In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau (Part II): An Estate in Ashes

In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau (Part II): An Estate in Ashes

Design: Elizabeth Van Os of Cavatina Creative

With the generous support of the Presser Foundation’s Presser Graduate Award, I traveled to Germany from late March until early June 2022 to compile and research the published and unpublished song repertoire of German Romantic-era composer Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927). This research will be integral to the completion of my DMA thesis/lecture recital project on Le Beau’s Lieder, which I plan to present in the spring of 2023.

“In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau” is an ongoing series. For more details about this project, click here.

Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927)

Portrait of Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927) Author Unknown; Alamy Photos

Born in Rastatt, Germany, Luise Adolpha Le Beau was raised in a musical family, and her parents devoted themselves to her education. She later developed a professional career as a composer, pianist, music critic, and pedagogue of female piano teachers, although she identified primarily as a composer. She wrote in large-scale forms, such as symphonies, operas, and choral works, but also embraced smaller-scale Lieder and instrumental chamber music. During the 1870’s and 1880’s in Munich, Le Beau was successful in publishing and seeking performances of her newest works. In the decades that followed, however, she struggled to find further performance opportunities, moving to Wiesbaden, Berlin, and Baden-Baden to seek more fertile collaborative landscapes. Le Beau’s memoirs, Lebenserinnerungen einer Komponistin (Memoirs of a Woman Composer), published in 1910, detail her frustrations with the sexism and lack of acceptance she faced as a woman composer, which directly contributed to Le Beau’s withdrawal from her public composition career in the early 1900’s.

Upon her passing in 1927, although she meticulously organized and catalogued her manuscripts and personal papers, Le Beau’s music was simply “forgotten.” While more recent scholarship and recordings have highlighted her instrumental chamber music, there is little to no scholarship about her Lieder repertoire (or other parts of her oeuvre), few of her published Lieder scores are available to the public, and to my knowledge, only one recording of several Le Beau Lieder exists.

The Geo-Politics of a Manuscript Score

Throughout my first three weeks at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, my drive to “discover” the Lieder of Luise Adolpha Le Beau was often obscured. I planned to compile her song scores, guided by a basic English translation I had made of her autobiography, as well as to gather copies of her letters and journal entries that related to her song compositions. As I finally held one of Le Beau’s string-bound scores in my hands, the act of simply opening its cover revealed another layer of historical and socio-cultural context that I had not anticipated and would now need to decipher. While my research still centered itself on “the music” and Le Beau’s scores that she had copied so neatly as an ultimate act of self-preservation, I realized that the layers of meaning encasing her music, most of which had accumulated in the century after her death, could not be ignored. In fact, tracing whatever happened to the materials in her estate over the past century, which inevitably led me to questions about Germany’s twentieth-century past, is as relevant as anything that occurred during Le Beau’s lifetime.

This fact began to dawn on me as I learned to use the various archival tools that the library had to offer, namely a microfilm reader and a digital scanner. Each slide of microfilm represented one page of Le Beau’s musical materials, and since none of her Lieder compositions were particularly long, each opus fit onto its own roll of film with book-ended title slides. These slides listed identifying features of the musical work, such as its title, date of composition, and the date and location of its transfer onto microfilm. I soon noticed that the title slides on Le Beau’s Lieder compositions consistently listed their date of transfer in the 1980’s and their transfer location as the Deutsches Staatsbibliothek Berlin (DDR). 


Le Beau in the GDR

After the surrender of the German military and the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, Germany was divided into four Allied occupation zones, each controlled by the United States, Great Britain, France, or the Soviet Union. In 1949, the American, British, and French zones merged to later form the Federal Republic of Germany, a parliamentary democracy. In turn, the German Democratic Republic (GDR; known in German as the DDR) was constituted from the Soviet occupation zone in northeastern Germany. Ruled by the oppressive Socialist Unity Party as a satellite Marxist-Leninist nation of the Soviet Union, the GDR contained Berlin, Germany’s former capital, whose post-war fate had played out similarly to the rest of the nation. West Berlin remained part of the Federal Republic of Germany, a tiny enclave of democracy, while East Berlin became the de facto capital of the GDR itself. Berlin was now a divided city of two nations and the ultimate breeding ground for the Cold War’s political and cultural battles. In 1961, as a barbed-wire fence was built through the city overnight by the East German government, the division of West and East Berlin was further entrenched. To thwart the constant flight of East German citizens into West Berlin (and therefore, West Germany), the Berlin Wall transformed into a concrete fortress with armed guards instructed to “shoot to kill” anyone who illegally tried to escape from the east. Due to the Friedliche Revolution (Peaceful Revolution), the Wall fell incredibly without violence in 1989, as the government of the GDR collapsed.

Where then do we find Le Beau’s estate as it was partially transferred onto microfilm in the 1980’s at the Deutsches Staatsbibliothek Berlin (DDR)? It seems that the post-World War II consequences for Germany’s largest library also mirrored that of its capital. After the defeat of the Nazi regime and the partitioning of Berlin, the library found itself once again as a contested socio-cultural space where struggles over political ideology dominated. Its collections were now divided and claimed by two separate countries: the Deutsches Staatsbibliothek of the GDR and the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz of the Federal Republic of Germany. Le Beau’s estate, housed in the Musikabteilung (music department) on Unter den Linden, now lived in East Germany under another iteration of a totalitarian regime.

