Review of B. Warren's life and work continued...
...Warren formed a singing trio modeled on the Andrew
Sisters, served shortly as a music critic for the Christian
Science Monitor, taught at the New England Conservatory
and at private schools, and sang with Goldovsky's Opera
Company. Busy as a teacher, singer, mother, and wife...
Warren found no time to compose. But starting in 1975
came a flood of compositions, mostly chamber works,
but symphonies and operas also….
The modal-chromatic counterpoint at the heart of Warren's
music, like Glaser's, derived from Piston and Hindemith.
But in many works, for example, Ride-A-Cock-Horse [a
children's piece] for piano (1975), the music's sparse
textures, singsong rhythms, and spiky dissonance were
peculiarly austere. Likewise idiosyncratic were the
meandering forms, the sudden tempo changes, and the
enharmonic clashes. There were also references to popular
styles, as in the second movement of the Sonata No.
1 for violin and piano (1977)….
More attractive, it seemed, was Warren's sacred music,
like the Mass in E, with its fluid vocal writing and
delicate modal hue. Perhaps better still were the collaborations
with David McCord: Five Songs in 5 Minutes for chorus;
Balloons and Frog Music; two ballets for five-piece
chamber group; and a chamber opera after O. Henry's
The Gift of the Magi (1985). In any case, sympathetic
listeners probably could find in Warren's work an appeal
not unlike Billings and Ives, a New England tradition
to which she felt close.
...Betsy Warren grew up in a musical household and composed
music from an early age. After pursuing studies in astronomy
at Harvard, she switched her major and graduated with
a degree in music theory. Warren continued at Harvard
to earn an MA in composition, studying primarily with
Walter Piston, whom she describes as a skillful, generous
teacher with a good sense of humor and a gentle persuasiveness....
[She also took] classes in composition with Aaron Copland
("a great composer"…) at Harvard, and master
classes with the popular and charismatic Nadia Boulanger
at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. Warren describes
Boulanger as very kind and encouraging and a brilliant
Warren became a professional singer and wrote music
for the chamber group in which she sang. Early in her
career, she adopted the professional name B. Warren
in order to sidestep the possible prejudice against
women composers. She has since written and published
a large body of choral, vocal, chamber, orchestral,
and keyboard works. One group of imaginative children's
piano solos entitled "The Island" has been
fancifully illustrated by [Jim Frost], who along with
her late husband, Joseph H. Davis, Ms. Warren counts
as having been among the most supportive advocates of
her career in composition.
Linda Sayce, in a review of the Lutenist's Solo and
Duet Book (the British Lute Society Journal, 11/99)
aptly describes Warren's compositional style: "The
musical language ranges from basically tonal with a
restlessly shifting tonic, to the gently atonal."
Another aspect of Warren's style is her focus on melodic
lines, which she says is because she is a singer. Sayce
comments: "The texture is predominantly single-line,
with a few two- and three-note chords."
Warren, who says that she loves working with modes,
began her longtime kinship with Renaissance music at
Harvard, where she wrote her senior thesis on 16th century
English polyphony. Linda Sayce observes, "Indeed
the textures are reminiscent of much early sixteenth-century
lute music, particularly in the solo movements"
and goes on to say that "the composer obviously
has a good feel for what works on a Renaissance lute;
the result is light and transparent, and doesn't feel
anachronistic on the instrument." Although not
a lutenist, Warren expresses an affinity with the instrument
which has made her feel at home writing music for it.
In our interview Warren outlined the steps which she
took to write lute pieces (as well as her other compositions),
comparing her job as commissioned composer to that of
a cook selecting ingredients to bake a cake for a party.
First she envisioned the "ingredients" that
would appeal to her audience (lutenists and other early
music listeners), and then she conjured up an image
of the sound of the lute in her mind. Combining her
concept of her audience's musical taste with her own
style, she initially composed each piece in her head,
writing it down only after the composition had been
thoroughly conceived. It was at this point that she
played back the piece on the piano, like the baker who
tastes the batter to see if the cake has turned out
according to plan. Then she made necessary changes to
suit both her own taste and her idea of what the audience
would like. The final step was to hand the finished
compositions to lutenist Douglas Freundlich, who arranged
them in staff notation and transcribed them into Spanish
Freundlich has fit them comfortably on the lute without
altering a note of Warren's music, and his choice of
Spanish tablature enables a large number of musicians
(namely lutenists and guitarists) to read it.
Another publication worth mentioning here is a collaborative
effort between Betsy Warren and Dr. Susan Godoy. Learning
by Listening: The Wiscasset Music Listening Course,
Vol. 1 (1998) is a book of 20 well-chosen pieces
from around the world, accompanied by musical scores,
a glossary and a CD. Nine of its twenty musical examples
were composed during Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque
times, which should make it an excellent resource for
educators interested in integrating early music in the
curriculum. Also of interest is the collection's attractive
final composition, a lively saxophone duet by Ms. Warren