Gail Smith — composer, arranger, palindromist?

It occurred to me when reviewing hymns to play for preludes at Rocheport Christian Church that so many of the arrangers are women.  Why not investigate?  I learned that most are also composers.  Gail Smith is one of them.  Gail was born in 1943 in Bridgeport, Connecticut where her father, Carl Johnson, sang tenor in the church choir and her mother, Ethel, played the piano.  Gail earned her BFA degree from Florida Atlantic University, did graduate work at Westminster Choir College and has done extensive research in Berlin at the Mendelssohn Archives.  For many years, she was the pianist of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale and taught piano for people from ages 3 to 96.  May we all be so full of life and open to learning as her 96 year old student!  She is active in the National League of American Pen Women, ASCAP and the Music Teachers National Association.   Her original compositions include many piano solos, choral works, and vocal solos.  This musically versatile woman has authored books about piano improvisation, piano methods, and authored Four Centuries of Women Composers, Women Composers in History, and The Life and Music of Fanny Mendelssohn.  As you can guess, she is interested in the history of women composers, though her interest obviously goes beyond hymnists.  In her concerts, she has portrayed Fanny Mendelssohn and Anna Magdalena Bach.  That’s immersing oneself in ones work!  One of her trademarks is piano palindromes, which can be played backwards or forwards and sound the same and can be found in her book Palindromes. The creativity and concentration needed to do that is beyond my grasp.


But I am most acquainted with her arrangements of hymns.  In particular, I have enjoyed her arrangements of women-written hymns such as “Beyond the Sunset”, “Open My Eyes, That I May See” “Moment by Moment” and “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”.  None were palindromes, but they were all beautiful.

Where Were the Earliest Women Hymnists?

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, found at 1 Cor. 14:26 mentions hymns sung when Christians gathered.  Christ and his disciples sang hymns at the last supper.  Of course, the earliest churches were in homes or small private venues.  Early reports say singing was most common at meals, whether Eucharist or agape. Hymns, in the early church, referred to praises to God, as distinct from the already established Psalms.  But there’s no documentation of women’s presence in liturgy until the 4th century.  Before then, women, traditional caretakers of the home, most likely had a large say in the events there, and most likely sang hymns composed either on their own or by others.  The hymns were of anonymous authorship and often spontaneous.  Just as Psalm singing often involved a call and response, so too many of the hymns involved call by a lector and response from the people.   Does all this sound somewhat like the somewhat secret gatherings of slaves in the American South and the evolution of the Afro-American spiritual?

As the years passed, informality gave way to more formality.  The Constantinian Settlement of 313 allowed for larger public meetings with more singing.   Women’s part in public life was already closely circumscribed.  The church added  its own restrictions. Women were policed with regulations on clothes, hair, makeup, jewelry and talking.  Ambrose of Milan warned virgins of sighing, clearing their throats, coughing, and laughing during liturgy.    Pope Gregory’s reforms led to priest centered scholas where singing was the central focus. And where scholas developed, congregational responses disappeared.  This nearly silenced women in parish and cathedral churches.  The dominant  musical form of call and response morphed into a chant by a schola cantorum and a silent congregation.  Group singing by monks and  nuns led the way.   Of course, women could not sing except in their own cloisters.  There, they sang filling all musical roles and contributing their own compositions and developing their own musical traditions.  Think of the liturgical plays by Hildegard in the 12th century as a later example.

The music of the 6th and 7th centuries is unknown, mostly due to the barbaric invasions.   Hymn texts were copied without notation beginning in the 7th century and the earliest surviving notated hymns are in manuscripts of the 10th century.  Even then, notation was generally primitive or non-existent.  The first extant hymnaries with extensive notation are from the 11th century. We might have the words of mostly anonymous poets and composers, but the music is unknown.   Chants, music to the divine offices, and hymns were certainly sung, but the composers, whether male or female, were never known.

It was not until the dawn of modernity that we know very much of women’s music.  Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) wrote on the fundamentals of musical practice.  She wrote poetry and songs for liturgical occasions.  In the Roman Catholic Church, women’s singing, where it was possible at all, was defined as non-liturgical.  No need to give women any credit for the liturgy, is there?

So yes, women and music existed together in the early church.   We just don’t know about most of them due to social constraints, political events, and the lack of musical notation.