Ars Femina, Musical Ensemble
Ars Femina had its genesis in the summer of 1985. Three Louisville musicians—Susan Reigler, Jim Oxyer, and William Bauer—were trying to assemble a concert of 18th-century chamber music and wanted to include the work of a woman among them. Unable to locate a single work to include in that concert, they realized that there was a gaping hole in the standard musical repertoire. The need for more research and publications in the area of music written by women of this era was immediately apparent.
While in Europe for an unrelated purpose a few weeks later, Bauer and Oxyer took the opportunity to investigate the subject. A month-long survey of Europe’s major publishing houses resulted in the location of a single work by an 18th-century woman composer: a set of harpsichord pieces by Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. This proved conclusively that there was such music in existence (and music of genius, at that), but practically none of it was in print in the 20th century.
In early 1986, Bauer, Oxyer, and Reigler formed the Ars Femina Project, an independent research effort investigating the entire subject of music written by women before 1800. In 1987, after research in the United States and three trips to archives and rare-music collections in Europe, the trio had recovered about 50 works by women of the 17th and 18th centuries. Each discovery pointed the way to another.
The next step was obvious: the creation of a special musical ensemble to play the repertoire generated by the Ars Femina Project. Musicians were recruited from the Louisville Orchestra and the West Virginia Symphony, and the group took the name Ars Femina Ensemble from the title of the project. Its first concert was presented in February 1988.
Since that time, Ars Femina has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and started a quarterly newsletter, The Ars Feminews, which is sent to more than 1,000 people around the world who support the organization with their donations. In 1989, the importance of Ars Femina’s work was recognized by the award of a major grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
In January 1991, Ars Femina was accepted into the state of Kentucky’s arts education program. The ensemble has performed more than 55 public lecture/recital concerts in Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, Florida, and Minnesota, plus dozens of in-school concerts for elementary and high school students.
In December 1990, the ensemble released its first recording, Music by Women Before 1800. The 500 copies of this cassette release were sold out in four months. The second recording, Non Tacete!, was released in December of 1991 in both CD and cassette formats. It sold out of its first 1,000-CD printing and was reprinted. It also received enthusiastic critical review and garnered much attention from the national media, including radio features on National Public Radio’s Sunday Edition, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and As It Happens on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Ars Femina’s third recording grew out of a successful collaboration with the early-music vocal ensemble TimeChange. The first recording of a landmark in opera history—Francesca Caccini’s 1625 La Liberazione di Ruggieto—was released in June 1994. The recording created intense interest, both here and internationally, and was the subject of an article in the September 1994 issue of The BBC Music Magazine.
Ars Femina has also been seen on KET’s In Performance at the Governor’s Mansion.