Lighting a Candle

When I first started the blog, I intended to include some discussion of books about conducting; but I ended up talking about the work of conducting so much that I never got around to the books about it. But I just read a book about a conductor that filled me with inspiration and hope and other mixed, complicated feelings. I really want people to know about it.

It’s Lighting a Candle: The Writings and Wisdom of Elaine Brown compiled and edited by James Jordan, Sonya Garfinkle, and Janet Yamron, who were all students of Dr. Brown.

Elaine Brown received four honorary doctorates. In 1972, she was the second woman ever to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra — the first was one of Dr. Brown’s teachers, Nadia Boulanger, in 1939. She was director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College, taught conducting at Julliard, and designed an undergraduate program in conducting for Temple University. All of these are incredibly prestigious accomplishments.

But she dedicated her life not to recording great repertoire or to fulfilling ambitions of fame and acclaim. She wanted to end racism and religious intolerance with choral singing. She wanted to make a community of singers who made music together without regard to skin color or ethnic heritage. This is beautiful, powerful, important work that goes unrecognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States, unrecognized by music historians, unrecognized by people who keep the record of great musicians. Because it isn’t about the music. It’s about the people who make the music, and the experience they have in making it. And, I agree with her, all of that is much more important than the music itself.

I spoke with the editors, who told me a story of her choir’s tour to the South in the 1950s. As a policy, everyone on the trip only went where everyone could go. For example, the white singers refused to use any “Whites Only” bathrooms. They all stood in line to use the “Negro bathrooms.” They told me, “there were white people looking at us like we were crazy.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Just writing those sentences fills my heart with pride that this is part of my academic heritage — I studied with her students! My ideas come to me through them from her! She’s like my academic grandmother; and I feel a literal warmth in my heart to know that these are my musical roots.

But I only know her name because my teachers were her students. Her work, because it focused on singers’ experiences of joy and community rather than creating a record of prestigious accomplishments, has meant that her name is not so well known as, for example, Robert Shaw. I worry about my suspicion that this focus on community rather than ego-fulfilling ambition was related to her womanhood, but I’ll let the sociologists hammer that one out. I worry that racism and religious intolerance are still so deeply pervasive that every word she says about them is still true.

Born eleven  years before Betty Friedan, Dr. Brown came of age after the 19th Amendment. She lived in the world where women were not having open and wide-ranging conversations questioning systemic patriarchy. Also, she did not follow the typical path of so many women of the early twentieth century. Maybe, because her life was exceptional, she did not feel the sting of patriarchy the way Friedan did — and the way I do. I worry that she never addresses sexism, never claims feminism, puts air quotes around the words when she refers to the fact that she’s a “woman conductor.” I worry that Eugene Ormandy, with respect and affection, refers to her not as maestro or maestra, but the diminutive maestrina. I worry that all the many poets and writers and teachers she quotes are men except for Nadia Boulanger. I worry that her work is steeped in unacknowledged patriarchy.

I think this book is important. I hope you will read it. You can buy it online, of course. I couldn’t find it at an independent bookstore because GIA, distributors, complicated publication reasons, blahblahblah. Proceeds go toward the Elaine Brown Chair at Temple University. I hope you will share it with all your friends who teach music, and have inspired and challenging conversations about the history of choral music in America, and the complicated, intersectional world in which we do our work.

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