Concert burnishes the legacies of overlooked women composers

Dr. Malinda Haslett sings music by Claude Arrieu in a concert at the Franco Center in Lewiston.
Dr. Malinda Haslett sings music composed by Claude Arrieu with Scott Wheatley providing piano accompaniment.

Unheard for 60 years, a collection of songs by Claude Arrieu needed a champion to raise them up from obscurity. Not only did Dr. Malinda Haslett step forward, she lent her own voice to the task.

Haslett is Director of Vocal Studies at the University of Southern Maine’s Osher School of Music. Her research laid the foundation for a concert at the Franco Center in Lewiston on March 1 titled Celebrating French Music: The History Makers, The History Changers. Students and colleagues joined Haslett for a wide-ranging program with a special emphasis on French and female artists.

“Much of what is out there for early 20th century French repertoire is by men,” Haslett said. “I teach a lot of women who are inspired by women. And when they get to hear their voice come through another woman’s voice, it means more. They feel sisterhood and connection.”

That bond is familiar to Haslett through the many years she’s spent studying Arrieu’s life and music. Arrieu was born in France in 1903 as Louise-Marie Simon but later hid her gender behind a male pen name. She found that people were more inclined to take her seriously as a composer if they believed she was a man.

Joëlle Morris, a visiting music instructor at Bates College, performs a duet composed by Gabriel Fauré with Dr. Malinda Haslett in a concert at the Franco Center in Lewiston.
Bates College’s Joëlle Morris joined Dr. Haslett in a duet of music by Gabriel Fauré.

Arrieu refused to be silent during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. She made music to rally resistance and worked in secret with other artists to preserve French culture. Her post-war output was prolific. She continued writing operas and chamber music as before, while also expanding into areas like film and television scoring.

Arrieu also fought for recognition against changing musical tastes. Her output was often overlooked in favor of more experimental music. At the time of her death in 1990 and continuing to this day, not one of her hundreds of compositions for voice has ever been commercially recorded. Haslett would like to see Arrieu receive more credit.

“From the purely musical point of view, it’s really accessible and good music,” Haslett said. “It is incumbent upon us who perform and research and teach to make sure that we balance the pendulum.”

Haslett sang three poems that Arrieu set to music. A few of the verses translate to say, “Love is a bee/That eats my heart/Come to me/And buzzes at my mouth/That you feed and touch/Come to me.” Before singing in the original French, Haslett recited the first poem in English so everyone in the audience could understand its playfulness and intimacy.

Caroline Woods sings music by Chiquinha Gonzaga in a concert at the Franco Center in Lewiston.
In her performance of “Machuca,” Caroline Woods put added emphasis on the title word.

Another excited ripple went through the crowd when they learned about Arrieu’s connection to Lewiston. Haslett found documentation during her research that identified Alice Esty as one of Arrieu’s patrons. Esty was a philanthropist and donated extensively to support the arts. She lived in Lewiston, just a short drive from Haslett’s home.

“I looked it up and I thought ‘You gotta be kidding me. There’s just no way,’” Haslett said. “Then I did a little searching and I thought ‘It was destiny. It was meant to be.’ Just so bizarre, but I’ve run with it ever since. I think it’s amazing.”

Haslett sang three of the pieces that Esty commissioned for Arrieu. According to Haslett’s research, the songs hadn’t been performed since their creation 60 years earlier. The original manuscripts for those songs were part of a larger collection that Esty donated to Bates College in Lewiston.

Bates opened its archives to Haslett. The information she brought back to USM demonstrated the benefits of cooperation for both institutions. The collaboration continued at the concert.

France native Joëlle Morris is a visiting music instructor at Bates. She and Haslett opened the concert by singing “Puisqu’ici-bas toute âme,” a duet by French composer Gabriel Fauré. His music was a major influence on Claude Arrieu. Later in the program, Morris would return to sing several solo numbers from the works of Francis Poulenc.

Josie Lawrence sings music made famous by Astrud Gilberto in a concert at the Franco Center in Lewiston.
Josie Lawrence paid tribute to the music Astrud Gilberto by singing in a gentle purr.

The focus on French heritage attracted more collaborators. The Franco Center offered its performance space for the concert, while USM’s Franco-American Collection provided organizational help.

Anna Faherty is an archivist with the Collection. She wants audience members to know that they have an open invitation to learn more about Maine’s Franco history by visiting the exhibitions that she helps curate at USM’s Lewiston Campus. Her archives are full of stories about people like Alice Esty who shaped Lewiston’s cultural landscape.

“I think it shows the importance of archives, not just in terms of academic scholarship, but in terms of local history,” Faherty said. “You saw everybody in the audience being like ‘Woah, that lady lived here? And she commissioned that?’ That’s really cool.”

Several students representing a new generation of women in music paid tribute to the women who paved the way for them. The three featured singers were all seniors studying vocal performance at the Osher School. Their performances were all drawn from their studies in the Undergraduate Research Award Opportunity.

Bella St. Cyr was a featured vocalist during a performance of Gabriel Fauré's "Requiem" in a concert at the Franco Center in Lewiston.
Bella St. Cyr was a soloist in the choir in addition to her featured performance of music composed by Thea Musgrave.

Caroline Woods is proud of her Brazilian heritage. She is working on a pronunciation guide to help fellow voice students sing in Portuguese. She demonstrated her own fluency by singing to music by Brazilian composer Chiquinha Gonzaga. Her joy was especially evident in the song “Machuca” by the way she stressed the title word whenever it came up.

By contrast, Josie Lawrence sang in a gentle purr. She drew inspiration from another Brazilian icon by choosing songs made famous by Astrud Gilberto. She was the singer behind the pop hit “The Girl from Ipanema.” But Lawrence wants her listeners to know that Gilberto’s career was bigger and more influential than any one song.

Bella St. Cyr had one advantage over her fellow singers. The subject of her research is still alive. She is studying the impact that celebrated music teacher Nadia Boulanger had on her female students such as Thea Musgrave. Last November, St. Cyr met with Musgrave at her home in New York.

“One of the biggest things that she said was that I needed to feel and connect more to the pieces, and I think that I really did after meeting her,” St. Cyr said. “I was able to gain that new perspective.”

A choir composed of students from USM and Bates College sang Gabriel Fauré's "Requiem" in a concert at the Franco Center in Lewiston.
A performance of Fauré’s “Requiem” featured a combined choir of students from USM and Bates College.

That advice was on display at the concert. St. Cyr showcased her operatic training on two of Musgrave’s compositions that required at different moments both delicacy and strength of voice.

St. Cyr and Woods blended into a crowd that filled the stage for the evening’s final performance. More than 40 voices came together in a combined choir of students from both USM and Bates. Their rendition of Fauré’s “Requiem” was dedicated to the Lewiston community as it continues to heal from a mass shooting last October.

Fauré may have been the only composer on the program that many guests recognized coming into the concert. The singers hoped their efforts won over new fans for the women whose music they performed.

“Listen to new music, things that you haven’t heard before,” St. Cyr urged, “but also, always go back to the classics.”