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The Donna Voce (Woman’s voice) documentary weaves live piano performances with historical commentary to immerse the audience into the shunned world of female composers of the last three centuries. 

 

THe Heroines

 
 

Fanny Mendelssohn’s (1805-1847) rich and creative life was conducted in a private sphere of the 19th century music salon. Her catalogue includes over 460 works ranging from Lieder to piano and choral works. As a member of a wealthy upper class family, Fanny received excellent education alongside her younger brother Felix. Visitors of the Mendelssohn household were dazzled by the talented siblings. At 13 Fanny played all 24 Preludes from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier from memory in honor of her father’s birthday. However, the prevailing attitudes of the time toward women prevented Fanny from a more public pursuit of her musical career. In a letter to the 14 year old Fanny, her father Abraham said: “Music will perhaps become [Felix’s] profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing.” Fanny was fortunate in her marriage to a painter Wilhelm Hensel, who cherished and encouraged Fanny’s musical talent. Their home’s Sunday Musicale became one of the most sough after invitations in Berlin. Both Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt were among the visiting virtuosi of the salon, and since the attendance was by invitation only, this activity was considered socially acceptable by Fanny’s family and brought great prestige to the Mendelssohn name.

Dubbed Europe’s “Queen of the Piano”, Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was one of the most important pianists of the 19th century and a peer of such giants as Liszt, Thalberg and Anton Rubinstein. She was one of the first artists along with Franz Lizst to start giving solo concerts without assisting artists and perform from memory. Robert Schumann became her father Friedrich Wieck’s student when Clara was 11, and ten years later he and Clara wed after a court battle with her father, who refused to consent to their marriage. Although their life together began in a true pursuit of a family and artistic partnership, overtime Robert’s creative life took precedent over Clara’s. Her family duties as a mother of eight and a main breadwinner of the household limited her time for creative output. Robert’s tragic demise into mental illness and the consequent early death was one of several tragedies in Clara’s life. Four of her children predeceased her and one son was incarcerated in a mental hospital for over 40 years. She supported her children and grandchildren by her earnings from concerts and teaching and spent her life championing the works of her late husband. Clara remained a revered artist until the end of her life as indicated in words of a London critic: “WE THINK WE ARE CORRECT IN SAYING THAT NO PIANIST EVER BEFORE RETAINED SO POWERFUL A HOLD UPON THE PUBLIC MIND FOR SO LONG A PERIOD… BY HER MODESTY, PRUDENCE AND TALENTS SHE HAS GRADUALLY ACHIEVED A VERITABLE TRIUMPH.”

Amy Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first great American composers who did not receive their music training in Europe. Her creative output of 300 works includes 150 songs, for which she was most celebrated during her lifetime, as well as choral, chamber and piano works. Born Amy Cheney into a distinguished New England family, she displayed astonishing musical abilities by age four when she mentally composed her first piano pieces and later played them. At 18 Amy married a Boston surgeon Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach. Her name would subsequently be listed on concert programs and published compositions as "Mrs. H. H. A. Beach." In her marriage contract she agreed to "live according to his status, that is, function as a society matron and patron of the arts.” She further settled to never to teach piano, an activity widely associated with women and regarded as providing "pin money." Her performances were to be limited to two public recitals per year with money being donated to charity. Although Amy considered herself “a pianist first and foremost", her circumstances led her to pursue composition with more vigor since that was an activity her husband approved. Her major success came with her Mass in E flat performed in 1892 after which critics declared her one of America’s foremost composers.

French pianist and composer Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) enjoyed an illustrious career with over 400 compositions being published in her lifetime. Her works include character pieces for piano, songs, orchestral suites, a comic opera La Sevillane, and Konzertstück for piano and orchestra. Born in Paris, she first studied with her mother and later took private lessons with faculty of the Paris Conservatory since her father disapproved of her being formally enrolled in a school. She first made the name for herself by giving recitals of her music, which eventually led to concert tours throughout Europe. She was especially popular in England and a favorite guest of Queen Victoria. Her American tour in 1908 was a triumph and led to the formation of “Chaminade Clubs” throughout the country. The critics, however, were not so kind as her salon pieces were deemed too “feminine” while her larger concert pieces “strong and virile, too virile perhaps…” The most blatantly sexist criticisms of hers came from the New York Post, which summarized her 1908 Carnegie Hall recital with the following:   “ON THE WHOLE THIS CONCERT CONFIRMED THE CONVICTION HELD BY MANY THAT WHILE WOMEN MAY SOME DAY VOTE, THEY WILL NEVER LEARN TO COMPOSE ANYTHING WORTHWHILE. ALL OF THEM SEEM SUPERFICIAL WHEN THEY WRITE MUSIC. . .”

 

Fanny

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"She plays like a man." -praise by the composition teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter in a letter to Goethe

Fanny, the first child prodigy in the Mendelssohn clan, was overshadowed by her younger brother Felix, as directed by their father Abraham. “Music will perhaps become [Felix’s] profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing.” Nonetheless, she went on to compose close to 500 works.  

Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Sonata in G Minor: 1st movement

 
 

Clara

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Europe’s “Queen of the Piano” Clara Schumann was a sensation, who dazzled Kings and Queens. But after the court battled marriage to Robert Schumann, her composing took a back seat to raising eight children and providing for the family. Hair-rising teaching and performance schedule left her with virtually no time to compose. She desperately proclaimed: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” 

 

Clara Schumann Scherzo No. 2, Op. 14 in c minor

 
 

amy

Mr. & Mrs. H. H. A. Beach

Mr. & Mrs. H. H. A. Beach

Amy Beach started writing music at as early as four years old and had a versatile career before she reached 18. At that age, she entered into the marriage with a Boston surgeon Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, which came with a set of rules. Her name would subsequently be listed on concert programs and published compositions as "Mrs. H. H. A. Beach." She agreed to "live according to his status, that is, function as a society matron and patron of the arts.” She further settled to never to teach piano, an activity widely associated with women and regarded as providing "pin money."  