Propaganda poster by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, featuring a flag with images of Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953); 1950.
Image: invaluable
West Berliners watch at the Berlin Wall while an East German soldier patrols on the other side; 1961.
Photo: Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
West and East Berliners celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate; 1989.
Photo: Unknown; Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Nazi Regime & World War II

How, though, did Le Beau’s estate survive World War II? What happened to the library’s holdings during the terrors of the Nazi regime? Per her own instructions, Le Beau’s estate was divided between the state libraries of Berlin, Karlsruhe, and Munich. Less than a decade after her death in 1927, the Nazi regime censored the (then-named) Preußische Staatsbibliothek’s collections, obstructing the staff’s ability to acquire new materials and inciting the 1933 public burning of over 20,000 books by students in the neighboring Bebelplatz. Library staff were fired, silenced, and persecuted. The Nazi regime also expanded the library’s holdings through wide-scale theft and seizure of property. In 2019, the Berlin Central and Regional Library (ZLB) estimated that as much as a third of their 3.5 million volumes may have been stolen by the Nazis, who looted the property of Jewish families, libraries, and organizations, as well as Masons, Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Slavs, and anyone who dared to criticize the Nazi regime.

Students publicly burn “un-German” literature on the Opernplatz of Unter den Linden in Berlin; 1933.
Photo: Georg Pahl; German Federal Archives

As war raged from 1940 to 1945, Berlin sustained heavy bombing with large swathes of the city reduced to rubble. Prior to the war, Unter den Linden, the library’s home since 1914, had already experienced a radical transformation. Throughout the nineteenth century, this iconic boulevard, considered one of the most elegant promenades in Europe, had been lined with linden trees, a cultural symbol of truth, love, and memory. Under their authoritarian grip, the Nazi regime dug up its trees, replacing them with immense Nazi flags and propaganda. In 1945, Unter den Linden was left in ruins by one of the largest American air raids on Berlin.

Earlier in 1941, after Allied bombing damaged the Preußische Staatsbibliothek, the Nazi regime evacuated the library’s collections. Millions of volumes of printed materials and media, which presumably included seventy-nine of Le Beau’s manuscript scores, were transferred to thirty secret locations throughout eastern Germany, including caves, monasteries, abandoned mines, and castles. After the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, these cultural materials were scattered. Many library staff had fled or died during the war. The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin estimates that between 335,000 to 400,000 items were destroyed, and over 300,000 are missing to this day. While Le Beau’s estate survived in Berlin, she was less fortunate at the Badische Landesbibliothek in Karlsruhe, a city that held personal significance for Le Beau and her family. Located in Baden-Württemberg, a region in southwestern Germany east of the Rhine River, Le Beau had spent her childhood in Karlsruhe and later Baden-Baden; it seemed a fitting choice to bequeath the more personal items in her estate to the region’s largest library. In 1942, the Badische Landesbibliothek was collateral damage in a British air raid, and firebombs destroyed the building and much of its holdings (at the time, 360,000 volumes). The fires consumed a sizable portion (though not all) of Le Beau’s personal estate, including her diaries.

In Berlin, however, Le Beau’s estate was ultimately returned to its former home on Unter den Linden, a bombed-out shell of its former self and the soon-to-be national library of the GDR.  In 1989, with reunification on the horizon, the two Berlin libraries discussed their desire to unite as one institution. In 1992, after nearly fifty years as separate entities, irrevocably altered by the brutality of totalitarian regimes, the devastations of war, and the tumult of geo-political events, the two state libraries merged to form the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, in whose building I now sat.

An Estate in Ashes

While far greater atrocities occurred during the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, World War II, and the subsequent rise and fall of the GDR than the potential of losing Le Beau’s estate, I believe that tracing the fate of her materials throughout this brutal history lays bare one of the many twisted aims of totalitarianism — it seeks to destroy knowledge by erasing the historical archive and rewriting it in its own terrifying image. By following the microcosmic trajectory of Le Beau’s musical scores, we also reveal the extent to which hatred, cruelty, and ignorance can ripple throughout a society, leaving nothing, not even the smallest of cultural items, unscathed.

In the foreword of her memoirs, Lebenserinnerungen einer Komponistin, Le Beau articulates how, although thwarted as a composer in life due to gendered prejudice, she desired that her musical legacy would survive and earn a fairer assessment from future generations.

“Whatever gifts I was given, I have nurtured with all my strength; no one can do anything more! I did not disdain even the smallest gifts, but rather, I took delight in all musical works as long as they were artistically serious and true… The royal libraries in Munich and Berlin already preserve all my printed works and will later also receive my manuscripts, which I will leave them. Historians and all those whom I wish to present with this consideration can judge the collection of my works, yes, and they will certainly do so with more impartiality and fairness than my contemporaries… Should one or another of my compositions please later generations, I have not written in vain.”

Young woman, seated at a desk from 1862 journal.
Photo: JonnyJim/iStock

Le Beau entrusted her estate to these historic institutions, believing that they would act as a bulwark in preserving her legacy; less than two decades after her death, some of her materials were already in ashes. Despite this chaos, her manuscript scores endured, including her song compositions. Although few have been publicly heard since the late nineteenth century, I intend to make it so that they are considered once again with “more impartiality and fairness” (unparteiischer und gerechter), as Le Beau herself intended.


