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SUBJ: a personal musical journey

March 14, 2014

In honor of Women’s History Month, we bring you this short, first-person memoir from Judith Rosen, which tells how she began her work as a respected researcher and writer on women composers. LACO is honored to call Judith a member of our Emeritus Board of Directors. She is author of, among other writings, Grażyna Bacewicz: Her Life and Works.

Searches begin in many different ways, sometimes so obscurely that the seeker does not even know the search has begun. The genesis of my search was embodied in the sweet, melodious sound of a violin emanating from the grooves of a phonograph record

Some forty (!) years ago, I was a serious, beginning student of the violin. My husband, Ron, brought me a gift of a recording entitled “The Glory of Cremona,” with Ruggiero Ricci. This recording, which compared a number of violins from that era playing the same Bach etude, also included an LP of some pieces for violin and piano. The second band on that recording fascinated me, and I obsessively played it over and over. The label named the piece “Sicilienne” by Paradis. Months went by, the music was constantly in my head. Then one day my violin teacher found the sheet music and brought it to me. I looked at the score and realized it was too difficult for me; perhaps one day. Then my eyes glanced from the notes to the title and the composer: Maria-Theresia von Paradis. Wait a minute! MARIA-THERESIA. It was a woman composer – a term which I would later consciously and triumphantly discard. I started thinking about women composers of the past, the present. I drew a blank. So did others I questioned. And so a search began.

My first stop was the music department of the central Los Angeles Public Library. I approached the librarian with my query. I must interrupt my story here with a quick look into my childhood. My father was an inventor, and I was brought up with the dictum, “If someone says there is no such thing or it can’t be done, then it is up to you, Judith, to find the answer or create it, but never take ‘no’ for an answer.” I probably should thank the music librarian. If he had said, “Check out Grove’s Dictionary“ or mentioned a few sources, I probably would have spent the afternoon and gone home. Instead, the librarian answered my query with, “There is no such thing as a woman composer.”

Needless to say, my violin lessons suffered as I spent every free moment exploring the sociological, religious, psychological and political structure of our institutions that had historically contributed to a denial of equal opportunity for women in music.

I also discovered that if you know five percent of a subject and everyone else knows zero, you become the expert. Soon I was asked to lecture and write on the subject, so I worked hard to stay ahead of what was becoming a major subject. I thoroughly enjoyed delving deep into the history of women as composers. I began lecturing to various groups of interested people as well as some college classes. Additionally, I contributed to articles and books on the subject. A highlight for me was when I asked to contribute to Grove’s — the multi-volume dictionary of music that I originally wished the music librarian had mentioned.

Over the past 40 years, I have seen the complete change in attitude and enthusiastic acceptance of women as composers. I have been privy to many outstanding performances by major orchestras of works by very talented composers — of both genders. A case in point, of course, is composer Hannah Lash, who is LACO’s Sound Investment composer this year. As a Sound Investment member, I look forward to hearing the further development and then premiere of her composition later this season.

LACO presents the world premiere of Hannah Lash’s This Ease on April 26-27

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