St. Olaf College | News

To celebrate Women’s History Month, St. Olaf events highlight female composers

To commemorate Women’s History Month, St. Olaf College will present two events recognizing the triumphs and struggles of women composers: Nadia, a dynamic new play will acquaint viewers with the life of Nadia Boulanger, and a complementary vocal master class will educate participants and audience members about women composers throughout history.

Both events, which are free and open to the public, will take place March 15 in Urness Recital Hall in Christiansen Hall of Music. The masterclass will begin at 3:30 p.m., and the production will begin at 7 p.m. There will be a post-production talk following the performance.

Nadia is a four-person play that uses a mix of spoken word and music to depict the life and contributions of Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979), an influential French female musician, composer, mentor, and teacher who was far ahead of her time.

The opportunity to present Nadia arose when the play’s creator, Mina Fisher, sought out St. Olaf Visiting Professor of Music Tammy Hensrud to discuss producing the play on campus. Hensrud will assume the part of Nadia; Stephanie Arrado of the Bakken Trio, a premier Minneapolis/St. Paul chamber ensemble, will play violin; and St. Olaf music faculty members Anna Clift and Kathryn Ananda-Owens will play cello and piano, respectively.

A master class will precede the play and educate participants about notable, but under-acknowledged women composers, laying important groundwork for the play they will view in the evening. Both St. Olaf students and local high school students will be active singers in the master class.

The master class will highlight vocal compositions by selected women composers from different eras, featuring Lili Boulanger (Nadia’s sister); Florence Price, the first African American woman to have a major Symphony performed with orchestra; Liza Lehmann; Maria Malibran; Ellen Mandel; and others.  Though these women have greatly advanced compositional genres, most people know far less about them than about their male counterparts.

No one had a more powerful influence shaping 20th-century music than Nadia Boulanger, pictured here teaching one of her music pupils.

About Nadia
Boulanger has been called the most influential teacher since Socrates. No one had a more powerful influence shaping 20th-century music than Boulanger, who counted Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzola, Quincy Jones, Roy Harris, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliott Carter, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, Idil Biret, Daniel Barenboim, and Philip Glass among her harmony and composition students.

Besides teaching, Nadia was organist at Paris’ La Madeleine Church; assistant to composer Gabriel Faure; Stravinsky’s editor; and the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic. She was also a prominent composer/arranger and music critic, as well as the first woman in history to lecture worldwide about music.

For all her accomplishments, however, Boulanger’s story does not appear in established music history textbooks, which focus on male composers and musicians.

Fisher wrote Nadia because Nadia Boulanger inspired Fisher’s own musical performance and teaching career. A longtime cellist in the Minnesota Orchestra, Fisher is now producing artistic director and cellist of the Bakken Trio.