When Amelia LeClair was studying for her B.A. in composition at University of Massachusetts Boston in the 1970s, she faced a staggering dearth of female role models in her field. “Maybe Ruth Crawford Seeger was mentioned,” she said over a cup of mint tea at Harvard Square’s Cafe Algiers. “Not listened to. Mentioned.” LeClair says she was alienated by her male classmates’ practice of sitting around with a teacher to tell obscene jokes at lunchtime, and discouraged by the boys-club atmosphere of composition. “Some people said to me, ‘Women can’t compose.’ And I believed that! Because I didn’t see any evidence to the contrary.”
Decades later, LeClair has become part of a circle of scholars, musicians, and conductors — mostly women — who unearth and perform the music of female composers history has forgotten. “We know that there’s a boatload of composers from the past, and that they were just as good as the guys, but for whatever reason they were forbidden, forgotten, hidden away, oppressed. So I was determined as a lifelong raging feminist to bring them out in the open, and I didn’t see anyone else doing that,” explained LeClair, who founded the Boston-based vocal group Cappella Clausura in 2004. With the ensemble, which will perform this weekend in Boston and Newton, she makes it her mission to present and connect the work of female composers both past and present.
LeClair, who obtained a master’s degree in conducting from New England Conservatory, is eager to credit musicians and musicologists such as Candace Smith and Laurie Monahan, who researched female composers while attending the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, an early music bastion in Switzerland. “We actually were even allowed to put some of these priceless manuscripts face down on copy machines!” Monahan, who teaches at Longy School of Music of Bard College and Berklee College of Music, recalled in an e-mail.
These early female composers were most often nuns, who wrote for choruses in their convents. The most well-known is Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German Benedictine abbess and polymath who composed some of the most fascinating monophonic chants surviving to this day. But other examples abound, such as Chiara Margarita Cozzolani and Sulpitia Cesis, 17th-century Italian nuns. Taking religious vows allowed women to pursue music without the responsibilities of marriage, children, or society, and with access to trained singers capable of performing complex works.
However, this did not mean they were totally free to compose as they willed. “The Vatican had rules about what nuns could have in their convents and what they could sing,” LeClair said. In Italy, nuns would frequently perform for the public, and the church issued frequent edicts against polyphonic music in cloistered orders. In the 1660s, the new Archbishop of Milan cracked down on the nuns at Cozzolani’s Convent of Santa Radegonda, strictly curtailing their musical activities.
LeClair cited Smith’s Cappella Artemisia in Bologna as inspiring her work in bringing this music back to life. “Candace has been transcribing a whole bunch of stuff because she’s been raiding Bologna’s library,” said LeClair, listing off composer after composer excitedly.
LeClair’s current project as a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University focuses on the Mass in D by Dame Ethel Smyth, a late Romantic composer whose opera “Der Wald” was the only opera by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera prior to last December’s production of Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin.” “It’s absolutely extraordinary,” said LeClair. “And it’s not available except in handwritten chicken scratch. I can’t read that, and I absolutely would not be able to conduct from it.” Her goal is to create a working performance edition of the piece, with readable orchestral parts, so more groups may discover Smyth’s work.
“A Caravan of Song,” which Cappella Clausura will perform this weekend, places music by female medieval troubadours next to “From Behind the Caravan,” a work by the American composer Abbie Betinis with text by the 14th-century Sufi poet Hafez. The works’ common threads of love and longing drew LeClair to program them together. Clausura’s recent album, “Exultet Terra,” mixes works by Hildegard of Bingen with Hildegard-inspired works by Hilary Tann. “There, right there, was a tangible connection between an ancient piece of music written 1,000 years ago and a piece being written right now. Fresh ink, as they say,” said LeClair.
LeClair is resolute that no woman should be discouraged from composing as she was, as she collaborates with living composers and brings to life the music of women through the ages. “We’re in this kind of sisterhood,” she said. “I love that I can help.”
“A Caravan of Song,” Saturday, 8 p.m., Lindsey Chapel at Emmanuel Church, Boston. Sunday, 4 p.m., Eliot Church, Newton Corner. www.clausura.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.