New works of classical music come and go. But Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Forward into Light” is here to stay, a timeless and deeply felt anthem inspired by American women suffragists.
The Princeton-based composer — who has a unique, personal style — is reshaping the literature of American music with transformative works that seamlessly combine emotionally impactful storytelling with well-knit, contrapuntal textures.
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra is tapping “Forward Into Light” to open its new season in an imaginative weekend program, Sept. 9-10, under music director Rossen Milanov at the Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University.
“I just love working with the PSO,” Snider says. “Rossen is a brilliant conductor. I’ve worked with them on a couple other pieces, and it’s always been a wonderful experience. It’s just a great orchestra with some really phenomenal players.”
The two concerts take their name from Snider’s featured piece, which will be paired with two key works by 20th century composers that are seldomly performed.
The program gives a clear view of what is to come for the 2023-24 season: the promotion of new works by modern composers and the rediscovery of historic works by underrepresented and undervalued composers, while celebrating deep alliances with artists and composers who are connected to Princeton.
“Forward Into Light” was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Society for its Project 19 initiative. Snider was among 19 female composers chosen to commemorate the women’s suffrage centennial, which granted American women the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Her work was slated for a June 2020 premiere but due to COVID cancellations, it happened two years later under conductor Jaap van Zweden with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
The one-movement work was named after a slogan stitched into suffrage banners carried in a 1913 march in Washington, D.C. It opens with three motivic ideas narrated through violins, harp and violas, and builds to a collaborative orchestral voice of melodic, layered textures. The storytelling is vivid, immersive and direct, and arranged through a wide-angled musical lens. Snider’s craftsmanship is developed with stylistic assurance and musical intelligence.
In the program notes, she calls the work “a meditation on perseverance, bravery and alliance.” These overarching themes of resilience and endurance shine a light not only on the suffragist women, but on all who overcame barriers on the path to progress, empowerment and equality.
“When I was writing the piece, I was thinking not so much about the particular events of the battle for suffrage, but more about the emotional and the psychological contours of faith and doubt and what it means to persevere,” Snider says. “And you know, in order to persevere through so much resistance and opposition, you really need to have hope. You need to have something, some kind of carrot that draws you forward, and that has to be hope that things can change for the better.
“I find the human drive toward progress and the human ability to hang onto hope so fascinating, especially in the context of these struggles for women’s suffrage or for the abolishment of slavery. There are just so many examples of these situations where oppression lasted for centuries — people who would lose their lives and families, and have death threats and isolation and harassment and incarceration and forced feedings, and undergo all this inhumane treatment — and still find the will to persist in the cause. They pushed and pushed, and didn’t just give up completely.”
On a grand scale, the work reflects an enduring message of fundamental human rights. On a smaller scale, it challenges us to respond to the changing world around us. For example: the impact of the overturning of Roe v. Wade — the June 2022 Supreme Court decision that took away the right to safe and legal abortion in America and placed restrictive state laws on women’s reproductive health.
Has the meaning of the work changed for Snider in the aftermath?
“When I wrote the piece, of course, Roe v. Wade had not been overturned,” she says. “In my 20s I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Roe v. Wade will never be overturned,’ and here it’s happened, and I was in so much shock and disbelief, and I was thinking again about my piece. You know, I’d finished it and we’d all been through COVID, and it had been postponed because of COVID, and I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, now this piece does sort of take on a different meaning for me.’ ”
After graduating from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology-sociology, Snider planned to go into social work or public sector legal work. She moved to New York and worked as a paralegal in an organization that advanced regulations and policies of women’s health and reproductive rights. She eventually left the law field to pursue music composition, but her experiences in New York made her a fierce advocate of women’s reproductive freedoms and rights, and of gender equality.
“The losses we’ve suffered for women’s rights to reproductive autonomy in the past year or two definitely has, if anything, strengthened the idea that change is necessary,” she says. “It’s an ongoing struggle to create gender parity, at least in this country. We still have a long way to go.
“When I was working for these lawyers in reproductive rights, they often would have lots of defeats and they would get frustrated. But they would go back to the drawing board and strategize, and try again, and that’s what you have to do: keep trying! And that’s what my piece is really about — how we find the will to go on when we need to keep fighting in the face of so much opposition and resistance.”
Snider, who turns 50 in October, cut her teeth in the classical music industry during an era of pervasive gender and racial bias. In 2017, she wrote a longform piece for the NewMusicBox online magazine about her struggle to find belonging as a female composer while navigating such a conservative, traditional landscape.
“It’s about my experiences with sexism in the field and about what I think needs to change,” she says about the piece. “A lot of this has to do with gendered language but also programming, academia and criticism, and how it reaches everywhere in what we do and say.
