Choir performs five centuries of female composers in Sidney

Vox Femina performs great, overlooked, works

The Victoria Mendelssohn Choir is named for composer Felix Mendelssohn, but an upcoming concert in Sidney will feature another F. Mendelssohn: his sister, Fanny, along with many overlooked female composers.

Maestro Simon Leung said he had always been interested in the work of female composers, but he said until the late 19th century, very few were ever published. If they were published, their work was attributed to men. Leung began researching two years ago, and was helped by the choir’s accompanist, Michael Gaudet, who is a researcher at UVic’s music and media library.

“We discovered there is so much material,” said Leung.

He wanted to provide a cross-section of choral music from female composers, so from hundreds of works he chose 15 from late Baroque period to the 20th century, focusing on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Felix’s older sister. The selection will treat audiences on Jan. 26 in Victoria and Jan. 28 in Sidney.

Unlike many well-known choral works like Handel’s Messiah, the choristers had never seen this music before.

“They didn’t know what to expect until the music was presented to them,” said Leung. “And when they sang it for the first time, they thought it was really fresh. The sound is incredible. It truly is.”

Leung said many popular songs were written by women, but they were often attributed to men either because publishers would not publish women or because of scholarly errors. In the case of Fanny Mendelssohn, her Easter Sonata was attributed to “F. Mendelssohn,” so scholars assumed it was her brother’s work. But in 2010, an American historian, Angela Mace Christian, analyzed the handwriting and proved it was Fanny, not Felix, who wrote the work.

Katie Pirquet, an alto in the choir, said Fanny was a very serious composer until her marriage when “the convention of the time was that a married lady would not go out and perform for money or anything like that.” She mostly disappeared from the public eye, but she continued to compose at the encouragement of her husband. The choir is performing one of Fanny’s masses, dedicated to Saint Cecilia (the patron saint of music) which Leung said she wrote in a matter of hours.

“You can see the constraints these women were under. There’s a pattern of pushing against the boundaries,” said Pirquet.

Amy Beach, who died in 1944, is the most modern composer on the program. Leung said Beach’s music carries a “new American sound” that subverts certain European traditions.

“It’s harsh, in a way, but silky smooth in another,” said Leung.

Pirquet said that unlike Vittoria Aleotti, a 15th-century nun whose music is also featured, Beach was not operating under similar constraints.

“[Beach] was a professional musician, and remarkably well-known in America.”

Like Leung, Pirquet is also excited by the variety of time period and subject matter.

“One is this religious piece to St. Cecilia and there are several that are paeans to nature. There’s one about the forest and the evening,” said Pirquet. “They’re just these beautiful, romantic pieces about nature, and of course the Romantics always wanted their music to go with the words. They’re incredibly evocative.”

The 25-member choir is also looking for new members, and holding auditions in January.

The choir performs Fri. Jan. 26 at the Chapel of the New Jerusalem at Christ Church Cathedral at 7:30 p.m. and Sun. Jan. 28 at the SHOAL Centre (10030 Resthaven Drive) at 3 p.m.

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