  1. “Geschichte,” Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz, accessed on August 2, 2022,
  2. Katherine Quinlan-Flatter, “One Story, Different Voices – The Bombing of Karlsruhe,” Imperial War Museum Blog, March 2, 2021,
  3. Milton Esterow, “The Hunt for the Nazi Loot Still Sitting on Library Shelves,” The New York Times, published on January 14, 2019,

Stay Tuned…

Keep an eye out for my next installment of “In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau: Part III” in September and remember to subscribe (it’s free!) for a monthly update in your inbox. Also, feel free to share any comments or questions in the section below.

In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau (Part I): My Mother in the Library

In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau (Part I): My Mother in the Library

Design: Elizabeth Van Os of Cavatina Creative

With the generous support of the Presser Foundation’s Presser Graduate Award, I traveled to Germany from late March until early June 2022 to compile and research the published and unpublished song repertoire of German Romantic-era composer Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927). This research will be integral to the completion of my DMA thesis/lecture recital project on Le Beau’s Lieder, which I plan to present in the spring of 2023.

“In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau” is an ongoing series. For more details about this project and a short biography of the composer, click here.

Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927)

Portrait of Luise Adolpha Le Beau.
Photo: Author Unknown; Alamy Stock Photos

Born in Rastatt, Germany, Luise Adolpha Le Beau was raised in a musical family, and her parents devoted themselves to her education. She later developed a professional career as a composer, pianist, music critic, and pedagogue of female piano teachers, although she identified primarily as a composer. She wrote in large-scale forms, such as symphonies, operas, and choral works, but also embraced smaller-scale Lieder and instrumental chamber music. During the 1870’s and 1880’s in Munich, Le Beau was successful in publishing and seeking performances of her newest works. In the decades that followed, however, she struggled to find further performance opportunities, moving to Wiesbaden, Berlin, and Baden-Baden to seek more fertile collaborative landscapes. Le Beau’s memoirs, Lebenserinnerungen einer Komponistin (Memoirs of a Woman Composer), published in 1910, detail her frustrations with the sexism and lack of acceptance she faced as a woman composer, which directly contributed to Le Beau’s withdrawal from her public composition career in the early 1900’s.

Upon her passing in 1927, although she meticulously organized and catalogued her manuscripts and personal papers, Le Beau’s music was simply “forgotten.” While more recent scholarship and recordings have highlighted her instrumental chamber music, there is little to no scholarship about her Lieder repertoire (or other parts of her oeuvre), few of her published Lieder scores are available to the public, and to my knowledge, only one recording of several Le Beau Lieder exists.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…

After more than a year of planning, I found myself barreling towards the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin on Unter den Linden. With its grand neo-Baroque façade and imposing marble staircase, I felt instantly dwarfed by the sheer size and space of such an historic building. I prepared myself for what I could encounter next – would Luise Adolpha Le Beau’s archive reveal what I hoped and expected it to? Through my online research, I knew that I would find her Nachlass (estate) at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, which included seventy-nine score manuscripts and some of her personal correspondence. Several letters had been digitized, but Le Beau’s score manuscripts remained in their original or microfilm forms, accessible only on site. While I had cross-checked online resources to create an initial list of her song opuses, both published and unpublished, I could only verify my theories in person.

As I registered for my Bibliotheksausweis (library card), I suddenly felt intimidated. I heard the faint whispers of an “impostor devil” in my ear, wondering whether I really planned to waltz into the Musikabteilung (Music Department) with my awkward German and order the entire estate of Luise Adolpha Le Beau. I had never embarked on archival research before, let alone in another language – what did I think I was doing?

Façade of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin on Unter den Linden.
Photo: Noelle McMurtry
Entrance Hall to the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

After an initial week of engaging with Le Beau’s estate materials, I began to feel more at ease in my burgeoning role as an archival researcher, in part due to the direct, but sympathetic guidance of the Music Department staff. I observed certain characteristics that they all shared – an attention to detail, their acknowledgment that no “small” thing should go untouched, their sense of responsibility as custodians of history, and an indefatigable desire to help visitors like myself. They were all vaguely familiar characters, as if I had met them before. I realized then that they reminded me of my mother.

My Mother in the Library

My mother and I at the National Zoo in Washington, DC; 1987.
Photo: Vanda McMurtry (my father)

In 1976, Maria Emma Vergara, my mother, graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a Master’s degree in Library Science. After emigrating to the United States from Colombia as a child, my mother carried with her a love of literature and the legacy of a family of writers, including José María Vergara y Vergara (1831-1872), my mother’s great-great grandfather who penned the first Spanish literary history of Colombia. Since her career as a librarian and archivist occurred mainly before I was born, it took me several weeks of research at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin to connect my mother’s story with my own search for Luise Adolpha Le Beau and her music.

Upon my parents’ marriage in 1972, my mother was nineteen years old. They soon moved cross-country from southern California to Upstate New York where my father pursued a PhD in Philosophy at Cornell University. They sold my mother’s Volkswagen Beetle to pay for her first semester’s-worth of tuition at Ithaca College. Originally, she hoped to study Speech Pathology, but after a single semester, they simply did not have the funds for my mother to continue her studies. Without a full scholarship, she faced the real possibility of abandoning her college degree. After interviewing at nearby SUNY Cortland, the university awarded my mother the funds that she so desperately needed, setting her on course to later become a librarian. Since SUNY Cortland did not offer a concentration in Speech Pathology, my mother changed her fields of study to include Social Science and Spanish Literature. In upstate New York of the early 1970’s, my mother was one of the first Latina students and native Spanish-speakers in the Spanish department, as well as the university.

