Juliana Hall’s Art Songs March Across America for Women’s Rights

Guest post by David Sims

Part I

Every now and then a project comes along that is so unique and so meaningful that a composer cannot refuse the opportunity. So says composer Juliana Hall, whose new mezzo-soprano song cycle Through the Guarded Gate is the result of such a project. Through the Guarded Gate was commissioned by the Seattle Art Song Society (SASS) for performance on its 2018-2019 season, which is devoted to issues of social justice.

SASS General and Artistic Director Brian C. Armbrust writes:

Our 18-19 season is called “One Voice.” This season means so much to so many of us. The idea started when I looked around at all my fellow artists and saw this heavy weight that we are carrying during a dark time. We have a unique and powerful method of delivery of a much needed message in a time when the world seems turned on its head. I’m inspired by my queer community to make our voices heard; I weep at death from wars and cries for peace in a time when we seem to constantly be fighting with one another, I pray for it all to end; I watch with disgust and great sorrow as racist voices are given time on the news, as our black brothers and sisters are threatened daily by injustice and loss; I glow with a pride as the womxn of this nation stand up and say “NO!” to inequality, and can say #MeToo and be heard; I get up every single day and walk into an office where we serve community members that are looked down upon for mental illness and help them fight to reach recovery despite what others say. To each of you, we dedicate this season. We will lift your voices and they will be heard in glorious song.”

Reflecting Armbrust’s vision, the 18-19 SASS concerts include songs fitting the themes of “Queer Voices” in October, “Voices of War & Peace” in November, “Black Voices” in February, “Womxn’s Voices” in March, and “Voices of Mental Health” in May. Hall’s Through the Guarded Gate is being presented on Friday, March 8, 2019 as part of the “Womxn’s Voices” concert. Mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski will sing the world premiere of the new cycle with Hall herself at the piano.

One Voice: 18-19 season, Seattle Art Song Society
One Voice: 18-19 season, Seattle Art Song Society

When commissioning Hall, however, SASS’s Armbrust wasn’t content to just have the premiere in Seattle. It occurred to him that, in this time of #MeToo and women’s rights being front and center in culture, Hall’s song cycle–with its powerful settings of American poet Margaret Widdemer’s social justice texts–had the possibility to bring an important message to people beyond Seattle. His idea developed into a “women’s march” across the country…a project to have Hall’s new songs performed in all 50 states after the premiere, bringing Hall’s settings and Widdemer’s poems to all of the US! To that end, Armbrust has enlisted more than 170 mezzo-sopranos from all 50 states (and many foreign countries as well), each of whom will get an early look at the score with the option to participate in the project. Singers will participate in “Beyond the Guarded Gate,”(the name selected by vote from participants after being suggested by mezzo GeDeane Graham), by agreeing to perform the song cycle on a recital between March 2019 and December 2019 following the official SASS world premiere. E. C. Schirmer is providing each singer and pianist taking part in “Beyond the Guarded Gate” with a complimentary digital copy of the work for use in the performance.

Composer Juliana Hall describes the ideas expressed by poet Margaret Widdemer in the songs of Through the Guarded Gate and her approach to those ideas as follows:

“The Net”
Ill treatment of our children (most often girls) here within our own country used for whatever nefarious purposes adults may have for them, as we turn our heads away from the injustices that hurt them (especially when they are not “ours” personally)…children as expendable if they are “second class” in gender.

“A Mother To The War-Makers”
Ill treatment of our children (most often boys) when they are sent abroad, as the leaders of our nation use them under the guise of national defense (as a pretense for masculine leaders to become wealthy, acquire power, and exert national domination over other nations)…children as expendable if they are “second class” in societal status, offspring of the less affluent, less educated, less “acceptable” ethnic or racial groups.

“The Old Suffragist”
The “early” woman standing up for equal personhood, equal rights, but at the expense of a personal life rich with love and attachment (woman no longer “accepting” a second-class role in a world hitherto ruled by those men not acknowledging the natural equality of human beings)…women placing themselves in danger and depriving themselves of life’s easier and better things as a way to make a path to those better things for others who will follow.

“The Modern Woman To Her Lover”
The “modern” woman taking on the responsibility of equal personhood, equal rights, without permission of the man but benefiting both genders (women no longer “accepting” a second-class love)…women as equals, in a world in which man may feel “belittled” by having to share with his mate…hence the question at the end: “Will you love me still?” At once both fearful and hopeful.

