I’ve been passionate about women in music ever since I began composing. Initially, all the musical role models visible to me were men, and this made me feel as if there were no space for me. While writing for Faber Music’s competition (initiated by the author Karen Marshall) – to find a young female composer to have a piece published in HerStory: The Piano Collection by Karen Marshall- I found my old Grade 5 piano book, and was horrified – but unsurprised – that not a single piece was composed by a woman. There simply aren’t enough women in compositional canon.
Part of the brief was to draw on the music of Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), to recognise her contribution to music. One of the first things that struck me about Hildegard was her quote: “Glance at the sun. See the moon and stars. Gaze at the beauty of the green earth. Now think.” To me, this quote connects some of the most important issues of the world today: climate change, mental health and the fragilities of the natural world and humanity.
I scoured Hildegard’s compositions for pieces that might engage with the natural world and mental health. I chose “O Ignee Spiritus” – particularly the line “the human mind is set ablaze” – and “Aer Enim Volat” – which explores the delicate symbiotic relationships of nature. I began by writing these pieces out by hand, listening to interpretations of them and playing and singing them to deepen my connection with them.
Ecological and well-being issues too often prompt a sense of cynicism, but I wanted my piece to end with hope and humanity. “Aer Enim Volat” has the pitch centre of an “E” and “O Ignee Spiritus” has the pitch centre of a “D” – notes which are a minor 7th apart. My theme centres on an “A”, where, squarely in the middle, it can engage equally with both themes.It doesn’t remove the dissonance, but rather helps make sense of it, enabling us to sit in the discomfort instead of running from it. The need for self-care that I evoke in the piece was also a pertinent note to self – that risking burn-out is not the only route to success for a woman in a man’s world!
When approaching the piece, students should lean into the sonority of the quartal chords, almost meditating on them. Try to also get a contrast between the heaviness in the middle of the piece and lightness of touch in the high register at the end.
Hand-written sketches of Pedersen’s “Now Think”
Engaging with Hildegard von Bingen and her work had a profound personal impact. She was sensitive and poetic, qualities that the “snowflake generation” are mocked for. She is an amazing role model for young people today – she found a way to be visible, creative and vocal at a time when women had no agency.
From a personal perspective, Hildegard is a crucial reminder that no matter how many women in composition may struggle to find a place, there is always a way to create, speak your mind and be heard. Books like HerStory – which amplify women’s voices -uplift us all and reinforce what can feel like a shaky concept – that it is possible to be a woman and a composer.
Watch a student from Yorkshire Young Musicians perform Now Think:
About the Composer
Emily Pedersen is one of the winning composers of the Faber Music competition to include a new piano piece in HerStory: The Piano Collection. Her piece, “Now Think.” is based on and inspired by the music, life and words of Hildegard von Bingen.
Emily had an international upbringing, before relocating to the U.K. She started composing aged 12 and has since won and been a finalist for several competitions. She is currently studying at the Royal Northern College of Music.
HerStory: The Piano Collection by Karen Marshall
Next month in my blog I will be giving a behind-the-scenes look at how I wrote my latest book, HerStory: The Piano Collection over lockdown. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to write this book, especially because most of the music is currently not available in print. Launching on International Women’s Day (8th March), the book tells the story of 29 remarkable female composers from across the ages, with a specially chosen piece of music by each. In addition, two competition winners are included, who are being published for the first time.