After graduating summa cum laude from SUNY Cortland, my mother scheduled a meeting with her advisor to discuss future career prospects. This advisor, who was also a woman in a university landscape with scant female professors or administrators, offered my mother a piece of advice: she should pursue secretarial work. Infuriated and defeated, my mother cried for a week, but continued with her plans to pursue a graduate degree in Library Science. After moving to Washington DC and graduating from the University of Maryland in 1976, she worked at the Library of Congress as an Assistant Librarian in the Hispanic Division, cataloguing materials related to human rights abuses in Central and South America. Sexual harassment was an overt and commonplace occurrence for women employees, but my mother persisted with her work, serving as a cataloguist for DC-based organizations, such as USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development). There, she archived information on oral rehydration of infants, as well as maternal nutrition and health throughout Africa and Asia.

My mother and her sister wearing their first winter coats after emigrating to the US in Bordentown, NJ; 1961.
My parents’ wedding in the backyard of my grandmother’s house in Orange, California; 1972.
My mother and father newly arrived in Upstate NY at Lake Cayuga; 1972.

Over the past three months in Germany, as I have found myself in the stillness of library reading rooms, it is clear to me that my mother’s work has, in part, guided me into these fraught, and yet important, literary spaces which have historically excluded women. And so, as I am “in search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau,” I see now that I will encounter many others along this path, whose lives and work intertwine with a nineteenth-century composer and a twenty-first century me. Although the story of this project begins long before I traveled to Germany, I find it best to start my first post at the exact moment where I grasp my library card and walk through the heavy wooden doors of the Musikabteilung at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

Stay Tuned…

Scene of destruction in street near Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin on July 3rd, 1945, three months after the fall of Nazi Germany
A. Wilkes, Imperial War Museum; Public Domain

As I continued my research over the subsequent weeks at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, I realized that tracing whatever happened to the materials in Luise Adolpha Le Beau’s estate after her death in 1927 was as relevant as anything that occurred during her lifetime. Per her own instructions, Le Beau’s meticulously curated estate was divided between state libraries in Berlin, Karlsruhe, and Munich. Through my examination of her manuscripts, I discovered the twentieth-century history of the library itself embedded into her scores. As a contested socio-cultural space, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin was irrevocably altered by the brutality of totalitarian regimes, the devastations of war, and the tumult of geo-political events, which wreaked havoc upon the library’s collections and its curators.

Keep an eye out for my next installment of “In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau: Part II” in August and remember to subscribe (it’s free!) for a monthly update in your inbox. Also, feel free to share any comments or questions below.

Suffragist Series: Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Suffragist Series: Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Suffragist Series highlights the fascinating suffrage activists that I researched as dramaturg for A Women’s Suffrage Splendiferous Extravaganza! (AWSSE!), a new vaudeville-inspired revue about the history of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. It has been an eye-opening experience to confront how little I knew about the history of the women’s suffrage movement, and I look forward to sharing more about the lives and contributions of these remarkable activists. For more information about AWSSE! and to follow its newest developments, check out my projects.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Mary Church Terrell was an eminent Black writer, educator, and civil rights activist, who co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and was an original signatory of the charter to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Born in Memphis to an affluent family, her parents, who were both formerly enslaved, were successful entrepreneurs. Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, owned a hair salon, and Terrell’s father, Robert Reed Church, was the first African American millionaire in the South. Terrell’s parents stressed the importance of education, and Terrell attended Oberlin Academy and Oberlin College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Languages, as well as a Master’s degree. Upon graduation, Terrell taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio, and in 1887, she moved to Washington DC to teach at the M Street Colored High School (which later became Dunbar High School).

Mary Church Terrell, ca. 1880-1900
Photo: Library of Congress

In 1892, Terrell grieved the loss of a close friend from Memphis, Thomas Moss, who was violently lynched by a white mob over the success of his business. Between 1877 and 1950, Moss was one of approximately 4,000 victims of lynching in the southern United States. [1] This tragedy spurred Terrell’s activism: she collaborated with her friend and famed journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) to organize national anti-lynching campaigns, as well as lobbied President Benjamin Harrison with civil rights activist and author Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) to condemn lynching.

NAACP Silent Protest Parade, Fifth Avenue in New York City (1917)
Photo: Underwood and Underwood; Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Ida B. Wells, ca. 1893-1894
Photo: Ida B. Wells Papers; University of Chicago Library

In 1896, Terrell co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), serving as its first president. The NACW adopted her motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” which exemplified Terrell’s philosophy of community uplift to improve the daily lives of Black Americans and combat the virulent racial discrimination that they faced through education, activism, and employment opportunities.

“Lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long … Seeking no favors because of our color nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice and ask for an equal chance.”

