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Women We’ve Commissioned

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Did you know that the Music Division has been an integral part of creating contemporary music since 1925? It’s true! The Music Division has endowed funds to commission new compositions. In honor of Women’s History Month (and because I’m a contemporary music fiend), I’d like to share an impressive list of “firsts” – the first women composers commissioned by each fund in the Library of Congress Music Division!

Louise Talma’s percussion set-up diagrams included with her holograph score. Ink on transparency. Louise Talma, All the Days of My Life, 1965. ML30.3c.T345 no. 1. Koussevitzky Music Foundation collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The first woman to be commissioned by any fund in the Library of Congress Music Division was American composer and pianist Louise Talma (1906-1996). She was commissioned in 1959 by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the second foundation to commission music established at the Library of Congress (1949). Talma sent a letter to the Foundation’s secretary on July 10, 1959, to accept the commission. “It is a great honor . . . I accept it with a high sense of obligation and responsibility, and with very great pleasure.” The commissioned work, completed in 1965, was All the Days of My Life, a cantata for tenor, clarinet, cello, percussion, piano, and celesta. The Music Division received the holograph score in 1966. What I love most about this original score as an object and document is Talma’s intricate diagrams of the percussion set-up with overhead and head-on perspectives. Talma’s piece premiered on November 25, 1966 in our Coolidge auditorium; Arthur Weisburg (1931-2009) conducted the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble with tenor soloist Charles Wessler. You can learn more about Louise Talma by researching in the Lousie Talma papers.

Just three years later in 1962, American composer Emma Lou Diemer (b. 1927) was the first woman to be commissioned by the Hans Kindler Foundation. The chamber music composition is Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano; the Hans Kindler Foundation collection contains two facsimile scores and one set of facsimile parts. The Kindler Foundation was established in 1953 in Washington, DC in memory of the founding conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, but didn’t come under the auspices of the Music Division until 1983 as the Hans Kindler Foundation Trust. So, technically speaking, there is a “second first” woman to be commissioned by the Kindler foundation – American composer Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1962) for her 2001 composition Blizzard in Paradise for eight cellos. The Music Division’s Hans Kindler Foundation collection contains the holograph score.

Title page of holograph score. Miriam Gideon, Spirit Above the Dust, 1981. ML29c.G44 no. 1. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Next in our timeline is American composer Miriam Gideon (1906-1996). She was the first woman commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in 1979 for the piece Spirit Above the Dust for mezzo-soprano, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, and string quartet. This piece was commissioned in honor of the Music Library Association’s 50th Anniversary in 1981, and the world premiere took place at MLA’s annual February convention (Yale that year). The DC premiere in the Coolidge Auditorium was September 25, 1981 (Elaine Bonazzi, mezzo-soprano with Arthur Weisburg and the Contemporary Ensemble). Gideon’s composition is part of a long line of significant masterworks commissioned by the Music Division’s first foundation, established in 1925. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was a major music patron, composer, and also for whom the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium is named. Miriam Gideon’s holograph score is in the Music Division’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation collection.

In 1987, American composer Daria Semegen (b. 1946) became the first woman to be commissioned by the McKim Fund for the composition Music for Violin and Piano. The McKim Fund at the Library of Congress was established in 1970, and named for Leonora Jackson McKim and W. Duncan McKim. Their endowment allows for the Music Division to commission new works for violin and piano on a nearly annual basis. You can learn more about the McKims in their papers housed in the Music Division. Daria Semegen’s work was premiered on January 29, 1988 in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium by the violinist Hamao Fujiwara and pianist Dina Koston of the Theatre Chamber Players (you’ll learn more about her later in this post).

American composer Libby Larsen (b. 1950) was the first woman to be commissioned with the Carolyn Royall Just Fund in 2001. This fund was established in 1992. The piece was a major one for Larsen, Barnum’s Bird – the story of P.T. Barnum and operatic soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887) told as a cabaret opera. In honor of the Library’s bicentennial, the opera was co-commissioned with the Odyssey Commissioning Program of the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota. Conductor Philip Brunelle conducted the premiere on February 1, 2002 in the Coolidge Auditorium.

Rebecca Saunders, m. 366 of holograph score of Unbreathed, 2017 Nov 20. ML30.29a.S38 no. 1, Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music, Music Division, Library of Congress.

2017 was the year English composer Rebecca Saunders (b. 1967) became the first woman to be commissioned by the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music. The Music Division’s newest commissioning fund was established in 2012 as a bequest from composer and pianist Dina Koston (d. 2009). Saunders’s composition was a string quartet entitled Unbreathed; the Music Division holds the holograph score. Unbreathed was premiered in London’s Wigmore Hall by Quatuor Diotima on January 18, 2018. (To come full circle, Dina Koston herself was commissioned by the McKim Fund in 1997 for the composition Duo in Two Parts for violin and piano; the world premiere took place in 2000.) I love how silence plays a vital role in the structure of Unbreathed; you can see that the last measure indicates active silence and that Saunders completed the piece in Berlin, Germany on November 20, 2017.

Many other illustrious women have been commissioned by our funds. Want to know even more about contemporary women composers? Ask a Librarian!

[August 26, 2020 CORRECTION by Melissa Wertheimer: The first woman to be commissioned by the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music was Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin in 2012. The commissioned work was Slow Summer Stay II: Lakes for eight players.

The second woman commissioned by this fund was the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) in 2014. The commissioned work was a piano trio, Light and MatterUnbreathed by Rebecca Saunders (2017) was the third commission by a woman composer with this fund.]

Comments (2)

  1. Wonderful to see this list!

    And, it would be terrific to have one including all of the women who have been commissioned by the LOC, as I was by the McKim Fund of the LOC, to create Tower of the Eight Winds (vln/pno), as Anne LeBaron was, and, as you mentioned, a number of others.

    • Judith,
      I’m honored that you read this and think both the subject and the work I put into sharing it is valuable! In order to write this post, I did compile a complete list of every woman composer commissioned by our funds. Readers are welcome to contact me through Ask a Librarian if you’d like the complete list. I am also actively curating the LC Commissioned Composers Web Archive (likely a Fall 2019/Winter 2020 digital collection release). Check your email for a permissions request from [email protected] so that you can be included!

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