A Woman’s Life Written in Music

American composer Nancy Van de Vate continues to ­innovate, as technology reshapes ­publishing and performance

Nancy Van de Vate seems much younger than 81, here at Café Museum | Photo: David Reali

The composer at her piano in Vienna, where she still works every day | Photo: Nancy Van de Vate

Nancy Van de Vate

Nancy Van de Vate at Café Museum | Photo: David Reali

Composer Nancy Van de Vate came through the door of the Café Museum and looked to both sides before catching sight of me in the back corner. Here we could talk undisturbed. We had met before, but I am never fully prepared for the impact of this gracious, high-energy woman with the razor-sharp mind that always seems to be operating on several levels at once. For one thing, she seems easily a decade (my guess), if not two, younger than her 81 years, very well read and up-to-date on everything.

But it is her vast musical résumé that is hardest to grasp: An American, granted Austrian Citizenship of Honour for her contributions to Austrian cultural life, she has produced some 10 operas, 26 pieces for orchestra, and 15 pieces of chamber music, as well as countless vocal, choral, and keyboard pieces.

And although it has often been a struggle, her work has been frequently performed in both the U.S. and Europe, and all of it is recorded and widely available through catalogues, archives, and websites. She herself is founder of the respected label Vienna Modern Masters, which, in the “Brave New World” of the Internet, has expanded beyond recording to maintaining its own website and blog to promote composers, events, and releases, and helps make material available to musicians, orchestras, and universities.


Publishing on the Internet

“The Internet has really changed the business of music,” Van de Vate said, “broken the hold the publisher had on everyone. Particularly women. You just couldn’t get anyone to listen; they ignored you. At least now you’re out there, and people who are interested will find you.” Every month, 11 to 12,000 people download music from the VMM site, both recordings and sheet music. But the volume of material has become unwieldy, even with an assistant. So she is also working with the German publisher Naxos, the world’s largest music publisher, who is “in the process of getting every piece of recorded music in the catalogue.” So far, she has digitalised 160 of her own pieces. Still, “it takes time,” she admitted.

The Internet has played a particularly important role in two of her most popular works: The orchestra suite Chernobyl (1987), a wrenching piece commemorating the 1986 nuclear disaster, was performed in Vienna, Hamburg, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, New York, and Portland, Maine, and has gone nearly viral online. And an opera, All Quiet on the Western Front (2003), based on Erich Maria Remarque’s great World War I novel, was discovered on the Vienna Modern Masters site by musicologist Matthias Zipp, whose championing of the piece led to a run of 10 acclaimed performances in Osnabrück, Germany, Remarque’s home town.

Van de Vate studied at the Eastman School of Music, and then Wellesley College, one of the prestigious “Seven Sisters”, whose graduates include American Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton.

“It had never occurred to me there was anything wrong with being a woman.” Despite a sceptical faculty, she earned both a Masters and later a Doctorate in Composition, succeeding in getting both thesis works performed, a feat for any young composer, male or female.

Coming to Vienna in 1983 – a chance decision; she nearly chose Warsaw – changed everything, giving her a world in which music is all around her.

“When I sit in the Konzerthaus or the Musikverein, I think, I’m breathing the air that Brahms breathed.” She shook her head, as if surprised it should still matter so much. “This sounds hopelessly romantic, I know, but for poor neglected composers to be sitting in the same seat that may be the one Brahms sat in, this feeds the spirit!”

A breakfast partner at Schlosspark Fortuna teases her about her gushing praise of Austria.

“He says I come down every morning and sing a Lobeslied,” she said with a laugh. “But you see, here you have a sense of self worth as a musician that you don’t have in a country where music is not part of daily culture. If a doctor asks me what I do, and I say I am a composer, she’ll say, ‘How wonderful! And when can I hear your music?’ It happens everywhere. I have a place here as a composer, in a way that gives me the sense that what I do is important.”

Today, the Vienna Modern Masters consists of “one old woman in a retirement home,” Van de Vate laughed wryly.

But surely she doesn’t feel her age? “Some days I feel old and some I don’t,” she said. “But, in New Jersey, I grew up with the sense that it was an immigrant society, where anything was possible. I still believe that.”


