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A 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.

 

 

B. Warren continued...
...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 teacher….

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 vihuela tablature.

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 herself.

 

Trio for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bass Flute (or Oboe and two Violas)

[B. Warren has] written very sensitively for the (still uncommon) instrument [the bass flute]. The tessitura, dynamics, and articulations appear to be very performer-friendly…. [She does] a beautiful job of exploiting the bass flute's most vocal and expressive range (its second octave D-B).

Peter H. Bloom, bass flute




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