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Capturing a sentimental sound

Elinor Remick Warren, pictured above, was a former Mills student who went on to write various renowned compositions. All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Select compositions of former Mills student Elinor Remick Warren were finally recorded 20 years after her death. The composer, who died in 1991 at the age of 91, left a legacy of tender and romantic compositions.

Several of Warren’s choral works were recorded last month at the recording studio at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, Calif. The recordings — a collection of sensuous, intricately-written songs that could accompany a 40s or 50s movie soundtrack — will be released in roughly six months. Members of Warren’s family, including her children and grandchildren, attended the recording.

The recordings were made possible over a two-day period on Oct. 29-30 by the Elinor Remick Warren Society. The non-profit group, which was formed in 1996 to continue Warren’s reputation, also plans to release a documentary about the recording process. The group hired 33 Bay Area singers under the leadership of Dr. Lynne Morrow, a music professor at Sonoma State University, to record the choral pieces.

“It’s an amazing experience to get the opportunity to record this music,” Morrow said. “Hopefully this recording will serve for future generations who want to perform this music. I’m really honored to bring it back into the world.”

Warren was born in Los Angeles in 1900 to musical parents — her mother was a pianist and her father a singer. They exposed Warren to music from the time she was born, and by the age of four, she was already picking out original compositions on the piano, progressing rapidly towards writing her music down by hand. She studied Wagner’s Ring Cycle at age 12, and as a sophomore at Westlake High School, she was offered an employment contract by G. Shirmer Co., a large music publisher.

Warren came to Mills in 1919 as a music major. After a year of study, she convinced her parents to let her travel east to New York. By the age of 21, she was performing her compositions at Carnegie Hall with singers from the Metropolitan Opera.

A virtuosic solo pianist in her own right, Warren continued to be in demand as a composer and pianist until the 1940s when she began to focus solely on her composing career. She debuted works of critical acclaim all over the country with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras. She was also the subject of a Mills Quarterly article in 1946 entitled “Musician Combines Art, Home-Making.”

A group of Bay Area singers gathered at the Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, Calif., pictured above, to record music by former Mills student Elinor Remick Warren.

Warren’s compositional style was lauded by experts everywhere. She was described by musicologist Christine Ammer as “the only woman among the group of prominent American Neo-Romanticists that include Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti.” Her musical style was known for its expansive, strong emotionality.

Warren never felt that gender got in the way of her writing.

“I’ve had many people say to me `You play like a man,’ or `Your music sounds as if it were written by a man.’ I think they associate any kind of music that is rather strong or powerful with manliness,” Warren said in a 1987 interview. “I don’t think compositions, whether they’re large or small, have a gender, as far as the music goes, and I think it makes no difference to state `this is a woman composer,’ `this is a man composer.’”

On the centennial of Warren’s birth in 2000, the Library of Congress presented many of her works throughout a weekend in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, some of which which were performed in concerts at the National Cathedral.

Members of the choir said they felt honored to be a part of the project.

“She really writes the most lush arrangements,” said soprano Kate Offer. “Nowadays, you get a lot of minimalism and atonalism (like Phillip Glass), and it seems like no one is writing beautiful, rich music for its own sake anymore. It’s amazing to get to do this. It’s theatrical and reminds you of old movie scores when they were actual orchestrations that stood on their own.”

However, some singers find Warren’s compositions to be complicated to perform.

“I realize that she herself was a virtuosic pianist,” said Jenny Jensen, another soprano, “but her music is quite difficult because she writes these moving lines that are easier to play than sing. It’s beautiful music, but it is tough.”