Mary Church Terrell, “What Role Is the Educated Negro Woman to Play in the Uplifting of Her Race?” (1902)
Banner with motto of Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photo: National Association of Colored Women (1896)
Mary Church Terrell (fourth from left) with activists picketing outside Murphy’s five-and-dime for refusing to serve African Americans (early 1950’s)
Photo: Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Archives
Portrait of Mary Church Terrell
by Betsy Graves Reyneau (1888-1964);
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

In service of education for all African Americans, Terrell served on the Washington Board of Education from 1895 to 1901 and from 1906 to 1911. She was also a passionate advocate for women’s suffrage. Undeterred by the racism that coursed through the women’s suffrage movement, Terrell advocated for the voting rights of Black women, stating that suffrage was not only an essential tool for self-enfranchisement, but would also uplift all African Americans. At the biennial meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Terrell spoke in 1898 and 1900, stressing that Black women were forced to confront the double barriers of racial and gender discrimination. Terrell’s intersectional outlook deeply informed her activism as a suffragist; she picketed Woodrow Wilson’s White House with members of the National Woman’s Party and spoke at the International Council of Women in Germany in 1904, presenting her speech in German.

Terrell became a sought-after speaker and writer in the United States and abroad, and in 1940, she published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, which described the successes, challenges, and discrimination she faced throughout her career as a Black woman activist and educator. After World War II, Terrell’s fight for social justice continued, and she worked to end legal segregation in Washington DC. While DC had passed anti-discrimination laws in the 1870’s, twenty years later, these laws had been eroded. African Americans were banned and excluded from public places, such as restaurants. In 1950, Terrell and her activist colleagues entered segregated Thompson Restaurant, asking to be served. The group was refused, and they sued. Terrell continued to target segregationist polices through boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins. In 1953, segregated eating places were declared unconstitutional in Washington DC, and in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

That same year, at the age of ninety-one, Terrell died in Highland Beach, Maryland. In the face of violence, ignorance, and prejudice, Mary Church Terrell tirelessly devoted her life to the advance of equal rights for Black Americans through supporting anti-lynching legislation and women’s suffrage, dismantling segregation laws, and advocating for equal access to education and economic opportunities for all.


  1. Kendra Kneisley, “Lifting As We Climb: The Life of Mary Church Terrell,” She Shapes History: Berkshire Museum,
  2. Tyina Steptoe, “Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954),” Black Past, January 19, 2007,
  3. “Mary Church Terrell,” National Park Service, January 16, 2020,
  4. Debra Michals, “Marcy Church Terrell,” National Women’s History Museum, 2017
  5. Allison Lange, “National Organization of Colored Women,” National Women’s History Museum, 2015,
Singing with Myself: Pandemic Virtual Performance & Melissa Dunphy’s June

Singing with Myself: Pandemic Virtual Performance & Melissa Dunphy’s June

Reflections on Melissa Dunphy’s June (2012)

June was presented as part of the recital-film project, I take the long way there. For more information about this program, check out my projects.

My family and friends will tell you that I am something of a Luddite, never acquiring comfortable fluency with my computer, outside of Internet searches, word processing tasks, and copious albums on Google Photos. As I navigated the beginnings of my career as a freelance artist, however, I reluctantly embraced certain means of marketing myself: a YouTube channel and a website, which I created after being told one too many times that I simply “did not exist” without them.

I must admit that after managing both for over eight years and finding some joy in controlling aspects of public self-representation, I still find these online landscapes overwhelming and insecurity-inducing. I will never be able to fully accept the callous and casual rejection of a “thumbs-down” from a total stranger, who may either completely dislike my work (and feel inclined to anonymously tell me so), or who simply wishes to inform an algorithm of their aesthetic preferences.

Woman turning on a radio (1927)
Photo: Library of Congress

I reveled in live performance because, no matter how much I wished to control, mold, influence, and shape the final product, I was always forced to eventually let it go; the performance did not exist outside of a single moment, and whatever versions of ourselves that my collaborators and I performed for a particular audience, they too dissolved.

As stay-at-home orders fell into place, and Peabody Institute shuttered its doors last March, my musical (and daily) life was inundated with new technology. Suddenly, to function in a virtual realm, I researched microphones, microphone stands, audio interfaces, headphones, audio and video editing programs, not to mention learning about Zoom, Cleanfeed, Soundtrap, Audacity, and DaVinci. I also procured a large pile of wires, some of which would clearly connect to certain machines, and others which are still a complete mystery to me. While many performers were already engaged with technology as an innovative means of creating, amplifying, and disseminating art, I, for better or for worse, had not. Overnight, live performances were cancelled, rehearsals became obsolete; all accompaniment tracks were pre-recorded, and in filming ourselves for various projects, lip synching was the necessary order of the day. Not only did I feel uncomfortable handling this technology, but I was inexperienced with acting for film, lip synching, and the most basic audio and video editing skills. To make matters worse, I loathed listening to recordings of myself, especially after years’ worth of emotional baggage from pre-screening tracks that never seemed quite good enough and were often followed by a stock rejection email. 

View from the car of a rainbow in upstate New York (2021)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

In July of 2020, as I considered whether to continue virtually with the second year of my Doctoral degree or defer, my voice teacher offered a piece of excellent advice, which I found painful to accept at the time. She advised me that, if I chose to return virtually to our Peabody academic and creative lives, I needed to “buy in” to the experience in whatever way I genuinely could; it would be the best and only means of navigating whatever came next. She did not mean that I would disingenuously always enjoy our latency-riddled lessons, or the fact that I still cannot “share my screen” smoothly for a Zoom presentation without feeling the weight of a classroom’s eyes watching me fumble with my trackpad. She challenged me to see what I could make of a virtual performance world, which was simultaneously confining, confusing, but still full of possibility. The hard truth was that I also no longer had the immature luxury of rejecting it outright. 