The composer at home

Van da Vate at home

The composer at her piano in Vienna, where she still works every day | Photo: Nancy Van de Vate

Some weeks later, we meet again at her apartment, in the Schlosspark Fortuna. It’s a beautiful place, a garden complex of cafés, shops and private service flats, more like living in a hotel than anything resembling a retirement home. I have come with two young pianists, Sophia and Julian, who want to meet Van de Vate. “We get so few chances to talk to someone like this, who has so much experience,” confided Sophia. She has already downloaded the sheet music for one of Van de Vate’s piano pieces from her website (www.nancy-vandevate.at) and tried it out.

“I really liked it!” she told the composer. “Oh, that was you!” Van de Vate had already seen the activity report and was clearly delighted. This was just how the system was supposed to work.

Few composers have attempted to set Hamlet to music, and most critics take the position that the work is inherently unsuitable. In the programme notes for a recent, brilliantly produced revival of a rather odd French version, one critic wrote that it was “too complex and too abstract.” Van de Vate found the opposite.

“It’s full of passion, full of conflict. It practically set itself,” she said. “Think about it; ‘To be, or not to be’. Every soliloquy is a built-in aria.” She decided they didn’t know what they were talking about.

“I don’t know how anybody can resist this text. The ghost is intoning to Hamlet, ‘Don’t forget me!’ and Hamlet cries back, ‘Oh yes poor ghost, I’ll remember thee.’ What could be better?” She stayed with the Shakespeare text as far as possible, changing it only where it was impossible to sing.

Unlike many composers, Van de Vate composes in full score, not in a piano/vocal version. “For me, the colours of the instruments are so critical to the opera,” she said, that it is essential to work with the full palette from the start – “which can be a big problem afterwards, because you have to bring it all within the reach of ten fingers!”

She begins with “certain tonalities and melodies”, around which the dramatic shape will be built, particular motives – “although not as systematically [as Wagner]; I didn’t want to” – and harmonic progressions referenced, where the moods needed to be tied together.

“Let me get the score,” she said, jumping up and heading off into the study in search of the piano/vocal score, so she could show us how the leitmotivs worked. It took a few minutes as she shuffled through the piles of neatly stacked bound folders of music.

“I cleaned up for you, and I think it was a mistake!” she laughed. And then she found what she was looking for, returning with several large spiral-bound volumes. “The big one – it’s in three parts – is only for the conductor,” she said, handing us the giant folios. “This is the one I use,” as she took a seat at the piano and propped the smaller piano/vocal score up on the music rack. “There’s one in particular that is so poignant,” she said, flipping through the pages…

It had been a huge undertaking: Van de Vate not only wrote her own libretto and composed and arranged the piece, scoring all the individual instrumental parts, she also made her own piano reduction, hired the singers and the orchestra, supervised the recording and wrote the accompanying booklet. Altogether it took six years. “For the first time in my life, I really had burnout,” she confided. “I don’t know what it is, but it requires unbelievable concentration.”

Just that week, she had finally unpacked the boxes with the scores and parts. It was the first time she had looked at the opera in over a year.

And getting it staged? She had mentioned earlier a private Schloss that hosts outdoor opera in the courtyard in the summer: That might be perfect…

“It will probably never be performed,” she said, matter-of-factly. “That’s why it’s been recorded. That’s why all my operas have been recorded.” In the classical catalogue from Universal Editions in Vienna, one of the largest in Europe, which controls the publication rights of German publishers, there are 13,000 male composers and only three women. One per cent of all music programmed by orchestras around the world is by women, as is one per cent of all airtime on classical radio. “Women just don’t make it into the canon.”

Before we left, Van de Vate gave each of us a CD of Hamlet, with the wonderful painting by Delacroix on the cover. Once at home, I put it on, and sat mesmerised by the shimmering opening: intense, spare, yet delicate, narrative music. Other things must be put aside, I thought, settling in to listen.

“Like dance, like choreography, music only exists when it is performed,” she had said. “Otherwise it’s just spots on the page. Until the music is played, it has no life and no existence.”

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