Barbara Harbach

I played for my first church service when I was nine years old. I was sufficiently tall to be able to reach the pedals. The first hymn I played was Bringing in the Sheaves, and to this day I can play it in any key. I graduated to a Hammond organ a few years later when we went to another church, and then in high school came one of the loves of my life, the pipe organ. The sound of the pipe organ still gives me a thrill, whether soft strings or drowning out the orchestra as in Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.

I should mention that I took piano lessons beginning when I was four. My mother was my first teacher, and it was a wonderful way to bond with her. She was a terrific supporter of my musical career. I knew I wanted to be in music since I began lessons, and I enjoy the various facets that my career has led me.

I think I was drawn to the harpsichord because of the similarity of touch between the harpsichord and the tracker organ. When you press a key on the harpsichord, the pluck of the string gives a slight resistance similar to the feel of depressing a key on a tracker organ. Also, harpsichordists and organists use much less wrist and body motion than pianists, and we do not need the upper body muscles required by pianists.

Helmut Walcha was a gifted organist, improviser, and composer! He would play Evensong every week at his church for free, the Dreikönigskirche in Frankfurt, where the audience would consist of only six or so of us students. When he would give a public recital that had a hefty ticket price, the church was packed.

The culture of suppressing women composers and performers goes centuries back in Germany and other countries. Just think of Fanny Mendelssohn and the struggles she and many other women had to endure to get their music recognized. How many women’s compositions were left to languish in attics, only to be thrown out by future generations! So much has been lost over the centuries.

As all nocturnal creatures, I have a tendency to wander about during the night, embracing and relishing in its mysteriousness, unexplained sounds, and thick aura of darkness. As a pianist I was drawn to compositions with the titles of Nocturne and Notturno – from Maria Szymanowska’s Nocturne in B-flat to John Field and Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes. The night offers a myriad array of emotions from solace to absolute horror. I tried to infuse some of these terrifying thoughts, as well as solace that only night can bring into Night Soundings.

As all creative people, we have our optimistic side and a darker side. Yes, I would say that I am more optimistic than not. I have written some very lush pieces when I was at low ebb, and some highly energized pieces when carrying a great sadness. It seems that I am getting more optimistic as I get older – life is a lot of fun!

In spite of all the cultural restrictions, in spite of marital or political difficulties, a strong woman continues to create and makes the world go round, such as Abigail Adams and Alexandra Bergson, Harriet Scott, and Emily Dickinson all did. History is full of women creators in the arts, many of whom created under oppressive circumstances.

In some ways, it is difficult for contemporary composers to find an audience. Both men and women would love a culture that embraced and hungered for new music, as they did in the Classical period. I tell my students that they should just keep writing, write what pleases you, and don’t worry about what people or critics may think about your music.

Thankfully, it is getting better for women composers. We now have five women Pulitzer Prize winners in music since 1983: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Jennifer Higdon, and Caroline Shaw. When Marin Alsop was asked what it felt like to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, she said, “I am exceedingly proud to be ‘the first’ but I am also a bit shocked that there can still be firsts for women in 2013!”

Is there a gender gap in the music industry? It is true that there are more professional male music creators than female. For some reason, it’s taking a lot longer in music than in literature and the visual arts to reach equilibrium. It was almost acceptable by the 19th century for female writers to be published, yet it’s only in the last couple of decades, since about 1980, that historical female composers have really emerged.