be Like the Bird” is secular, and will work any time of year. I used this piece with middle school girls with great results.
Other great pieces for women by Abbie Betinis: Cedit Hyems, Another Sky, Jerusalem Luminosa
A Palette to Paint Us As We Are, Elizabeth Alexander
This 2-part piece is best suited for a younger group, but offers enough interest and challenge for more advanced singers. The text by Gerald Rich discusses the complexity of diversity in our world—a great theme for our singers to explore together.
In Time of Silver Rain, Audrey Snyder
This is a great piece for a three-part group to get its feet wet. The melody is lovely, the parts offer interest and variety but are not terribly challenging, and the text offers a great opportunity to study Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Eleanor Daley
Eleanor Daley writes beautifully for women’s voices, with lots of flowing inverted triads, great examples of text-painting, and opportunities to develop glowing unison lines. I used this piece with an inexperienced high school women’s group, and they really took ownership of their performance.
Other great pieces for women by Eleanor Daley:
Os Justi: SSAA, a stunning and challenging setting
I’ll Give My Love an Apple: a lovely SSA setting of the Canadian folk song (thank to Dr. Hibbard for selecting this for last year’s UNL Women’s Chorus Festival)
Gentle Nature: a beautiful setting of a poem written by a fourth grader
Hymn for St. Cecilia: with text by a woman, in praise of a woman (the patron saint of music, no less!)
Rise Up, My Love: SSAA, challenging but not lengthy, setting of Song of Songs text
African Lullaby, Joan Szymko*
I programmed this piece last year with an older, but not very musically advanced group of young women. Szymko effortlessly weaves together an African bedtime story with the African American spiritual “All Night, All Day”. Rhythmic independence is a challenge in this piece, but the vocal lines are accessible for young singers.
Other great pieces for women by Joan Szymko: I Dream a World, Nada Te Turbe, Sioux Prayer
*The December 2013 issue of the Choral Journal includes a wonderful interview with Joan Szymko and a catalogue of her works.
(There aren’t many YouTube videos of African Lullaby, but here’s a lovely one of Sioux Prayer)
Joy, Jocelyn Hagen
I absolutely love this setting of the Sara Teasedale poem. This calls for an advanced group and a skilled violinist, and is probably best suited to a college ensemble or very advanced high school group. This piece is on my “bucket list”. It is also worth exploring Hagen’s Two Lullabies, commissioned by Hopkins High School Women’s Chorus.
Please add your favorite “for women by women” pieces in the comments!
Sara Cowan is in her fourth year as a choral director at Omaha Central High School, where she directs the Junior Chorus Men, Junior Chorus Women, Bel Canto Singers, and extra-curricular Freshmen Chamber Ensemble, and teaches AP Music Theory. Prior to teaching at Central, she taught for two years at Laura Jeffrey Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota and directed the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale. Sara holds a M.M. in Choral Conducting from the University of Minnesota, where she served as teaching assistant for the U of M Women's Chorus, and a B.A. in Music from Grinnell College. In addition to her work at Central, Sara directs a chorus for inmates in Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility.