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Barbara Pentland (1912-2000) was a Canadian composer whose work explores the musical possibilities of twelve-tone serialism. Regarded as a modernist composer, her output demonstrates an expansion of the serialist techniques which originated in the Second Viennese School. In this podcast, Aresty Undergraduate Researcher Claire Oplinger discusses several of Pentland’s compositions, showing how they build upon the work of Anton Webern.

Transcript of the podcast

Since its inception in the early 1900s, serialism has often been known as an alternative to functional tonality. It was codified in its initial form as “twelve tone serialism” by Arnold Schoenberg and his students, and this technique involves organizing musical elements based on repeating patterns. In twelve tone serialism, each of the twelve chromatic pitches must sound before any can be repeated again. This is a technique that some 20th and 21st century composers have used to organize their music in a logical way.

As an outgrowth of the second Viennese school and its counterparts in North America, serialism has often harbored patriarchal undertones. Yet many significant women composers have navigated these barriers and enjoyed fruitful careers in this age of modernism. One such woman is Canadian composer Barbara Pentland. Born in 1912 in Winnipeg, Canada, Pentland showed musical promise from a young age. Despite this, her parents were largely unsupportive of her desire to study music, likely due to Pentland’s poor health condition as a child and gender expectations for women. Against her parents’ wishes, she went on to become an extremely influential composer and pedagogue. 

Her primary composition teachers included Cécile Gauthiez in Paris, Frederick Jacobi and Bernard Wagenaar at the Juilliard School, and Aaron Copland, whom she studied with at Tanglewood in Massachusetts for two summers. Much of the early part of her career was defined by a conservative and tonal style of music, but she gradually became more interested in neo-tonal techniques and eventually, atonality.

One of Arnold Schoenberg’s pupils who had a profound influence on Pentland was Anton Webern. She was exposed to the music of Webern at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music in 1955 and after this, her compositional style underwent a distinct shift. 

During a 2021 conference for the South-Central Society for Music Theory, Hanisha Kulothparan discussed the relationship between Webern’s Symphony Opus 21 and Pentland’s Symphony for Ten Parts. Both demonstrate a thin texture and similar applications of serialism, but there are also elements of Pentland’s work which differ from Webern. 

In general, Anton Webern’s work is often pointillistic and has a simple musical surface, where the listener can hear timbral shifts from one note to the next. These timbral shifts are known as Klangfarbenmelodie, or “tone color melody.” Here is an excerpt from Symphony Opus 21 which demonstrates this.

Like Webern’s compositions, Pentland’s work also makes use of timbral shifts. However, as Kulothparan discussed in the recent conference presentation, Pentland uses small groups of notes passing from one voice to the next rather than individual pitches like Webern. Here is an excerpt from Pentland’s Symphony for Ten Parts, movement three. 

Although Webern’s influence on Pentland is clear, another way this particular work differs from Webern’s is that she includes extended lyrical passages such as this cello solo in the third movement

Her more lyrical writing can also be found in her vocal music. A good example would be her Sung Songs, Numbers 4 and 5, written for solo voice and piano. This set of two songs is part of a larger group of works for voice and piano based on poetry from the ancient Chinese Song Dynasty. Here is an excerpt from one of these songs, titled “Midnight Among the Hills.”

Just like the cello solo in her Symphony for 10 parts, this work for voice features lyrical melodies which make it quite accessible to everyday listeners. In general, the poems she selects for her vocal compositions tend to have a very haunting quality about them, and it makes her overall work particularly moving. 

As a whole, Pentland’s music demonstrates great diversity in styles and a unique application of serialist techniques. Yet despite Pentland’s prolific career as a composer, she faced many obstacles due to her gender. One of few female composers in Canada, she often dealt with assumptions that women had less creative aptitude than men and that composition was an unsuitable career for a woman. These assumptions affected Pentland beginning in her youth. In one interview, Pentland states that her parents “wanted a girl who would play pretty pieces” and “behave normally.” She also said they “led [her] to believe that composition was morally wrong.” Her parents’ beliefs reflect an overall cultural expectation that women should  play an instrument to demonstrate social sophistication, but they should not pursue composing as a career.

Later in her life, she continued to be confronted by these assumptions. In another interview, Pentland recalls the disappointment and discouragement she felt when she received an article titled “The Modern Composer and His World” from a conference in 1960. 

Pentland’s own feelings about the inequities were often kept quiet, as, in her words, “[she] thought only of [herself] as a composer, not as a woman.” Additional interviews with Pentland indicate that she worried acknowledgement of her gender might distract from the substance of her works. Yet in a 2002 article, Canadian musicologist Janette Tilley describes how some of Pentland’s work does reveal her feelings about gender identity. In Pentland’s 1976 song cycle Disasters of the Sun, she sets Dorothy Livesay’s poetry to music. Livesay’s work uses references to the sun and the moon to depict gender relations between men and women, with the sun representing the masculine and the moon representing the feminine. Here is an excerpt from the last song of this cycle.

Although Pentland had to navigate specific challenges due to her gender, her legacy remains as an influential modernist composer. The diversity of her styles and inspiration makes her music extremely thought-provoking and worthy of study. And through greater recognition, her work will continue to change the musical landscape in the 21st century and beyond.