Premiered in 2012 at the Voice of this Generation and Network for New Music, June is a two-movement work for voice and looper pedal by Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980) and poet Lauren Rile Smith. As a performer, poet, and founder and producer of Tangle Movement Arts, an all-female aerial dance theater company, Rile Smith describes the interconnected nature of the questions that she explores through her interdisciplinary work as both a poet and aerial artist. These questions often center around queer relationships and “representing bodies… and women and feminism, and what it means to have a body…” [1] In a 2016 interview with Cathy Hannabach for the podcast Imagine Otherwise, Rile Smith details her investment in “depicting female strength and relationships between women…Though this sometimes feels really basic, it also feels deeply essential to us, in part because we live in a world in which relationships between women are underrepresented in media or squashed into stereotypes, even in sometimes places where we would expect to have them made central.”[2]

In June, Rile Smith depicts two distinct visions of the month of June: one in which the protagonist is subsumed by the sweltering room of a house in summer, a veritable “oven” in which the passage of time slows. Surrounded by this sense of stasis, June’s protagonist reflects on what once was, stating, “I go shopping in my own past– those well-worn handles, broken jars, alone with you. Can you let me know, the sound that travels back…” The second poetic segment of June, from which I take the long way there excerpts its title, occurs a year later. The protagonist now finds themselves in nature, contemplating the clouds, trees, and sunset. Time inevitably rushes on, and the cycles of life and death continue. They observe, “The rush of days don’t care about your heart… Where were your words? Now, I am: soundless, happy, another pin on the trestle, spoke on the wheel.”

Hiking in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (2021)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

In interpreting June, I was drawn to its depiction of these two very distinct states of being, both of which I have experienced over the past year of pandemic life: feelings of monotony, stagnation, powerlessness, deep sadness, a nostalgia for some sort of past self, as well as the grateful escape into nature with my partner and dog, hiking paths together, taking a multitude of walks, and marking time by looking out my window, all of which I took for granted previously.

While June was originally conceived for voice and looper pedal, for the purposes of I take the long way there, I created this rendering of June via looping with myself on Soundtrap, a multi-tracking audio recording platform, which I learned to use over this past year. Musically, June represents one of my attempts at “buying in” to a virtual performance life. It also flatly broke me of my pessimistic inability to listen to my own recorded voice, since I spent hours considering loops upon loops of myself. Ultimately, June serves as the first opportunity I have ever had to sing with myself.


June by Melissa Dunphy
Movement i
Movement ii


  1. Cathy Hannabach, “Imagine Otherwise: Lauren Rile Smith on Feminist Circus Art,” Ideas on Fire, March 9, 2016,
  2. Hannabach, “Imagine Otherwise.”
  3. Melissa Dunphy, “June,” bandcamp,
The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

Reflections on Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Semelé (1715)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Semelé was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, check out my projects.

The Myth of Semele

Although various versions of the myth of Semele exist, they follow a similar narrative trajectory: Semele was a Theban princess. One day, she encountered the god Jupiter, who instantly fell in love with her. Since Semele is characterized as the object of Jupiter’s desire, her initial feelings are rarely elucidated. When Jupiter’s wife, Juno, learned of their relationship, she schemed to punish Semele. Juno disguised herself as Semele’s nurse, Beroë. Believing her nurse to be a friend and confidant, Semele confessed that Jupiter, the ruler of the Olympian gods, was her lover. Beroë questioned Jupiter’s honesty – was he truly immortal and so powerful? With these seeds of doubt planted in Semele’s mind, she asked Jupiter for a favor. Swearing on the River Styx, he promised to grant any request that Semele asked of him. Semele demanded that Jupiter reveal himself in his immortal glory to prove that he was truly a god. Jupiter pleaded with her to take back her request, but Semele insisted. Bound to his oath, Jupiter revealed himself as immense clouds, thunder, and lightning. Semele, a mortal, could not endure the heat’s intensity, and she was tragically immolated by Jupiter’s bolts.

Although the anonymous author of the libretto set by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) ends Semele’s tale here, her mythological narrative continues. At the exact moment of Semele’s lethal request, she is also pregnant. As flames engulf her, Jupiter saves their unborn child, “sewing” the fetus into his thigh. After Semele’s death and descent into the underworld, the baby is born, and he becomes Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and fertility. Later, Dionysus rescues his mother from Hades, and Semele becomes immortal as Thyone, the goddess who resides over Dionysus’ court on Mount Olympus.

