Striking RocksCelebrating the power of female creativitySwarthmore in the mid-1960s was still two decades out from its first women’s studies program, and as a cellist in the orchestra, I never encountered music by a woman. But my time there gave inspiration for a chamber music workshop I organized last fall at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where 120 musicians came together to play music by 21 great female composers. I arrived at Swarthmore in 1962, excited to study Greek. The classics department was a lively one, with energetic students and a brilliant chair, Helen North, one of just six tenured female professors. In the spring of 1965 we produced Euripides’s play The Bacchae, in Greek, in the Scott Amphitheater. I was in the chorus, collectively the title character. The bacchae, or bacchants, were women who had followed the god Dionysus to Thebes, joined by Theban women who abandoned their household duties to revel with them in the hills. As we sang and danced outdoors, liberated (for the moment) from papers and seminars, we brought the bacchants to life with our bodies. Euripides says they struck rocks with their sticks, or thyrsi, and honey, milk, and wine owed forth. With this indelible image of female creativity in mind, I set out into life, thyrsus in hand, planning to strike as many rocks as I could. Today I am a cellist and organizer with Chamber Musicians of Northern California, which holds weekend workshops where amateur musicians gather to play. We’ve drawn our music mostly from the illustrious male canon; with the exception of an occasional piece by Clara Schumann or Madeleine Dring, we haven’t featured the work of many women. I had become aware of the huge number of mostly overlooked female composers—the Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers lists 875. Recalling the bacchants—and remembering, from the play’s shattering conclusion, what happens when women’s creativity is excluded or dishonored—I resolved that our next workshop would celebrate as many of these artists as it could. We did months of research, and it was fascinating. A surprise was not that there is so much music, or that it is so good, but that many women were once so famous. The English composer Ethel Smyth, for example, is an exact contemporary of Edward Elgar, and they were equally renowned in their day. Now Elgar is well-known, and Smyth is a footnote. Nancy Dalberg was acclaimed as the first Danish woman to write a symphony; heard much Dalberg lately? The fact is, women have been composing amazing music forever. But to live, it must be played. So last October we gathered at Mills to play music by Ethel Smyth, Ann Callaway, Louise Farrenc, Dora Pejačević, Libby Larsen, Emma Lou Diemer, Teresa Carreño, Fanny Mendelssohn, Caroline Shaw, Nancy Dalberg, Marie Dare, Imogen Holst, Elizabeth Maconchy, Harriett Bolz, Claude Arrieu, Gwyneth Walker, Grażyna Bacewicz, Valerie Coleman, Ellen Taa e Zwilich, and of course Clara Schumann and Madeleine Dring—bacchants, every one! As I learned in Scott Amphitheater, we honor female composers most when we recreate their music with our bodies. When we place them at the center of our musical lives, they reward us with their power, beauty, and art. Through the whole marvelous weekend, I felt them all around us, holding their thyrsi—honey and wine flowing from every note.