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Fall 1996 Concert
Tom T., Artistic Director
Dawn G., Accompanist
(Program Notes follow the list of tunes)
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We were honored to be asked to perform for the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and took this opportunity to develop a program that celebrates the power of women. This collective and individual power enables us to overcome tremendous obstacles and achieve our rightful place and full potential. And it enables us to work to create a better world.
The first set of pieces we call "Ancient Mothers." In it we celebrate foremothers both real and archetypal. Harriet Tubman was probably the foremost figure of the underground railroad. Often called Grandma Moses for her role in leading her people out of slavery and into the promised land, she escaped slavery herself, and returned to the south nineteen times to lead other slaves to freedom in the north. She never lost a passenger. Joan of Arc was first hailed as a visionary and freedom fighter in medieval France, and then condemned and burned at the stake as a witch by the catholic church (the universal Christian church of the time); in this century, the same church finally declared her a saint. Leslie Feinberg (author of Stone Butch Blues) makes the point that perhaps Joan's greatest crime was having the temerity to dress as a man.
Music In My Mother's House is a favorite of many chorus members, who grew up in musical households and who now find ourselves at a stage of life where we miss our musical ancestors deeply. The traditional native American tune Ancient Mother reminds us of a time when the Mother Goddess was worshipped in her many forms throughout various cultures, symbolizing the divine feminine and the source of all life.
The slaves of the American south found hope and solace in song, often expressing in coded references a desire for freedom, and sometimes even specific directions for achieving it (Follow the Drinking Gourd advised the slaves to follow the Big Dippers' handle pointing north). Our set of spiritually centered tunes includes several of these: Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Study War No More.
River is the theme to the movie The Mission, a beautiful and disturbing film set in the Amazon basin in the eighteenth century. Many native Americans were highly talented at performing music in the classical European style, and this tune evokes that effect.
Namasté is from the Hindu tradition, a greeting in Sanskrit from my heart and soul to yours; its essence acknowledges the divinity within each being. This piece by Christine Korb won an International Peace Award in 1984 after its premiere performances in Poland. We conclude this set with Vivaldi's Gloria because we simply love singing it.
Three Js and a C perform two a cappella tunes. On Children was composed by the prolific and profoundly talented songwriter, Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock, based on lyrics from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. This is the Flirtations' arrangement. When They Know Who We Are is by singer-songwriter Jamie Anderson.
We perform music in a wide variety of styles, and the next set continues the classical theme established in the Vivaldi piece, with a lighthearted madrigal. The last tune in this set celebrates the power of the human heart to triumph over great hardship. Margaret Dryburgh, Nora Chambers, and 600 other previously pampered and privileged women and children of the upper classes were interned in a Japanese prison camp on the island of Sumatra during world war two. Working from their memory of the orchestral originals of pieces by classical composers, Dryburgh and Chambers created four-part a cappella vocal arrangements on scraps of paper. Under harrowing conditions of filth and disease, dressed in rags and seated on little stools because they were too weak to stand, the singers sang these moving pieces. At the international festival of Gay and Lesbian Choruses which was held in July in Tampa (and attended by five thousand singers), two of our members learned this moving arrangement of Dvorak's New World Symphony, and have shared it with us. (Later note by web editor: This music and experience is now the subject of a movie, Paradise Road. The arrangements are collectively known as Songs of Survival.)
Susan L., chorus member and vocalist with Harrisburg's Old World Folk Band, has been researching and singing Yiddish folk and art songs for over 12 years. (Yiddish was the vernacular [non-religious language] of eastern European Jews prior to World War II.) Delving into the musical literature of eastern European Jewry has given her keys to unlock treasures of a largely destroyed culture, and she shares her insights in a range of a cappella lecture/recitals. Of particular interest to her are the music composed and sung during the period of the Holocaust, and the songs that capture women's lives and unique experiences.
A Gutn Ovnt Brayne was unearthed by singer Adrienne Cooper, who pored over a four-volume collection of Yiddish folk songs published in Israel, searching for evidence of domestic abuse in a culture that has traditionally valued the concept of "shalom bayis" (peace in the household). It is a song that captures the terror of marital violence. This is her translation:
Good night, Brayne, my dearest friend. My heart is in ashes since I've been with that murderer, my husband. I forgot to buy the herbs -- my mother had to bring meat to the house. Ach, the soup's boiled down to nothing... Good night, good night. O Brayne, stay! He hit me yesterday! Beat me black and blue. I'm too ashamed to tell anyone. Good night, Good night... O Brayne, I would divorce him; leave the child to him, but I am so alone, I want only to lie down in the street and not ever get up again.