The anonymous librettist of de La Guerre’s Semelé, however, freezes Semele’s “portrait” at the precise moment of her death, followed by an air, or aria, with a pointed moralistic tone. The librettist writes, “When Love enchains us…let us not mix with his fire/ The desire of vainglory… It is in a tender bond/ That one finds the greatest happiness;/ Glamour, supreme grandeur/ Should count for nothing.” [1] Despite her manipulation by Juno and the inexplicable fact that Jupiter, the greatest god in all the universe, cannot transcend an oath of his own making, we are led to believe that Semele is at fault for her own demise. Semelé’s narrator claims that her mortal vanity, evident in her desire to prove that she was loved by an all-powerful god, is truly her undoing. If Semele had been privately satisfied with the love of Jupiter and unquestioning in her faithfulness, she may have survived.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy (1645–1730), late 17th/early 18th Century
Engraving by Juan Dolivar of the 1685 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Roland, tragédie en musique at Versailles National Art Library, Paris

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the tendency to conclude with a “moral” lesson was common in French cantatas. Airs often reflected upon past events or shed light on the specific emotion of a character within the drama. Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre published Semelé, dedicated to the Elector of Bavaria, in 1715, as part of her collection of secular cantatas. Semelé is an extension of the seventeenth-century Italian “‘cantata,’” meaning “‘sung,’” a genre that designated a piece of music written for voice(s) and accompanying instruments (basse continue). By de La Guerre’s time, cantatas were often comprised of several movements, alternating between recitative passages and arias, marked by tempo and key changes. Cantatas were performed at Versailles and other royal residences, as well as in salon concerts at the homes of French nobles. De La Guerre navigated the complex power dynamic between nobility and the artist class throughout her lifetime. Educated in Louis XIV’s court as a child, de La Guerre learned to sing, compose, and play the organ and harpsichord.

At 15 years old, she was placed in the retinue of Madame de Montespan, a patron of the arts and mistress of the king, who socialized with leading intellectual and cultural figures of the day, such as Racine and Quinault. [2] In 1684, de La Guerre left the service of the court due to her marriage to organist Marin de La Guerre. She continued to compose, perform, and publish as a freelance musician, seeking financial support through noble patronage.

Throughout her career, de La Guerre published under her own name in a variety of genres, including sacred vocal music, instrumental works, ballet, and opera, or tragédie en musique. She is credited with composing the first opera written by a woman in France, Céphale et Procris. [3]

Portraits of Semele

I have chosen three images to depict Semele, creating a portrait-timeline that culminates in this tragic and deeply unjust moment in her story. The first is the work of Jan-Erasmus Quellinus (1634-1715), a Flemish painter from a family of famous artists, who specialized in history and portrait painting. Jupiter, Semele, und Juno depicts Jupiter’s pursuit of Semele, as Juno peers from the clouds above. Cupids, nestled in the left-hand corner of the work, point to the couple, as if to reveal their relationship. Jupiter’s body language is ominous and overpowering, while Semele appears to run from him. Our second image was painted by Pietro della Vecchia (1603-1678), a Venetian painter, who painted in a variety of genres, such as altar pieces and portraits. Jupiter and Semele depicts the violent instant when Jupiter reveals to Semele the extent of his immortal powers. Semele’s face is frozen in fear and pain while Jupiter’s lightning bolts rise above her. The image is disturbing, especially due to Jupiter’s imposing form, which aggressively looms over Semele’s reclined body.

Our last image is Semele by John Duncan (1866-1945), a Scottish painter and illustrator, best known as a proponent of the Celtic Revival in Scottish art. It depicts the titular figure in death, consumed by flames. It is important to note, however, that in this portrait, Semele is finally depicted as an individual. In my research, I often found it common to find images of Semele in relation to Jupiter: in a state of sexual rapture beside him, being pursued by him, or being killed by him. Rarely did I find Semele depicted as a person, an individual, alone. Duncan’s image is powerful in that Semele does not appear to be in pain, but rather illuminated. The flames do not harm her body but seem to expand her presence. Although Duncan’s portrait still represents her demise, I find Semele’s stare unsettling, as if to assert: I will not be consumed.


Semelé by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre
Paula Maust, harpsichord
Christian Paquette, Baroque flute
Theodore Welke, theorbo

i.     Simphonie
ii.    Recitatif – Jupiter avoit fait un indiscret serment
iii.   Air – Ne peut-on vivre en tes liens
iv.   Prélude Bruit
v.    Recitatif – Mais, quel bruit étonnant se répand
vi.   Simphonie
vii.  Air – Quel triomphe, quelle victoire
viii. Bruit
ix.   Recitatif – Ah ! quel embrasement tout à coup m’épouvante
x.    Dernier Air – Lorsque l’Amour nous enchaisne


  1. Mary Cyr, “Introduction.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. New York: Broude Trust, 2005, 13-15.
  2. Rebecca Cypess, Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2019. Accessed on November 24, 2019.
  3. Cyr, “Texts and Translations.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, 39.
An Ancient Poet Speaks: Finding the Voice of Sulpicia

An Ancient Poet Speaks: Finding the Voice of Sulpicia

Reflections on Jessica Krash’s Sulpicia’s Songs (2015)

Sulpicia’s Songs was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.

“And of course, Sulpicia won – here we are, 2,000 years later, hearing her words and thinking about her!”

Jessica Krash

Sulpicia (c. 40 BCE – date of death unknown)

Woman with Stylus (“Sappho”), c. 50 CE
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

Born c. 40 BCE, Sulpicia was a noblewoman, who lived during the Augustan Age of the Roman Empire. As the legal ward of her uncle Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (64 BCE – 8 CE), a military commander to Emperor Augustus and patron of an eminent literary salon, which included the famed elegiac poet Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BCE – c .19 BCE), scholars believe that Sulpicia was literate and well-educated. Corpus Tibullianum, a renowned collection of Latin poetry, may have been deliberately assembled to represent the literary works of the poetry salon under Messalla’s patronage. Divided into four books, Books I and II of the Corpus consist entirely of love elegies attributed to the poet Tibullus. 

