Mandolin Music by Women Composers

by Neil Gladd

This is not an exhaustive survey of mandolin music by women, just a little narrative history (or herstory) of the pieces I have played, and how some of them came about. I had been planning to do this for quite a while, and the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day seemed like a good day to finally do it!

My first exposure to classical music was through a set of LPs that my parents got as a one-a-week deal through their local supermarket in Rochester, NY. I am told that my favorite piece was the Offenbach Can Can music, which was the first piece on the first record. One day, when I was still in elementary school, I remember looking at the portraits of all the bearded composers that were on every cover, and it suddenly occurred to me that all of them were men. I found myself wondering why none of the composers were women.

Fast forward to 1978. I had just graduated from college, and was continuing my research into the mandolin repertoire that I had begun as a student. This included writing to music publishers for catalogs, especially to publishers of contemporary music, which was more likely to use the mandolin. One night on WGMS (DC’s now out of business commercial classical station), I heard an interview with Clara Lyle Boone, a local composer who had started a publishing company, Arsis Press, specifically to publish women composers. The next day I looked up Arsis Press in the phone book (there was not yet an Internet!!!), called and spoke to Ms. Boone for a few minutes, and she sent me a catalog. It arrived a few days later, but did not include any mandolin music.

In 1980, I saw that there was a Continuing Education course being offered at Georgetown University on The Composers of Washington. I really wanted to take it so that I could meet some other local composers but didn’t have the $50 fee to sign up, so I sold my high school ring for scrap gold to pay for the class. It was organized by composer Frances Thompson McKay, and each week, three composers would play some of their compositions (either live, or from recordings) and talk about their music. Clara Lyle Boone was both one of the composers presented, and a fellow student in the class. On her week, three of her songs were performed live with piano, one of which was her Slumber Song, which was written for voice and melody instrument, rather than piano.

I talked to Ms. Boone after the class, and when she offered me an Arsis Press catalog, she was slightly taken aback when I told her that I already had one. “And WHERE, may I ask, did you GET it?!” I told her that she had sent one after my call, so then she asked if I had found any music of interest. I said that she hadn’t published anything for either of my instruments, the mandolin or the harpsichord, but that her Slumber Song sounded like it would work on the mandolin, and I was looking for music to program with the mandolin songs of Mozart. She came to a recital I did later that year and really liked my playing, and in 1981 I played Slumber Song and Mozart together for the first time with Marilyn Boyd DeReggi (whose birthday is today!)

It was as a result of that concert that I met Norman Levine, who was just about to start his mandolin publishing company, Plucked String Editions. I became the Music Editor, both selecting scores for publication and preparing them for the printer. In 1983, the Music Library Association had their annual meeting in the Washington, DC area, and to save money, Arsis Press and Plucked String Editions shared an exhibit table. There were a lot of quiet periods during the convention, so Clara (we were pretty good friends by this point) and I had a lot of time to talk, there. Since she really liked my playing, and knew that I wanted to get new music written for the mandolin, she started introducing me to the composers in her catalog, the first being Elizabeth Vercoe. Having Clara as a reference gave me an in, and since I was now connected with a publisher, myself, I could offer potential publication as an incentive to composers.

I met Elizabeth a few months later when she was in town for a few days, and when my first recording came out in 1984, I sent her a copy of that, and also made a little mandolin demonstration tape. I had really liked her piano writing from the recordings I had heard, so I asked her to write a piece for mandolin and piano. The result was  A la fin — tout seul (1985) for mandolin with (optional) piano, the first piece to be written for me!

The next composer I met through Clara was Clare Shore, who was then living in Northern Virginia (as was I). I had the score for her Dickinson Songs with harpsichord and liked them, so I asked her to write for mandolin and voice (looking for more music to play with Mozart). She decided to write them as vocalises, so that the vocal line could also be performed  instrumentally. (So far I have performed them with voice, flute and violin.)

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Vercoe had passed my demo tape on to another of her composer friends, Pamela Marshall, who wrote a piece for solo mandolin, Mandolin Night. I premiered all three of these pieces on the same concert at a Women’s Music Festival in Boston in 1985, and played Slumber Song, again, as well. All three works were eventually published by Plucked String Editions.

In 1986 I had my first performances in Europe, and played A la fin — tout seul and Mandolin Night at mandolin festivals in Germany, Belgium and Sweden, and if I remember correctly, I was the ONLY PERSON to play any women composers at three international festivals!!!  At one point, I played Mandolin Night informally for some German mandolinists, and they were amazed by the piece. One of them asked to look at the score, and then exclaimed “PAMELA? EINE WEIBE!!!” He couldn’t believe, first, that an American had written such an exciting piece, much less a woman! I played A la fin — tout seul again on a 4 city mini-tour in 1987 that included my NY debut at Carnegie Recital Hall.

I found a number of other pieces by women at this time by Laurie Spiegel, Nancy Carroll and Carol Ann Weaver that I also included on my concerts. I performed three pieces by Carol Ann Weaver, and also premiered one, but they were not written for me – she was married to a mandolinist!

In the course of my research, I had found a few contemporary pieces written for the electric mandolin, so I built my own to play them on. Once I had it, Elizabeth Vercoe and Pamela Marshall each wrote new pieces for it: Electric Bebop (Vercoe), and a 3 movement Concerto for Electric mandolin and tape (Marshall)!

Elizabeth Vercoe’s third mandolin work, Herstory IV, for mezzo and mandolin, is my favorite, but it took a long time for me to play it. She finished writing it in 1997, but in 1996 I had fallen and broken my arm, and it would be 5 years before I did another recital. I did some solo recitals in 2001, but by 2002, I had such a backlog of premieres to give (including 3 of MY pieces!), that I set up a concert for mandolin, guitar and 2 singers to get caught up! Herstory IV finally got it’s first performance with mandolin, with mezzo, Marjorie Bunday. The concert also included my first performances (not premieres) of The Girl’s Song to Her Mother by Hilary Tann (also with Marjorie Bunday), and September Swale by Beth Anderson, with guitarist, Steve Smith.

Since then,  I have gone on to repeat some of these pieces at later concerts, but the only new piece that I have done is the Kyrie from The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, by Carol Barnett, with the Great Noise Ensemble at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre.

Other concerts (and new music) are in the works, so stay tuned!

All the pieces I have performed, to date:

Anderson, Beth
September Swale (1993) [Mand, Gtr]

Barnett, Carol
The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass (Kyrie, only) [Chorus, Orch and Bluegrass band]

Carroll, Nancy
Songs from the Heart of a Child (1979) [Sop, Mand, Gtr]

Clarke, Rebecca (1886-1979)
3 English Folk Song Settings (1925) [Sop, Vn]

Marshall, Pamela J.
Concerto for Electric Mandolin and Tape (1987) (first performance)
Mandolin Night (1985) [Mand] (first performance)

Shore, Clare
Four Vocalises (1985) [Sop, Mand] (first performance)

Spiegel, Laurie
Song Without Words (1986) [Mand, Gtr] (first performance)

Tann, Hilary 
The Girl’s Song to Her Mother [Voice, Oboe (melody instrument)

Vercoe, Elizabeth
A la fin — tout seul (1985) [Mand, (Pno)] (first performance)
Jazz Suite (1987) [El-Mand, Pno] (first performance)
Herstory IV (1997) [mezzo, mand or Mar]

Weaver, Carol Ann
Lyra (1983) [Solo Mand] (first performance)
Salterella (1981/86) [El-Mand, Pno]
Die Zeit ist Kurz (1983) [Bar, Mand, Pno]