Barbara Harbach wears many hats, and she balances them with such great enthusiasm and poise that it makes one wish more women would wear them. She is recognized everywhere by critics and by the CD-buying and concertgoing public as one of the most outstanding organists and harpsichordists of her generation, and she has many acclaimed recitals and recordings to her credit. Gramophone has called her a dynamic and rhetorical player who is an acknowledged interpreter -- and, indeed, muse -- of modern harpsichord music, and a 1992 Keyboard readers' poll rated her as that year's Best Classical Keyboardist second only to Keith Jarrett. Her recital tours have taken her many places, from Seoul to Belgrade and from Tokyo to Novosibirsk. Composers such as Samuel Adler and Vincent Persichetti have written music for her, and she has written, performed, and recorded her own works as well. Following teaching appointments at Nazareth College (just outside Rochester, New York) and the State University of New York at Buffalo, she is now bringing her brand of excitement, talent, and missionary zeal to the students -- both music majors and non-majors -- at Washington State University. Harbach can be seen on television, too; she is the hostess of the weekly music series Palouse Performance, which is aired on PBS in the Inland Northwest.
This activity would suffice for at least two individuals, but Harbach as yet another professional interest. She is devoting a significant part of her time to researching and presenting the music of underrepresented composers: Mexican, African-American, and particularly women. To that end, in 1990 she and partner Jonathan Yordy established Vivace Press, a multidivisional company (Harbach describes the relationships between the divisions as symbiotic) that is involved in music publishing, compact disc recordings on the new Hester Park label, scholarly journalism in Women of Note Quarterly, and other educational products that are intended to spread the word about the often unsung roles that women have played in music throughout the ages.
How did Harbach come to be so actively interested in women in classical music? The early years of her career provide some clues. She grew up near Penn State, where she completed an accelerated undergraduate degree, and later studied at Yale with organist Charles Krigbaum. Her next big step took her to Frankfurt and a degree in performance earned under the tutelage of the blind German organist Helmut Walcha. I had two things going against me in Frankfurt, she remembers. First I was an American, and second I was an American woman. Stumbling blocks were put up. The Germans had the attitude that women were not supposed to play organs, an attitude fortunately not shared by Walcha. When it was time to prepare her recital for the performance degree examination, she was judged by standards that were even more rigorous than those her male counterparts were judged by. She was asked to prepare not one, but two complete recitals, and was told only at the last minute which of the two she was to play for her male adjudicators, who numbered twelve instead of the usual four. Leaving nothing to chance, Harbach tape-recorded the examination recital so there would be no questions later about what she had or hadn't played. Of course the adjudicators were impressed with her playing and awarded her the degree, but this is the kind of incident that tends to make an impression on any young artist.
Harbach continued her studies with Russell Saunders at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, receiving a D.M.A. in the mid 80s. It was at about this time that another incident related to women and their music gave her pause. She was on tour and had completed a performance at another university when a well-known musicologist on that university's faculty made the offhand comment that there have never been any women composers and if there were any, they wouldn't be any good. (Said university and musicologist shall remain unnamed.) Apart from the obvious Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Schumann, whose importance, it could have been argued (however inaccurately), was more a function of their family connections than of their compositional skills, Harbach found herself largely unable to refute his claim. Her interest piqued, she began to look into the matter, and soon she had gathered enough evidence to show how wrong that male musicologist was. This evidence came out in her 1986 edition Women Composers for the Harpsichord with Elkan-Vogel (Theodore Presser). This got the ball rolling, she says. This was followed by a Kingdom CD (KCLCD 2010) released in 1989 called Music for Solo Harpsichord by 18th-century Women Composers. It included works by Cecilia Maria Barthélémon, Marianna Martinez, Marianna d'Auenbrugg, Elisabetta de Gambarini, and Maria Hester Park -- the woman who gave her name to Vivace Press's new CD label. Harbach's research into and performances of women's music continued throughout the second half of the 80s, to reach a climax in 1990, the year in which Vivace Press was founded with partner Jonathan Yordy.
True to its name, Vivace Press has been a singularly lively source of published music. It has focused on classical keyboard music by women composers from the sixteenth century to the present day, and also on music by African-American composers such as Rachel Eubanks and Ralph Simpson, and Mexican composers such as Ramón Noble and José Jesús Estrada. Publication of the journal Women of Note Quarterly began in May 1993, and its current circulation is 4,800 copies. The most recent issue contains compact disc reviews (a new recording of Dame Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers, Heartbeats: New Songs from Minnesota for the AIDS Quilt Songbook, and an alternative pop disc by Nan Vernon), an article on the music of women of the Nez Perce tribe, and a scholarly analysis of Jewish themes in a Prelude and Fugue written by Elsa Barraine in the early 30s.