The Augustan love elegy was composed of couplets of hexameter and pentameter, or groups of six and five poetic feet. As a Latin poetic form, the Augustan elegy was deeply indebted to the poet Catullus (c. 84 BCE – c. 54 BCE), who filled his verses with personal observation and emotion. He embraced the idea of a “subjective” poetic narrator, in which the poet writes from their own perspective about love, relationships, and desire, employing pseudonyms for their real, and sometimes imagined, love interests.

In Corpus Tibullianum’s third book, six love elegies are attributed to Sulpicia as author and poet. She details a clandestine romantic relationship with Cerinthus, her lover under pseudonym, and she boldly expresses her desire throughout the myriad turns of their relationship, which may have been upended by a difference in social rank within Roman society.  As we meet Sulpicia for the first time, she prays to Venus to “gift” her the perfect lover: Cerinthus. She claims, perhaps naively, that with the god’s blessing, they will be forever united. Triumphantly, Sulpicia longs to tell the world of her love, writing, “How I’d hate to keep what I’ve written under seal where none could read me sooner than Cerinthus.” [1] In the second elegy, with her prayers now answered, Sulpicia becomes furious with her Uncle Messalla for organizing a household trip to his country estate on her birthday. She vents that her celebration will be ruined without Cerinthus, who remains in Rome.

In the third elegy, with a sudden reversal of fortune, Sulpicia is permitted to remain in the city for her birthday. She plans to celebrate with Cerinthus, who, once skeptical of their relationship, should now be assured of her devotion. The fourth elegy marks dissolution: Sulpicia and Cerinthus’ relationship has ended. As she bitterly observes him with another, Sulpicia’s wounded pride and classist prejudice overwhelm her. By the fifth elegy, we are left to wonder: has the couple reunited? Sulpicia is now sick with fever, and she waits to hear from Cerinthus, interpreting his silence as lack of interest. At the sixth and final elegy, Sulpicia meets Cerinthus secretly once again, but ultimately departs, “favoring as I did that once to hide my own fire.” [2] Sulpicia worries that, by guarding her own emotions and desires, she has forfeited her relationship. In this moment, Sulpicia’s six love elegies conclude abruptly, leaving the audience to imagine the couple’s fate. Sulpicia’s date of death is unknown, and after the publication of the Corpus Tibullianum, she completely disappears from the historical archive.  

In her seven-song cycle Sulpicia’s Songs (2015) for voice and piano, composer Jessica Krash sets to music modern English translations of Sulpicia’s Augustan love elegies by writer, translator, and scholar Mary Maxwell. In constructing a seventh song with text from Sulpicia’s first elegy to conclude the overall cycle, Krash and Maxwell arguably engage in an act of reclamation, envisioning a musical resolution to Sulpicia’s story, one in which she and Cerinthus find some semblance of happiness together. As a personal, interpretive gesture in retaining the historical ambiguity of Sulpicia’s “end,” I take the long way there excerpts six of the cycle’s seven songs in their original order. Through film, we imagine each of Sulpicia’s elegies as a portrait, preserved within its historical frame, yet also as a living representation.

Flora (Women with Flowers), from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy
Women Reclining (c. 1-79 CE), from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy
Women Painting (c. 55-79 CE), from the House of the Surgeon at Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

As visual inspiration, we gathered images of Roman noblewomen, collected by the National Archeological Museum of Naples, from various Roman frescoes in Pompeii, Italy. They depict a host of activities: women gathering with one another, writing with stylus and tablet, painting, preparing their toilette, and gathering flowers. While these frescoes were constructed over a century after Sulpicia’s lifetime, the images still provide a fascinating visual context in which to imagine our protagonist and her environment, especially since no single artefact of Sulpicia’s likeness has survived.

Woman Looking in Mirror, from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

The story of Sulpicia, however, does not end on the papyrus scrolls of the Corpus Tibullianum. From the sixteenth century until the present day, criticism of Sulpicia’s verses within the field of Classical studies has attempted to negate her contributions as author and poet. Wielding a gamut of gendered arguments, critics claim that her poetry was conceived by a male author in her uncle’s circle, or allege that, if a Roman female author indeed created the poems, they remain amateur in construction and expression. Since the 1980’s, however, Classical feminist critique has wholly rejected the erasure of Sulpicia’s authorial voice through research and analysis into the literary output of women in ancient Rome. To this day, Sulpicia’s six love elegies remain the only extant examples of Roman Latin poetry by a female author. 

Sulpicia’s Songs envisions an embodied Sulpicia, manifesting the joys and sorrows of her romantic life. Through her own words, Sulpicia’s voice occupies a liminal space between antiquity and our present world. As song cycle, Sulpicia’s Songs operates as a vital contribution in support of feminist critical attempts to reclaim Sulpicia’s personhood, as it textually and musically reframes and performs her first century poetic voice through the perspectives of twenty-first century creative women as translator, composer, and performer.


Sulpicia’s Songs by Jessica Krash
Eric Sedgwick, piano

i. At last, it’s come
ii. The hated birthday approaches
iii. Did you hear?
iv. I’m grateful
v. Fever
vi. No longer care for me
vii. Let it be known! (piano only)


  1. Mary Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 83-87.
  2. Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry, 83-87.