Sidetracked by Netty Simons

Now, if the Internet doesn’t immediately give you everything you ever wanted to know about someone (true or imagined) that’s quite the goldmine in the research world. That’s when it gets fun.

While going through a set of old periodicals for an unbelievably dull, but necessary, task, I came across the 1972 cover for Music Journal Annual, proclaiming a “Gallery of Living Composers” (and proving the listicle was alive and well pre-Internet).

Intrigued, I flipped through. Who, in 1972, made the cut? Of the 50, many have remained standard names: Morton Gould, Lukas Foss, George Crumb, Elliot Carter, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbit, etc. Most were American, or worked primarily in America. Most worked primarily in New York City. Of the 50, there were two male POC (Chou Wen-Chung and Ulysses Kay) and one white woman, which is pretty good for 1972.

The woman was Netty Simons, whom I had never heard of. My colleagues (some composers and players of new music) had never heard of her, which seemed like an odd legacy for someone prominent enough at the time to make this distinguished list.

From Simons’ Silver Thaw (1969)

Last week, The Washington Post posted a list of the top 35 female composers in classical music, generating a lively discussion which linked to many, many, many more composers who are women, to many, many more articles about (and by) composers who are women, to many, many lists of composers who are women, and continuing the discussion regarding the lack of representation of composers who are women when programming major works for major organizations.

In the last few years, I’ve taken a concerted interest in the programming of composers who are women, making an effort to be aware, and draw awareness to, this issue in classical music. I’m not the first, not am I the best, person to discourse on the subject. But in my particular community, in my particular role, I’m monitoring (in our local scene) the programming of composers who are women. Of course, the more you pay attention, the more you find out. At some point I’ll write more about that (spoiler alert: KC’s programming efforts are well within the national average), but with all that in mind, the discovery of a time-capsule list like this seemed rather serendipitous.Netty SimonsThe Internet revealed little, just recirculating the two same bio paragraphs, which I’m guessing originated with the finding aid for her archived papers in the New York Public Library and at Vassar College. WorldCat had a pretty thorough list of her scores. YouTube had a few cuts, Naxos revealed naught. There is a lone dissertation examining her vocal work. Crowd-sourcing the hivemind on social media only got a few hits.

In a (admittedly cursory) review of anthologies for women composers Simons showed up in about half, and only a third of those were more than a brief mention. What else do I know as of now? She was born, trained and worked in New York City. She was a pianist, she worked with dancers, wrote for all sorts of ensembles, used aleatoric/experimental techniques, studied with Percy Grainger and Marion Bauer. She produced concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall. New Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra premiered a work of hers. Bertram Turetzky performed and recorded one work, Design Groups II. She was a student and friend of Stefan Wolpe, with whom she corresponded frequently (included in her papers at The New York Public Library). She was a mother, a wife, a teacher and a radio programmer (in NYC and University of Michigan).

Left: no mention | Right: mention of some sort

I know, from a 1984 program bio, her “early works display an extreme economy of means and imaginative control of color. Recently she has employed graphic notation.”

Now, I’m not sure I answered the “why was Netty Simons the token woman in this list” question. Why do we not recognize her name? Is it because her music was of lower quality than her contemporaries? Unlikely, since she seemed to have the respect of the community she was in. Did her work merely fall out of fashion? Or did it stop being performed because there is still a very limited place in our contemporary culture for music by composers who are women and so she and her music were sidelined after she stopped being productive/alive?


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