Amy Beach - Dreaming from Four Sketches for Piano, Op. 15 No. 3

 
 

Cécile

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A favorite guest of Queen Victoria Cécile Chaminade made the audience fall in love with her charming and stylish persona and music. Her American tour in 1908 was a triumph and led to the formation of “Chaminade Clubs” throughout the country. The establishment, however, was not so kind. The New York Post summarized her Carnegie Hall recital with the following:
“on the whole this concert confirmed the conviction held by many that while women may some day vote, they will never learn to compose anything worthwhile. All of them seem superficial when they write music...”

Cécile Chaminade. Les Sylvains (The Fauns), Op. 60

 
 

lili

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Lili Boulanger became an overnight sensation in Paris at the age of 19 when she emerged as the first woman to win the Prix de Rome at the Conservatory. Her immense talent and amazingly promising career was cut short just five years later when she passed away at age 24 after the life long struggle with intestinal tuberculosis. Her sister Nadia would go on to become one of the most influential teachers of the 20th century.

 

Lili Boulanger Prelude in D Flat

 
 

Chiayu

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Born in Banciao, Taiwan, Chiayu Hsu (1975) is an active composer of contemporary concert music. She started learning music at age five and began composing at fifteen.  Chiayu has been interested in deriving inspirations from different materials, such as poems, myths, and images. On a technical level, many of the pieces she has composed have been constructed either through the manipulation of small groups of notes which act as building units, or through the use of the full chromatic tonal spectrum expressed as discreet harmonic regions to build new, unheard structures. Some compositions are purely abstract: she has even experimented with algorithms. Particularly, however, it is the combination of Chinese elements and western techniques that is a hallmark of her music.

 

Chiayu Hsu - Rhapsody Toccata

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listen to the complete Donna Voce album:

 
 

Creative Team

 

Anna Shelest

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Hailed by The New York Times as a pianist of “a fiery sensibility and warm touch”, Anna Shelest is an international award-winning pianist who has thrilled the audiences throughout the world. Champion of esoteric repertoire, Anna is collaborating with the legendary conductor Neeme Järvi on a project of recording complete works for piano and orchestra by Anton Rubinstein. The first CD in the set featuring Rubinstein Concerto no. 4 and Caprice Russe recorded live at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater in New York City has been released in 2018 to great critical acclaim,

An “effective collaborator” (The New York Times), Anna made her orchestral debut at the age of twelve with the Kharkiv Symphony Orchestra, playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1. Since then she has been a soloist with some of the world-class orchestras. She has appeared at Alice Tully Hall and Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall in New York City, The Kennedy Center in Washington DC,  Wiener Konzerthaus in Vienna, and Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. 

Born in Ukraine, Anna received her early music education at Kharkiv Special Music School. Since graduating The Juilliard School with a Masters Degree in the class of Jerome Lowenthal, Anna makes her home in New York City with her husband and two sons.

 

David Dubal

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David Dubal is internationally known as a pianist, teacher, writer, artist, and broadcaster. An acknowledged authority on the piano literature, Dubalʼs highly acclaimed books include The Art of the Piano, The Essential Canon of Classical Music, Evenings with Horowitz, Reflections from the Keyboard, and Conversations with Menuhin. Recipient of the First ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for broadcast journalism, Dubal has won numerous other honors, including the coveted George Foster Peabody Award for innovative broadcasting. His 1993 film, "The Golden Age of the Piano", has been seen worldwide in four languages, and won him an Emmy award.

As music director of storied New York City classical music station WNCN in New York City from  1971 to 1994, Dubal served as a producer and commentator for innumerable programs and special broadcasts. His guest interviews include a veritable who's who of the luminary pianists and musicians of the 20th century, including Vladimir Horowitz, Claudio Arrau, Rosalyn Tureck, George Bolet, Yehudi Menuhin, Byron Janis, Charles Rosen, Alexis Weissenberg, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Alfred Brendel, and many more. Since 2000, his programs "Reflections from the Keyboard" (WQXR.org, 105.9 New York) and "The Piano Matters" (WWFM.org) have attracted online listeners worldwide.

David Dubal served on the faculties of both the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music in New York City for several decades, reaching thousands of students of all ages. He has performed in recitals and lecture-recitals in forty states, conducted master classes and lectured across the globe, and served on the jury of dozens of international competitions. In 2006, Mr. Dubal received an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York (SUNY).

 

Jason Starr

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Award-winning filmmaker Jason Starr has produced and directed over one hundred films and television programs for broadcast on PBS, CBC, A&E, BRAVO, KULTURA, MEZZO, 3SAT and other networks throughout Europe. These productions range from classical music and modern dance performances to documentary profiles of artists and cultural issues.

Jason Starr recently directed films with guitarist Sharon Isbin and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s while completing two feature length documentaries, For the Love of Mahler: The Inspired Life of Henry-Louis de La Grange and Everywhere and Forever – Mahler’s Song of the Earth. The third in a series of documentaries about specific masterpieces by Gustav Mahler, Everywhere and Forever enjoyed a primetime Saturday night broadcast across Europe on 3sat and was an official selection at numerous film festivals across the globe. At the 2016 Whitehead International Film Festival in California it won the “Outstanding Achievement Award”. Both films are widely distributed for broadcast by C Major Entertainment, Berlin and for home video by Video Artists International, New York.