Harbach's two most recent projects under the aegis of Vivace Press have been Women of NoteCards (with covers featuring quotes by women composers such as Ruth Crawford Seeger and Hildegard von Bingen) and the Hester Park label, which, like Vivace Press, was conceived as a medium for the exposure of music by underrepresented composers, primarily women. We want to present this largely unknown repertoire with the highest possible standards for artistry and recording technology, Harbach explains. And, although this sometimes seems like a dirty word, we want it to be ACCESSIBLE.
In its publicity material, Hester Park characterizes itself as smart and independent, and it highlights three decisive moments in the history of women musicians: Hildegard von Bingen's defection from the Benedictine monastery and the building of her convent in Rupertsberg; Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's establishment of a full orchestra which she conducted in public and used as a vehicle to premiere her own compositions; and Carrie Jacobs Bond's self-publication of the song A Perfect Day, an act performed partly out of desperation at her family's financial difficulties. Perhaps music historians of both genders in the centuries to come will recognize Harbach's contributions as being of similar importance.
That this new CD label should be named Hester Park is appropriate, since English composer Maria Hester Park was one of the first women who really interested Harbach as she did research into the history of women in classical music. She was born in England in 1760 to a musical family. Before her marriage, she performed public concerts on both harpsichord and piano, and gave music lessons to members of the nobility. Like most women composers and musicians of that time (and even more recently), her professional career came to an end when she married, society's expectation being that she should stop producing music and start producing children. (Consider also that it was common for young women to be married as early as age fourteen or so, further foreshortening any musical aspirations that they may have had. Maria Hester Park, however, married rather late for a woman of her era, but she died when she was only fifty-three.)
The Hester Park label was born in the fall of 1994 when Harbach, Yordy and Vivace were able to build a digital recording studio equipped with a Steinway grand piano, and with direct-to-hard-disk-drive recording and compact disc writing capabilities. The first two recordings in the new studios were made in January of the following year, and now are available through Vivace Press and through major outlets such as Tower Records. Sonatas by Elizabeth (CD 7702), produced and engineered by Yordy, features Harbach herself in performances of six sonatas by Elisabetta de Gambarini (1731-1765) and six sonata-like lessons by Elizabeth Hardin, whose precise dates are not known, but who flourished in the 1770s. Both women were English, and both were able to have their music printed for use by other keyboardists, both male and female. Handel and Geminiani were among the subscribers to de Gambarini's volume, and Hardin's volume also passed into the hands of some of that time's more important people. These works are charming (Vivace's catalog aptly describes Hardin's lessons as having a music box quality), and although they are not of immense difficulty either for the player or for the listener, they can hardly fail to appeal to admirers of that era's music. Vivace Press has published Harbach's well-annotated editions of this music so other keyboard players can actively enjoy this music as well.
Hester Park's other debut release is called Close Your Eyes (CD 7701), and it contains songs by women jazz and popular music composers, an area that Harbach says Hester Park will continue to explore, although the bulk of the label's releases are anticipated to be classically oriented. The performances on this disc are instrumental ones by Thomas F. George (piano) and Michael Kaupa (doubling on the trumpet and the flügelhorn). Many of these songs will be familiar even to people who usually pay no attention to this genre, and I predict that these and many more listeners will be surprised to find out that women were behind standards such as I'm in the Mood for Love (Dorothy Fields), What a Difference a Day Makes (Maria Grever), Can't We Be Friends? (Kay Swift), and You Oughta Be in Pictures (Dana Suesse), even if they already know that Billie Holiday wrote God Bless the Child. All these songs, and nine more, can be found on Close Your Eyes, a nicely played and well-thought-out collection of straight-ahead jazz.
Another upcoming Hester Park project will be called Classical Prodigies and will feature keyboard music by some pretty talented preteens of the early-Classical era: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Elizabeth Weichsell Billington. Weichsell wrote her op. 1 and op. 2 sonatas when she was eight and eleven years old, respectively, and it was Harbach's idea to combine them on the same disc with sonatas that the infinitely more famous Mozart wrote when he was at the same ages. I push no agenda with it, Harbach claims. It isn't my intention to say that one was a more talented composer than the other one at that age. I leave it to the listeners to make their own conclusions. Hester Park also plans to record a program of women's music for organ. Harbach's own organ piece Summershimmer (already published by Vivace Press), will be included, as will organ works by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Jeanne Demessieux, and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.
