When Amelia LeClair started the vocal group Cappella Clausura 10 years ago, it had a straightforward mission: to perform music written by women.
“I learned about this music, and no one was performing it,” LeClair said during a recent phone conversation. “And I thought, somebody’s gotta do it. So I took it on — somewhat innocently and unbeknownst to me what I was getting into.”
At first the group concentrated on early music — “Baroque nuns and medieval nuns,” as LeClair described them. She was fascinated by the amount of music produced by women who were “cloistered” — hence “Clausura” — so many centuries ago. Perhaps as a nod to her own training as a composer, though, she got to know the work of a few contemporary composers, such as Hilary Tann and Patricia Van Ness, and programmed some of their works. The group created its repertoire from two poles, old and new. All by women.
With a decade of experience, though, LeClair thought it a good time to try something new. So Cappella Clausura’s season-opening program, this weekend, is its first to focus almost exclusively on music of the 20th century, including the complete a cappella choral music of the British-born composer Rebecca Clarke. And the program seeks to show Clarke’s music in a broader musical context, and that means performing works by male composers for the first time.
“When I first started the group, I basically wanted, not to put too fine a point on it, to out these women composers,” said LeClair. “Now, after 10 years of doing just that, I feel it’s time we talk about context.”
Presenting a composer within the web of her associations and influences, she continued, is essential for a full understanding of her accomplishment. And, having presented a lot of music by women, LeClair felt it was important “not to ghettoize them in their own context and thereby say to the audience, women need to be heard all by themselves. They don’t. They should be able to stand alongside their colleagues.”
The strategy seems especially apt for Clarke, who was born in 1886 and entered the prestigious Royal College of Music in 1907. She spent three years there but was never allowed to complete her studies (supposedly because of persistent conflicts with her father). She maintained an active career as a violist and had what she called her “one little whiff of success” as a composer in 1919, when her viola sonata tied for first prize in a chamber music competition sponsored by the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. By the end of World War II she had effectively stopped composing.
The first work on Cappella Clausura’s program is a motet by Palestrina, whose style Clarke was assigned to learn and imitate in her own compositions during her studies. Much of her choral music has a clear Renaissance pedigree, LeClair explained, though with some unusual harmonies that give it an elusive quality closer to that of her own time. While Clarke was a student, she asked Ralph Vaughan Williams, who taught at the Royal College, to conduct her and fellow students in some of Palestrina’s works. Vaughan Williams, in turn, was a leader of the movement that drew inspiration from English folk music, a movement which touched Clarke as well. He is represented on the Cappella Clausura program by “Rest,” a gorgeous five-voice setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti.
Finally, the concert features a selection of works by Benjamin Britten, who would attend the Royal College after Clarke. LeClair hears a few similarities between the two composers’ languages, and is putting their works side by side so that listeners can hear how they handled the same forces. The concert also includes Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” which is worth hearing in just about any context.
Thinking about Cappella Clausura’s new direction, 10 years into its existence, brings up the question of how much has changed for women in composition. We live in a different world, obviously, than the one in which British conductor Thomas Beecham notoriously said, “there are no women composers, never have been, and possibly never will be.” At least in theory, a composer’s output is now judged solely by its content, not the gender of the person writing it.
And yet, LeClair said, “when I think about people like Rebecca Clarke, I think, we haven’t come very far at all.” Most of her work remains out of print and difficult to find. The situation is the same with women who came both before and after her: Many of their works remain unknown, unpublished, and unperformed. “And if an entire gender’s worth of music can disappear,” she said, “that brings up the question, how far have we come?
“I want all of this music to become part of the standard canon,” she continued. “That’s my unambiguous goal. To just get people to understand that this music should be out there — it should be performed, it should be appreciated, it should get to be known. Not because it’s politically correct to do so, but because it’s beautiful music.”