“I encountered a lot of sexism in my early days as a composer, as most women of my generation have. It’s part of the reason why it was so hard to break into this field and even commit to the career, because I had so many men just look right over me, ignore me or underestimate me. It was mostly frustrating, but it was also a shock because I’d come up through Wesleyan University, which is a very progressive school and was very feminist. I left university thinking the world was quite progressive, and then the world of composition was intensely old-fashioned, and felt stuck in the 19th century.
“All of this made me see that there was so much sexism still in the world in general, and it made me feel a sense of responsibility to tell women’s stories and share our point of view and to be honest about this. I’ve always been a truth-teller and I’ve always believed that the world would be a better place if we share our stories and if we talk about how things make us feel — if we talk about what’s real instead of pretending it’s not, out of fear that we’ll suffer some repercussions.”
Since the global ripples of the #MeToo campaign, orchestras worldwide have committed themelves to institutional change by fostering representation across all boards. The inequality gaps are closing, but marginalized groups continue to be underrepresented, especially in decision-making roles.
“What’s fascinating is that a lot has changed but also a lot hasn’t changed,” Snider says, “which is also part of the reason I’m writing an opera on Hildegard of Bingen.”
The opera is about the 12th century German polymath who wrote unconventionally about women during her lifetime. This is allegedly one of the reasons it took more than 800 years for her to get canonized, in 2012.
“You know the dynamics Hildegard dealt with, where in order to be heard and in order to be taken seriously, she had to toe the line and say things that she might not have believed,” Snider says. “She was able to work the system and be the first woman to write in the name of God. She was a female prophet, that’s why we know her music.
“What’s fascinating to me is just how similar the dynamics are, still, today. There’s still a lot of disparity in the field in general, which is why I think it’s important to tell women’s stories and talk about these issues as openly as we can. This is a big part of the reason why I’m writing this opera on Hildegard. I love talking about these issues openly and directly, but also indirectly, through art.”
This will be Snider’s first opera, both as composer and librettist. Her libretto incorporates pieces of Hildegard’s texts and brings the imaginative visions she experienced to life. It was commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects, has received grants from Opera America, and is slated to premiere at Prototype Festival in New York in 2025. (This fall, Snider will teach a course about it with Gabriel Crouch, the conductor of the Princeton University Glee Club. It will culminate in a workshop by the Princeton Atelier program at the university’s Lewis Center for the Arts.)
“Forward Into Light” will be followed at Richardson Auditorium by Henri Tomasi’s “Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra” featuring saxophonist Steven Banks. The French composer’s 1949 work of contrasting moods will showcase Banks’ lyricism and virtuosity within the small classical saxophone repertoire.
Banks has also confronted representation issues in the orchestral field from his personal viewpoint as a Black classical musician. In 2017, he gave a TED Talk about the lack of diversity, equality and inclusion in the industry, and his commitment to creating new models of equity for music conservatories around the country.
The concert will conclude with William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony,” a reflection on American life through the lens of Africans sold into slavery. When it premiered in 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, it was one of the first full-length symphonic works by a Black composer to be played by a major United States orchestra.
Since then, though, it has fallen into obscurity.
“It’s a very thoughtful connection that Rossen decided to make with my piece, with this programming, and I’m honored to share the program,” Snider says.
Milanov and the PSO have performed Snider’s works since 2012 with “Disquiet,” a one-act orchestral piece from 2004. The last performance was in 2016 with the song cycle “Penelope” and “Hiraeth,” a multimedia work co-commissioned by the PSO and written as an elegy to her late father.
Born and raised in Princeton, Snider began her musical studies on the piano. She played cello in middle and high school orchestras, and studied chamber music and choral singing at the summer program of the American Boychoir School in Princeton. She holds a master’s degree and an artist diploma from the Yale School of Music.
She lives in Princeton with her husband Steven Mackey and their two children. Mackey, also a composer, has been a Princeton University professor of music since 1985. Earlier this year, he was commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony to celebrate its centennial season with a new work, “RIOT,” which premiered in a “Mozart & Steven Mackey” concert in April.
Both Mackey, who began his musical career playing blues and rock electric guitar, and Snider sit at the crossroads of the indie-classical genre. Snider is co-artistic founder and co-director of New Amsterdam Records, a Brooklyn-based non-profit record label that supports classically trained musicians who defy traditional genres.
She is no stranger to hearing her works performed live, but the experience hits deeper in her hometown, with her home orchestra. “It’s thrilling and exhilarating to hear your music live,” she says, “and it’s humbling, especially in the case of an orchestra, to see so many performers up onstage, all together, in the pursuit of this one idea you had in your head, and they’re bringing it to life and turning it into a living, breathing creature.
“It’s really magical. I always get goosebumps, and I always feel incredibly grateful and lucky.”
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra will perform Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Forward Into Light” and other works at the Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 10 at 4 p.m.; visit princetonsymphony.org.
For more on Snider, visit sarahkirklandsnider.com.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.