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“Vox Femina” – Behind the Music (Part 1)

Vox Femina 2013 v1 crThe Phoenix Chorale’s next concert series is titled “Vox Femina” with performances on March 2-3.  The concerts honor Women’s History Month, with pieces by, about, and dedicated to some amazing and interesting women throughout history.

While researching some of the musical pieces, I was surprised by how much exciting history was wrapped up in each song.  For any fellow history buffs out there, I thought I’d share some of the interesting things I discovered in this two part blog, delving “behind the music.”

“Vox Femina” is Latin for “the female voice.”  Yet, a number of the songs to be performed are written by male composers who have either written in dedication of an important female in their lives, or a set the words of a female writer’s prayer to song, truly illuminating the female voice.  Let’s take a look at them.

Prayer by René Clausen – This song was featured on the Kansas City Chorale’s “Life and Life & Breath CD NomsBreath” disc, which just won a GRAMMY Award!  While Clausen composed the beautiful award winning melody, the text comes from a prayer that was a personal favorite of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, written by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890).  Mother Teresa loved this prayer so much that she recited it every day after Communion.  You can hear Mother Teresa reciting the prayer herself in this very moving video:

Hymn to St. Cecilia by Benjamin Britten – The story behind this song is a little confusing but very interesting, so bear with me.  Benjamin St_cecilia_guido_reniBritten was one of the central figures of twentieth-century British classical music. From the beginning of his career, he felt compelled to compose a piece dedicated to St. Cecilia for three reasons: St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music; there is a long tradition in England of writing odes to her; and Britten was born on November 22 – St. Cecilia’s Day.  Britten was close friends with famous English poet W. H. Auden, whom he enlisted to write a poem for the Saint, which he would transform into a choral piece. Auden, who was said to be in love with Britten, wrote a three stanza piece which Britten was nearly finished composing when it was confiscated by New York Customs, who mistook the manuscript as some type of code, on his way back to England from the United States, where he had fled in objection of World War II.  After all of this, Britten rewrote and finished the manuscript from memory and it was premiered on St. Cecilia’s Day – Britten’s 29th birthday – in 1942.  Click here for a little more historical “gossip” behind this piece.

A Prayer for Eleanor Roosevelt by Timothy Hagy – This piece was originally composed for anniversary celebrations at St. Thomas’ Parish in Washington D.C., where President Roosevelt and his family were longtime members.  The words of the piece actually come from a prayer that was written by Eleanor Roosevelt herself.  According to her son Elliot, it was part of Eleanor’s nightly ritual, in which she would kneel and ask for God’s blessing with this powerful prayer of self-examination. Here is a short bio about America’s most influential first lady:

Lastly, I must mention Steven Foster, the “father of American music.”  Stephen Foster was a 19th century American composer who proved he had a natural talent for music during his short 37 years of life.  He wrote many songs which have withstood the test of time – two of which are odes to important women in his life.

481px-Oh!_Susanna_1Oh! Susanna – An anthem of the California Gold Rush, this song blends together a variety of musical traditions, referencing the banjo (an instrument with African origins) but taking its beat from polka music.  It’s one of those classic American Folk songs that everyone grew up singing but no one ever seemed to know a whole lot about. So, let me fill you in: written in 1846, with largely nonsensical lyrics, the song is said to have been composed in honor of Foster’s deceased sister, Charlotte Susannah, and it was one of his first big hits. Not only that, it was one of American music’s first big hits, selling over 100,000 copies, when no song before had sold more than 5,000!  Despite its huge success, the song earned Foster just $100 due to copyright issues, but it paved the way for him to become America’s first fully professional songwriter.

Gentle Annie – Based on an Irish melody, this lesser-known song by Stephen Foster was written 10 years later in 1856.  The song is a bidding of farewell to “gentle Annie,” the daughter of the farm who he will never see again, but there is a bit of a debate over which “Annie” he wrote the piece about.  Some suspect it was written in for his cousin, Annie Evans, who died shortly before the song was composed, while others argue it was written in honor of Annie Jenkins, a local grocer’s daughter in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.  Other sources say the song was written as a farewell to Foster’s grandmother, Annie Pratt McGinnis Hart.  So for now, the true “gentle Annie” remains a mystery.

 -Alaina Hasenmiller, Marketing & Communications Intern

Watch the “Vox Femina” concert trailer >>