Susan's next tune begins a set devoted to songs of collective hope and power, from the great social change movements of our grandmothers -- and great grandmothers' generations. Arbeter-Froyen is an early labor movement anthem (1892) directed at working women. Many of the movers and shakers in the radical labor movement at the turn of the century were women. Their boldness in breaking out of sex role stereotypes within their own families gave them a taste of both risk and victory that easily translated into leading the masses in struggles for equality.
This was one of the first and most popular songs in czarist Russia, where oppressive working conditions were rampant. Recalling a tanners' strike in 1897, Abba Levin wrote that "the strikers sang workers' songs with great enthusiasm, mainly Edelshat's "Arbeter-froyen." It remains a brilliant piece of women's history for us to reclaim. This translation is by Chana Mlotek:
Working women, suffering women. Women who languish at home and in the factory. Why are you standing on the sidelines? Why aren't you helping build a temple of freedom, of human happiness? Help us to carry the red banner forward through the storm, through dark nights! Help us to spread truth and light among ignorant, lonely slaves! Help us to raise the world from its squalor and achieve everything we value. Fight together like mighty lions -- for freedom, equality, our ideals! More than once have brave women made tyrants and thrones tremble. They've shown, during the bitterest storms, that they can be trusted with the holy flag.
On the Internet, at the world wide web site of Women's Voices of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a community chorus dedicated to programming a repertoire of 50 percent music by women composers, we found the following background on the composer of The March of the Women.
Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1944) overcame the constraints of her middle-class English background by open rebellion. Taught piano and theory as ladylike accomplishments, she became so concentrated in her studies that her family deemed them unsuitably intense, and stopped her lessons. The teenaged Ethel went on a protracted and progressively more severe strike, finally confining herself to her room and refusing to attend meals, church, or social functions unless her father would send her to Leipzig to study composition.
After two years the embattled Mr. Smyth gave in, and Ethel went to Leipzig, where her larger-than-life personality found an aesthetic outlet in the development of a Brahmsian idiom. She gained some recognition in England with the performance of her Mass in D for chorus and orchestra in 1893, and struggled to get her operas performed.
A woman of boisterous vitality who fell prey to inconvenient passions for persons of both sexes, Smyth was affectionately caricatured in E.F. Benson's Dodo novels and mocked by Virginia Woolf. In 1910, Smyth met Emmaline Pankhurst, the founder of the British women's suffrage movement and head of the militant and extremely well organized Women's Social and Political Union. Struck by Mrs. Pankhurst's mesmerizing public speeches, Smyth pledged to give up music for two years and devote herself to the cause of votes for women.
The March of the Women was written in 1911 and premiered by a chorus of suffragists at a fundraising rally at the Albert Hall in London on March 23, 1911. It became the battle cry of the suffrage movement, and was published in arrangements for mixed voices and unison singing.
Its most famous, though least public performance occurred in Holloway prison in London in 1912: over 100 suffragists, including Mrs. Pankhurst and Ethel Smyth, who had smashed windows of suffrage opponents' homes in well-coordinated simultaneous incidents all over London, were arrested, tried, and sentenced to two months' imprisonment. Ethel Smyth found her time in prison an exalting experience of communal determination and sacrifice by women of all ages and classes.
One day, while the prisoners were taking their outdoor exercise, Ethel Smyth appeared at a window overlooking the prison yard, and conducted their singing of the suffrage battle anthem by waving her toothbrush.
In 1911, the Massachusetts state legislature passed a law limiting the work hours of children to 54 hours per week. In retaliation for this worker victory, the textile corporations cut the hours of all employees to 54, and cut wages correspondingly. On January 1, 1912, the workers in the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile mills began a nine-week strike. In their walkout marches, the women carried banners reading "Bread and Roses", announcing their fight for the beautiful things that make of life worth living, as well as for life's necesssities. James Oppenheim wrote a song inspired by those banners. It has been set to many tunes; the hymn-like version we perform is arranged by Jane Hulting, who directs Anna Crusis Women's Choir of Philadelphia.
While the causes of domestic violence are cultural, it is intimate in nature. Recognizing this, we have included a set of songs on the nature of love. Malvina Reynolds' If You Love Me offers a model for a healthy approach. Gonna Get Along Without You Now, which was sung by the "girl group" Patience and Prudence in the fifties, does too.
We chose to conclude the concert with Sisters, You Keep Me Fighting to honor the women of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and all the members of our audience (both sisters and brothers) whose patient courageous struggle emboldens all of us to be silent no more!
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