Portland Youth Philharmonic preview: Marion Bauer shines again

Youth orchestra's Saturday concert revives the music of one of Oregon's first nationally known female classical composers


Editor’s note: Marion Bauer was devastated. A few weeks earlier, the 45 year old Portland High School graduate had returned returned to New York from Jazz Age Paris, where she’d been living for three years, to care for her older sister, Emilie Francis, who’d been run down by a car in 1926. A former music critic for The Oregonian, Musical Courier and Musical Leader magazines, Emilie Francis had been her younger sister’s mentor since their days growing up in Portland. When she died not long after Marion arrived, the surviving sister plunged into deep grief. As a composer, it was natural for her to turn to her music. That same year, she wrote a piano piece called Sun Splendor that she later orchestrated. It became her most famous composition, performed by the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski in 1947. 

marion bauer, 1922

Marion, who became a professor at New York University and music journalist after her sister’s death, died in New York in 1955, and since then, her music has largely remained unplayed in the city she grew up in.

This Saturday, Portland Youth Philharmonic will perform Bauer’s 90 year old work. ArtsWatch asked her biographer, Whitman College Prof. Susan Pickett, to tell us about this early Portland musical original. She’ll also give a free talk about Bauer and participate in a free panel discussion about women composers this weekend.

Marion Bauer was born in Walla Walla, WA in 1882 to French-Jewish immigrants. The fledgling town was only about twenty years old at that time and vigilantes still roamed the streets. Her father, Jacques Bauer, was an amateur musician and a merchant in Walla Walla, and her mother, Julia Heyman Bauer, was a linguist and scholar who taught at Whitman College during the 1880s. When Jacques Bauer died in 1890, the remaining family moved to Portland, where maternal relatives lived. Julia Bauer taught languages at St. Helen’s Hall and was also active in the Portland suffrage movement.

Marion attended St. Helen’s Hall and Portland High School. Her older sister, Emilie Frances (1865-1926), was a music critic in Portland for The Oregonian and Musical Courier magazine. The only surviving Bauer son, Cecil, was an attorney in Portland, and also one of the founders of the Tualatin Golf Club because Jews were not allowed on the Portland golf courses. He married Rose Bloch, a famous Portland soprano. All of the Bauers lived across the street from the Congregation Beth Israel, where they worshipped.

Emilie Frances moved to New York around 1896 and thereafter was the New York representative for The Musical Leader magazine. Marion followed her sister to New York around 1900. There she studied composition and piano over the next 20 years, as well as in France and Germany. Marion’s compositions came to the attention of Arthur P. Schmidt, one of the most important music publishers on the east coast. From 1912–1918, Schmidt maintained an exclusive contract with Marion, a symbol of Schmidt’s esteem for Marion’s talent. Marion subsequently lived in France for three years from 1923-1926.

When a car in New York hit Emilie Frances in 1926, Marion moved back there to assist her, but Emilie Frances died a few weeks later. Emilie Frances was seventeen years older than Marion, and their exceptionally close relationship was that of both sister-sister and sister-mentor. Emilie Frances’s death caused Marion profound grief. Following Emilie Frances’s death, Marion was hired as an assistant professor at New York University, where she remained until her retirement in 1951. She also took over as correspondent for The Musical Leader.

David Hattner will conduct Portland Youth Philharmonic's performance of Bauer's music. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

David Hattner will conduct Portland Youth Philharmonic’s performance of Bauer’s music. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

As with many composers who lived during the first half of the twentieth century, Marion’s compositional style changed several times over her career. Her early works were heavily influenced by impressionism. Among her best works in this style are Up the Ocklawaha for violin and piano (1912), Three Impressions for solo piano (1917), and From the New Hampshire Woods (1920). All of these are available on recent recordings.

During the 1920s through the 1930s Marion experimented with a more modernist style and then with a neoclassical style. Though few of these works are currently available, one of the best, Duo for Oboe and Clarinet (1932), has been recorded recently. During the 1940s, Marion’s style varied widely, from twelve-tone to largely tonal and she also experimented with quintal harmony.

Sun Splendor, Marion’s most famous work, was initially composed as a solo piano work in 1926 and then revised for two pianos in 1930. She subsequently orchestrated Sun Splendor and that version premiered with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, in 1947. The style of Sun Splendor is quite modernist, more so than most of Marion’s other compositions. Its harmony is quintal (stacked perfect fifths). Although Marion did not write about the initial impetus for composing Sun Splendor, we know that she composed the first version for solo piano about three months after Emilie Frances’s death. The poem Marion provided on the music score reads:

After the storm,
Through the dispersing clouds,
Bursts forth in splendor
The Sun!

It is tempting to speculate that the composition depicts Marion emerging from mourning the death of her sister.

Marion composed about 160 pieces, including 60 solo songs, piano works, chamber music, choral works, a piano concerto, a symphonic suite for string orchestra, and a symphony. She was very highly regarded by critics, colleagues, and students. And yet, after her death in 1955, her compositions were largely ignored until the past decade. Recent recordings of a few of her works have been received with critical acclaim. Perhaps the new generation of listeners is more open minded to the possibility that a woman composer’s works might be worthwhile.

Marion and Emilie Frances, along with their two sisters, Flora and Minnie, are buried in the Kensico Cemetery just north of Manhattan, NY. Julia and Cecil Bauer are buried in the Beth Israel Cemetery in Portland. Jacques Bauer rests in the historic Mountain View Cemetery in Walla Walla.

Little of Marion’s music is available today, largely owing to problems with her estate, which have been recently resolved. I expect much of her music to become available within the next five years, but I have all of her music in my personal collection, and I have permission of the estate keepers to disseminate it, so musicians interested in considering performances of it can contact me at Picketse@whitman.edu.

Dr. Susan Pickett is Catharine Chism Professor of Music at Whitman College. An expert on women composers, she has published 40 critical editions of their music, has recorded three CDs, and has published a 2015 biography, Marion and Emilie Frances BauerFrom the Wild West to American Musical Modernism (also available through Lulu Publishing and Amazon). Dr. Pickett will speak about Bauer’s life at noon on Friday, March 4 at the US Bank meeting room at Multnomah County Central Library, 801 SW 10th Ave, Portland. She’ll also join a free panel discussion about women composers with PSU Composition and Music Department Chair Dr. Bonnie Miksch and two other local composers, Cynthia Stillman Gerdes and Susan Alexjander, at 2:30 pm Friday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall (Room 225), 1620 SW Park Ave, Portland.

Portland Youth Philharmonic performs Marion Bauer’s Sun Splendor along with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony #3 and Vaughan Williams’s Oboe Concerto at 7:30 PM Saturday, March 5, at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets are available online.

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