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Music Review: Two Recent Releases From Barbara Harbach

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Barbara Harbach’s list of accomplishments makes impressive reading by anyone’s standards. She is, first and foremost, one of the world’s leading female composers having written symphonies and works for chamber ensemble, string orchestra, organ, harpsichord, musicals, choral anthems, film scores, modern ballets, and arrangements for brass and organ of Baroque works.

Somehow she also finds the time to research, edit, and publish manuscripts of eighteenth century keyboard composers. In addition, and perhaps most notably, she is a passionate advocate of women composers, both historically and contemporary. She has published works by Maria Hester Reynolds, Olivia Dussek, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, and many others.

This quest has taken her into European and American libraries, searching for microfilm or manuscript editions of long lost works. She has then published them in her position as editor of Vivace Press and also recorded many of her findings.

Her work as a performer has captured the imagination of many American composers and, as a result, a substantial body of work has been written and dedicated to her.

Dr. Barbara Harbach is also the Professor of Music at the University of Missouri-St.Louis. If that is not enough, she somehow finds time to tour as both concert organist and harpsichordist. She holds academic degrees from both Pennsylvania State University (BA) and Yale University (MMA), the Eastman School Of Music (DMA), and also Musikhochschule in Frankfurt, Germany.

She initiated Women In The Arts, ‘a celebration of the achievements of women creators’. In recognition of her commitment and dedication, she has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. She has released numerous albums. It is a remarkable CV. Today I would like to review two of the most recent additions available through MSR Classics.

They are very different in style, a study a harpsichord followed by performances on church organ. Firstly, we have Six Sonatas For Harpsichord, Opus 2 (MSR ref. 1241). This work was written by the little known Anna Bon di Venezia (born c.1740). Her short life remains somewhat undocumented but she did leave us several works which were rediscovered by Dr. Harbach’s search for female composers.

Anna Bon’s only known biographical information appears on the frontispiece contained within three surviving works, published by her between 1756 and 1759. It is believed that she was born to successful parents. Her mother, Rosa Ruvinetti, was an opera singer and her father Girolamo Bon an architect, artist, and stage designer. Both were linked to the court of Frederic the Great of Prussia.

All three were also employed at the court of the wonderfully named Prince Nikolaus von Esterhazy. We can see that Anna was the ‘virtuoso di musica da camera’ at the court of Potsdam in 1756 and that, at the time, she was sixteen years of age. In 1767 she was living in Hildburghausen in Turingia.

However, she all but disappears from history around 1767 when she married an Italian tenor, Mongeri. Rather typically for a female of the time she sadly abandoned her musical career as a composer to presumably raise a family.

Her work remained largely overlooked but is now the subject of this excellent release courtesy of Dr. Barbara Harbach’s commitment and, of course, her skill of performance. Each of the six sonatas within the work has three movements. The movements are relatively short ranging from 16 to 115 measures and have a variety of forms. The well researched and expertly written accompanying album notes explain this in far more detail.

The album would probably have never seen light of day without Dr. Harbach’s dedication to her chosen cause. In fact Anna Bon di Venezia was one of several child prodigies that she has successfully re-discovered. Another example is Elizabeth Weichsell Billington (1765-1818).

The second album I would like to draw to your attention is Toccatas, Flourishes, and Fugues, A Celebration of Hymns, Volume 3 (MSR 1254). Playing an Aeolian-Skinner Organ, 1965 – IV/70 – from the Christ Church Cathedral in St Louis, Missouri, Dr. Harbach performs twenty-four short ecclesiastical pieces inspired by a wide range of sources.

For this album she has drawn upon her studies and research into keyboard composers and again these works are available in written form via Vivace Press. The recordings offer, ‘a selection of new arrangements and interpretations of a wide assortment of hymn tunes’. These include the traditional, as well as several lesser known hymns.

The collection is further enriched by contributions from William Billings (1747-1800), George F. Handel (1685-1750), Carl G. Glaser (1784-1829), and Martin Luther (1483-1546), among others, all of which are arranged by Barbara Harbach.

Her explorations of female composers results in the inclusion of Frances R. Havergal (1836-1879) hymn “Hermas, On Our Way Rejoicing”. Also included are several traditional pieces. From Hungary she brings us “Erre Gyere", from England “Kingsfold”, and from Wales “Ar Hyd Y Nos”. An African American spiritual appears with “Wade In The Water”. France contributes “Besancon, People Look East”, a traditional French carol.

Lovingly researched and expertly composed and arranged both albums are a fitting representation of the remarkable dedication at the heart of Dr. Barbara Harbach’s life work. Her performances successfully transfer the music with vibrancy and a joyful respect.

The releases both arrive with informative notes including an account of the many achievements of Dr. Harbach and the historical background to the music she has chosen and performed.

Certainly, as a direct consequence of these albums the work of Anna Bon di Venezia has now been rightfully re-discovered. Also the well chosen selection of hymns act as further endorsement of the level of respect which Barbara Harbach has for this particular genre.

These albums are distinctly individual, expertly performed, and contain a high degree of educational value. Harbach’s greatly admired authoritative position within the music world, and her abilities to perform the pieces with such command are all on display within these works. They provide a highly satisfying addition to any classical music collection.

Further details regarding this ongoing series from MSR Classics dedicated to the work of Barbara Harbach can be found on the label’s website. Additional information and performance details can be found by visiting Barbara Harbach’s own official website.

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