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Her Story, for vocal ensemble and orchestra

Julia Wolfe's BSO co-commissioned Her Story explores the struggle for women’s rights throughout U.S. history.

Julia Wolfe was born on December 18, 1958, in Philadelphia, and lives in New York City. Her Story was the result of a commission originally marking the centennial, in 2020, of the ratification of the 19th Amendment establishing a woman’s right to vote. Wolfe began the piece in 2019 but, when its premiere performances were canceled due to the pandemic, expanded its narrative scope; she completed the piece in 2022. Her Story was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The Boston Symphony Orchestra commission is through the generous support of the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency, and the Morton Margolis Fund. The first performances were given at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center by the Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero conducting, with the Lorelei Ensemble, September 15-17, 2022.

The score of Her Story calls for an amplified chorus of sopranos and altos, 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion (I. glockenspiel, marimba, gongs, small, medium, and large cymbals, ratty (beat-up) cymbal, sandblocks, wind chimes, snare drum, 5 tom-toms, kick drum; II. vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, very small, small, and medium cymbals, ratty cymbal), slapstick, sandblocks, snare drum, low and high tom-toms; III. vibraphone, chimes, triangle, siren, tam-tam, SM&L cymbals, snare drum, medium and low tom-toms; IV. crotales, chimes, triangle, flexatone, tam-tam, SM&L cymbals, tambourine, small bass drum, large bass drum), electric guitar, electric bass guitar, piano, harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 30 minutes.

One of today’s preeminent examples of the American maverick tradition of trailblazing composers, Julia Wolfe has had a formidable impact on the direction taken by the contemporary music scene. The body of work she has created, which reflects an uninhibited, genre-defying attitude, taps into the power of music to illuminate the stories that make up our histories and, in the process, to evoke their contemporary resonance. Her contributions as co-founder and co-director of the influential music collective Bang on a Can (established in 1987) have further extended Wolfe’s influence among the new generation of composers.

Her Story is the latest in an ongoing series of large-scale, immersive choral-instrumental compositions in which Wolfe reimagines the tradition of the oratorio to examine the landmark struggles that have shaped American history and culture. It originated when Beth Willer, the artistic director of the Lorelei Ensemble, asked her to write a piece marking the year of suffrage and became the composer’s main focus during the height of the pandemic.

In 2015, Wolfe won the Pulitzer Prize in music for Anthracite Fields, which pays homage to the lives and legacy of coalminers from her native Pennsylvania who helped transform the young nation into a global power. Other examples include 2009’s Steel Hammer, a work that draws on the legends associated with John Henry and American folk idioms, and Fire in my mouth from 2019, which addresses the plight of garment industry laborers in New York City at the turn of the century.

What Her Story shares with its predecessors is a command of compelling musical narrative that is enhanced by Wolfe’s innovative use of documentary sources from the historical record and by her flair for striking sonic images. With this new work, the composer also continues her collaboration with director Anne Kauffman, scenic and lighting designer Jeff Sugg, and costumer designer Márion Talán to complement the dramatic arc traced by the music with a visual, theatrically engaging dimension.

It’s a drama with very high stakes indeed: the still-unfinished quest for equal rights for women. While the original impetus for the piece was to mark the 19th Amendment’s centennial, Wolfe expanded the vision of Her Story to encompass reminders of the struggle from the years well before it crystallized into the suffragist movement, as well as of the voices left out of the promise of fully equal rights—a promise that has remained unfulfilled, and even undermined, in the century since 1920.

Wolfe distilled the text for her two-movement oratorio from widely varying sources. The first movement, titled “Foment,” presents an adapted extract from a letter Abigail Adams wrote in 1776 to her husband John, the future U.S. President, just months before he helped draft the Declaration of Independence. She reminds him that “the ladies,” if overlooked, “are determined to foment a rebellion.”

“Raise,” the second movement, juxtaposes texts from three distinct sources. First is a sequence of negative adjectives culled from the propaganda of anti-suffragists. These insults underscore the reality that the ideological division in the U.S. remained strong even as the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in the summer of 1920. “The pro-suffrage movement itself was factious,” Wolfe points out, “as opinions differed on how to battle for the right to vote, which voices would be heard, and which voices left out. The derogatory adjectives and descriptions in the text here refer to all women fighting for representation.”

“I didn’t raise my girl to be a voter” is taken from a political cartoon from a 1915 edition of Puck magazine lampooning the anti-suffrage movement. It plays on a pacifist song popular as the Great War raged (“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”).

With the words “Look at me,” Wolfe turns to the extraordinary figure of Isabelle Baumfree (1797-1883). Enslaved in New York State until young adulthood, she became a powerful advocate for the suffragist and abolitionist movements, changing her name to Sojourner Truth after a life-changing religious experience. In 1851 she delivered a famous extemporaneous speech that was later published in two different versions (both as edited by white allies) and became known by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?” Wolfe takes words from both written versions, thus amalgamating what she calls “the mythological, the representational, and the very-possibly-true phrases” associated with the speech.

Though the text is historical, Wolfe’s music does not evoke “period” sounds. In its fusion of elements from folk and popular genres with inventive vocal textures and artful repetitions, her sound world is recognizably of our own time, and she enlarges the palette of her large orchestra with the contemporary sounds of electric guitar and bass guitar. The intention is to create the impression “that we are in the room with these women in a very immediate way.”

Wolfe’s score divides and remixes the ten amplified voices of the Lorelei Ensemble (five sopranos and five altos) in many different ways throughout Her Story to deepen or even interrogate the meaning of the text. Her vocal writing ranges from clear word painting—as in the off-kilter rhythms at “unbalanced”—to abstract textural colorings that defamiliarize the words, as we hear in her treatment of “remember” in “Foment.” Humor is also enlisted for the sarcastic setting of the political cartoon referenced in “Raise.” Contrasts of loud with quiet intensity play a significant role in articulating the fundamental drama of Her Story, which traces history’s pattern of hope, frustration, and final affirmation in the reawakened words of Sojourner Truth: “I am strong.”

Thomas May

© 2023 Thomas May. This note originally appeared in the program book of the Nashville Symphony.

Thomas May writes for such publications as the New York Times, Gramophone, and Musical America. The English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival, he is also program annotator for the Ojai Festival in California.