To a certain extent, Harbach's advocacy, and an appreciation for women composers in general, has been facilitated by recent phenomenal success of Hildegard von Bingen, the abbess from the twelfth century whose spiritual and musical vision (and visions -- there is evidence, recounted by Oliver Sacks in one of his books, that Hildegard suffered from neurological problems, and that the jagged halo effects that one can see in her pictures were more than just the products of an active artistic imagination) was such an inspiration then and now. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi's Canticles of Ecstasy CD has been a huge critical and financial success, and other labels have taken note of the great interest in Hildegard too. The results usually have been admirable, but they have been silly on at least one occasion: EMI's Vision CD married Hildegard's music to a contemporary New Age/dance beat and came up with a colossal turkey. She's a hot number now, and the remarkable thing is that, thanks to the groundswell of interest, we know so much about her, probably more than we know about Pérotin -- who lived at about the same time -- or even Machaut, who came a little later. Hildegard was a spectacular woman, Harbach enthuses, her thoughts were wise, and also, her music was beautiful. The rediscovery of Hildegard von Bingen has set music from the Middle Ages on its ear. Harbach predicts that Hildegard's success will and already has begun to trickle down to other women composers. All centuries of women's music are being reexamined now. Before, you had to be somebody's wife or somebody's sister -- Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel -- to get any attention from the music world. Now, people are beginning to hear other women . . . the underground is coming to the surface. This is not to put down women such as Clara Schumann (I think that she was an exceptional women. She did a great job promoting contemporary classical music) but as time goes on it's becoming clear that women always have had the musical talent to stand next to their male peers, and without the benefits of family connections.
She calls it an interesting phenomenon that Soviet women composers -- women such as Sofia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvolskaya, Elena Firsova, and others -- have rapidly gained at least some small measure of recognition in the West, while women composers such as Joan Tower and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich have not received as much attention in their native United States. Harbach has no sure answer as to why this has happened, but says, Composers can become fashionable. Sometimes this can be a good thing, and sometimes not. Even though Gubaidulina's music is stark and not immediately appealing, it seems to speak to us of what we know of the political and social conditions in the former Soviet Union, and for that reason, it interests us. Vivace Press's catalog contains scores by Zhanna Kolodub, a composer from the Ukraine whose music has been described as hauntingly romantic, and it will be interesting to see if Kolodub can attain a comparable level of recognition, given Vivace's advocacy.
Are there intrinsic biological differences between male and female composers? Musical form is one area in which the two genders have been hypothesized to differ. We don't know enough about women composers yet to say, Harbach answers. Since most of them were mentored by men, it's tough to say what role is played by education. We'll only begin to know the answers to that question when we have a critical mass of women composers who teach other women. What about performers? Oh, women are supposed to like to play slow, lyrical things, and men are supposed to like to play powerful showpieces. But of course that's not true, she is quick to add.
It's another interesting phenomenon how the music of J. S. Bach has attracted so many gifted female interpreters. Wanda Landowska is the first to come to Harbach's mind: What she's done is still creditable, still exciting. Harbach reminds us that Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn could trace their roots back to Bach on their mother's side. Asked about another female Bach player of note, Rosalyn Tureck, Harbach is also positive, even though she has chosen not to go the route of Bach on piano. But, I feel very strongly about this: Bach on the piano is not wrong, as long as the piano is made to sound like a piano, and is not played like a harpsichord. As for Harbach's relationship with this composer, she says, There's nothing more transcendental than playing Bach.
There are other reasons why this might be the right time for Harbach's reexamination of the role played by women musicians throughout history. I feel that people are starting to get more interested in things other than the standard repertoire. This is where the idea of accessibility fits in. She warns, We have to be appealing and exciting or we don't have an audience. I'd like to take classical music off its pedestal and put it in the realm of immediate, visceral energy. I like what the Kronos Quartet does . . . they're like a breath of fresh air. Her enthusiasm for teaching and exposing people to new music is high. When asked about her courses in theory and music appreciation (which are presented to more than 200 students per semester, including non-majors), Harbach replies, I like to challenge and stimulate them, I like to -- although some people think it's also a dirty word -- entertain them. I want to create a mass of knowledgeable consumers who can feel comfortable going to an orchestral concert, a recital, or an opera.
Is Harbach a feminist? If being a feminist means equal opportunity, equal salary, and equal fame, then yes, I'm a feminist. But I'm a musician first. And, as typified by her attitude to the upcoming Classical Prodigies CD, she has no agenda to push and axes to grind. Again and again, Harbach emphasizes that the listening public is capable of making its own decisions about the importance of historically underrepresented composers. Asked about how she would like to be remembered 50 or 100 years from today, she replies, I would like to be remembered for introducing underexposed composers, getting their music into the American mainstream -- possibly changing or augmenting the canon of great composers and great works -- but letting people choose for themselves. I want to speak to people. I want to make classical music alive for people, to take the symbols off of the page, and to communicate to listeners, and it doesn't matter if the music was written by a man or by a woman. Isn't that hard work? Yes, but I enjoy it, and it's great fun. I guess that's why I do what I do. A scholar, a musician, an educator, an advocate for underrepresented composers, and a woman, Barbara Harbach has time for all of these roles and to have fun as she lives them. Like Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Carrie Jacobs Bond, Barbara Harbach truly is a woman of note.
© 1996 Fanfare Magazine. Reprinted with Permission.