Chorus to sing women composers’ works

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Robert Friedman

Columbia Pro Cantare will present the works of three women composers in its concert on March 21. The choral group will be accompanied by the Howard County Symphony Orchestra.
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pro Cantare

The works of three women composers — whose lives spanned from the Middle Ages to the 20th century — will be featured at Columbia Pro Cantare’s next concert on March 21 in Columbia.

Singers of the 100-member choral group will perform three pieces, including the “Grand Mass in E-flat Major” by Amy Beach (1867-1944), who made her mark as a leading composer of the New England School; a lieder by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847), the sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn; and a liturgical chant by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1177), a German nun who is recognized as a saint by branches of the Roman Catholic Church.

The choral group will be accompanied by the Howard County Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Ronald Mutchnik.

Director Frances Motyca Dawson, who founded Pro Cantare in 1977, said that she had wanted to do an all-woman-composers program for years, and that the opportunity has finally arrived.

“Women’s issues are really in the news now,” said Dawson, “and it seems a significant time to look at women in music. There are many very fine contemporary women composers out there whose works are being celebrated and performed.”

Dawson was inducted into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2006.

Celebrating forgotten composers

For the coming concert, the choral group will be “looking back and putting the light on women composers who were celebrated in their time, but are now all but forgotten.

“In choosing these high achievers for this concert,” Dawson said, “I hope to encourage women who have gifts in all fields, including music, to take them as examples and develop their own gifts, in spite of hurdles they may face.”   

The mass by Amy Beach, who was also a concert pianist and wrote symphonies and songs, will highlight the program.

Beach was famous, influential and admired as a composer in the early part of the 20th century, Dawson noted. She was the first American woman to compose a symphony.

Her “Grand Mass” was premiered in Boston in 1892 by the Handel and Hayden Society, the nation’s oldest and perhaps most conservative choral group, whose performance of a woman’s composition was another first for Beach.

The performance at the March concert will feature four soloists: soprano Jenifer Holbrook, mezzo Leah Kaye Serr, tenor Johnn Noh, and baritone Steven Eddy.

Emerging from Felix’s shadow

The Columbia chamber singers also will perform three partsongs (multisectional works) from Fanny Mendelssohn’s composition, “Gartenlieder  (Garden Songs) Op. 3.” Mendelssohn has been noted as a central figure in assisting her brother Felix in his career and life.

Today her own musical talent is finally being recognized. Like her brother, she showed prodigious musical ability as a child and began to write music. But prevailing attitudes toward women in any role other than that of homebody kept her in her brother’s shadow.

Felix did, however, arrange for some of her songs to be published — under his name. This supposedly caused him an embarrassing moment in 1842, when he was received at Buckingham Palace by Queen Victoria. Her Highness reportedly told the composer that she would sing to him her favorite of his songs, “Italien.” Mendelssohn confessed that the song was written by his sister Fanny.

The program will open with sopranos from Pro Cantare Chamber Singers performing the chant, “O Jerusalem,” composed by Hildegard von Bingen. The medieval German nun was also, among other things, a mystic, visionary, abbess, author of religious and scientific treatises, playwright, naturalist and philosopher.

A volunteer chorus

Columbia Pro Cantare, a volunteer chorus composed of singers mostly from Howard County, is entering its 38th year of concerts that have ranged from the classics to opera, oratorio, folk music and spirituals. The choral group has performed 14 world premieres, including 12 commissioned works by Maryland composers.

There will be a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m. at the Jim Rouse Theater. It will be given by musicologist Barbara Renton, who will explore the contributions of women composers over nine centuries. The theater is located at 5460 Trumpeter Rd., Columbia.

Advance tickets for the concert are $23 for the general public; $20 for seniors and students. Add $2 for tickets bought at the door. To order tickets, go to, or call (410) 799-9321.