“The Women’s Litany”
The community of women and like-minded men, demanding equal rights and responsibilities for both genders for the betterment of mankind (women and men both raising their voices against the holders of society’s power and claiming their right to be admitted “through the guarded gate” that stops women from exerting their abilities and their insights and their communal “will” towards fixing the problems described in the first four poems)…adults identifying the path through which they must travel to effect permanent change, and a rallying cry in favor of a more equal representation and a more equal responsibility for fixing the injustices and the fears of the first poems, as well as a hope for a better future made possible by the inclusion of women as equals.

In a later update to this story, we will begin featuring information about post-premiere concerts and the performers who will bring these songs to life across America as part of the “Beyond the Guarded Gate” project, but for now we are very excited for Juliana Hall and the possibility of as many as 200 additional performances of her new cycle Through the Guarded Gate as part of this unique initiative.

Through the Guarded Gate will become generally available for sale next March. Until then, check out Seattle Art Song Society’s concert season and, if you are in the area, we hope you will be able to attend the world premiere of  the cycle as part of their “Womxn’s Voices” recital on Friday, March 8, 2019.

You might also find the poems of Margaret Widdemer interesting, which we’ve included below. These are the five poems set to music by Juliana Hall in Through the Guarded Gate.

THE NET

The strangers’ children laugh along the street:
They know not, or forget the sweeping of the Net
Swift to ensnare such little careless feet.
And we—we smile and watch them pass along,
And those who walk beside, soft-smiling, cruel-eyed—
We guard our own—not ours to right the wrong!
We do not care—we shall not heed or mark,
Till we shall hear one day, too late to strive or pray,
Our daughters’ voices crying from the dark!

A MOTHER TO THE WAR-MAKERS

This is my son that you have taken,
Guard lest your gold-vault walls be shaken,
Never again to speak or waken.
This, that I gave my life to make,
This you have bidden the vultures break—
Dead for your selfish quarrel’s sake!
This that I built of all my years,
Made with my strength and love and tears,
Dead for pride of your shining spears!
Just for your playthings bought and sold
You have crushed to a heap of mold
Youth and life worth a whole world’s gold—
This was my son that you have taken,
Guard lest your gold-vault walls be shaken—
This—that shall never speak or waken!

THE OLD SUFFRAGIST

She could have loved—her woman-passions beat
Deeper than theirs, or else she had not known
How to have dropped her heart beneath their feet
A living stepping-stone:
The little hands—did they not clutch her heart?
The guarding arms—was she not very tired?
Was it an easy thing to walk apart,
Unresting, undesired?
She gave away her crown of woman-praise,
Her gentleness and silent girlhood grace,
To be a merriment for idle days,
Scorn for the market-place:
She strove for an unvisioned, far-off good,
For one far hope she knew she should not see:
These—not her daughters—crowned with motherhood
And love and beauty—free.

THE MODERN WOMAN TO HER LOVER

I shall not lie to you any more,
Flatter or fawn to attain my end—
I am what never has been before,
Woman—and Friend.
I shall be strong as a man is strong,
I shall be fair as a man is fair,
Hand in locked hand we shall pass along
To a purer air:
I shall not drag at your bridle-rein,
Knee pressed to knee shall we ride the hill;
I shall not lie to you ever again—
Will you love me still?

THE WOMEN’S LITANY

Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for our pain’s sake!
Lips set smiling and face made fair
Still for you through the pain we bare,
We have hid till our hearts were sore
Blacker things than you ever bore:
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for our pain’s sake!
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for our strength’s sake!
Light held high in a strife ne’er through
We have fought for our sons and you,
We have conquered a million years’
Pain and evil and doubt and tears—
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for our strength’s sake!
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for your own sake!
We have held you within our hand,
Marred or made as we broke or planned,
We have given you life or killed
King or brute as we taught or willed—
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for your own sake!
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for the world’s sake!
We are blind who must guide your eyes,
We are weak who must help you rise,
All untaught who must teach and mold
Souls of men till the world is old—
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for the world’s sake!

Note:
Margaret Widdemer lived from 1884 to 1978. Although virtually unknown today, she shared the 1919 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry with the famous and very well-known poet Carl Sandburg.

Juliana Hall and Brian Armbrust are happy to be able to share Widdemer’s wonderful work with audiences of today, bringing back a major poetical talent who up to now has more or less disappeared in the shadow of her Pulitzer co-winner. Hall and Armbrust hope these songs will not only enliven today’s conversations about the rights of women and children, but they also hope these performances will finally help Widdemer to receive the public acknowledgment and acclaim for her work they feel she deserves.

The poems of Margaret Widdemer reprinted here are in the public domain.

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