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Mirrored: what if classical concerts reflected the unheard

A few years ago, a popular classical music social media channel had posted something mundane as ranking the height of all the “great” historical classical music composers.  The compiled list, of course, only consisted of white, male composers in the Western European classical music tradition.  I had the audacity to comment on the post questioning why no women were included in this list of “great” composers, to which someone anonymously responded, “Show me a woman whose is a great composer.”  Unfortunately, a composer cannot be labeled as great if they were never first bestowed the opportunity to be heard.  Can classical music concerts reflect the unheard and still be great?  Herein lies the catalyst for our concert, “Mirrored”: to reflect the choral works of some historically excluded composers while including them alongside their more famous contemporaries.

A composer cannot be labeled as great if they were never first bestowed the opportunity to be heard.

The criteria used to deem a classical composer “great” where their music was published, performed, and carried throughout history is multifaced, biased, and contingent upon a deep understanding of Western music theory.  However, it is likely easier to highlight some criteria we know hindered such distinctions: gender, race, and class.  In recent years, many classical music organizations have woken to this disparity and worked to tip the scales by presenting a concert consisting fully of music composed by composers who might fit into a historically excluded category.  While the intention of such performances is well-placed, the outcome can be perceived as tokenism.  How to we unequivocally include works of the unheard in our concert programming while also calling attention to the lack of parity still prevalent in the classical music world?  We carve a space for this music to be heard and reference the context of its creation.


Additionally, for those unheard composers who are finally having their music uncovered, published, and performed, the critiques that their work is not on par with their famous counterparts is sometimes referenced.  While this assessment of such compositions might be accurate, it is a woefully misguided interpretation.  Imagine the music such excluded composers could have created had they received the permission, encouragement, education, and financial support given to their non-excluded counterparts.  In the face of such critiques, our purpose as musicians is to discover the merits and beauty of a composition and transform it into a sonic and moving experience. 

Our purpose as musicians is to discover the merits and beauty of a composition and transform it into a sonic and moving experience.

For this upcoming concert, we have crafted an experience featuring the music of the unheard from the Baroque and Classical periods to be celebrated among their more famous contemporaries featuring Connecticut’s versatile vocal chamber ensemble, Voices of Concinnity, and the Brombaugh, Opus 3 tracker-action organ at St. Mark’s Chapel in Storrs played by Dr. Charles Houmard.  

“Mirrored” includes a composer who had to become a nun for her music to be published, one who was the first woman to achieve the qualification of Chapel Master of Rome, and one who became the first woman to join the Bologna Academy of Music, along with a few works by their more familiar counterparts. Here is a brief introduction to these prolific composers:


Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c.1677) spent her adult life as a nun in Santa Radegonda in Milan, which were said to have the best singers in Italy. At the time, only women of means or in a convent were able to compose music.  Cozzolani is one of only a dozen or so nuns in seventeenth-century Italy who published their music.  The vibrant motet we are singing composed for 8-voices by Cozzolani will be paired with a double-choir motet by another early Baroque composer, Heinrich Schütz, who was a prolific German composer with over 500 surviving works but is often overshadowed in the history books by Johann Sebastian Bach. 


A child prodigy who later fought for her music to be taken seriously, Maria Rosa Coccia (1759-1833) was a composer, teacher, and harpsichordist.  She worked to convince everyone that women can write [music] just as well as men.  Coccia’s compositions followed the typical styles of the time period, which you will hear in the double choir motet “Dixit” that we are performing (there are no known recordings). This aligning with convention is likely due to the challenges for women to take risks in an activity where few women resided.  The “Dixit” will be paired with a stunning double choir motet with a complicated past by Johann Christoph Bach (although attributed to J.S. Bach for much of history and some scholars believe it is correct).  Despite setbacks, Coccia continued to compose, once writing, “How can we convince the world that it needs music, just as the body needs nutrients?”


Often invited by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to perform four-hand piano sonatas alongside him, Marianna Martines (1744-1812) started as a child prodigy that began piano lessons with a young Joseph Haydn. Although music historian Charles Burney wrote of her skills as singer, keyboard artist, and accomplished composer of oratorios, masses, sacred and secular choral works, chamber cantatas, and more, Martines has been largely unknown throughout history despite her very famous circle of acquaintance. Currently only 65 of her compositions survived, even though a biographer listed at least 159 more works. Some scholars have even suggested that W.A. Mozart modeled a mass after the “Christe” of one Martines’ mass settings.  We will be performing her setting of “Miserere mei, Deus” which will be accompanied with Joseph Haydn’s “Kleine orgelmesse” or “Little organ mass” to further showcase the beautiful symmetry between the organ and the human voice.


To round out our compelling concert featuring the beautiful sound of voices and organ scheduled for Saturday, April 6 at 7:00pm, we will be performing a thoroughly pleasing and moving aural experience of Arvo Pärt’s “The Beatitutes”. 

So much of classical music performance has become, or perhaps always has been, about showcasing perfection or elevating the genius of a particular composer rather than the capability of the music to compel the musicians and audience to feel or be transformed.  It begs the question whether we believe that a historical composition loses its merit if it is not by one of the “greats”.  Alternatively, audiences for pop music stars rarely comment on the compositional genius after those concert-going experiences.  What if we viewed classical concerts as an exercise in the potential of music to move our emotions or to serve as learning opportunity for the next generation of composers? Performances of historical repertoire of the unheard, forgotten, lost, known, and famous could co-exist harmoniously (pun intended, of course).


Sarah Kaufold is the artistic director of Voices of Concinnity and their sponsoring non-profit choral arts organization, Consonare Choral Community.


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