Amplifying Female Voices: Ellen Mandel

An abundance of living women composers deserve our attention. To make a change in the traditional white male landscape of the classical repertory, we must program music by composers of all backgrounds. Read on to learn about composer Ellen Mandel.

How many women composers quickly come to mind? Hildegard von Bingen, Clara Schumann, and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, I’m sure, but there is a wealth of other women composers who deserve to be recognized. There are countless living composers whose works are an excellent fit for undergraduate, graduate, and professional recitals.

One of these women is Ellen Mandel. Based in New York, Mandel is a composer of primarily art song and theater music. Her art songs have been performed in concerts in Scotland, England, and Germany, and she has created music for over eighty plays, to excellent reviews.

Mandel’s career began by doing small club work, and then playing piano for dance classes. She then got involved with an improv group which required her to improvise on the piano. From there she decided to compose for theater companies where she could write in advance as opposed to improvising. After discovering lieder in college, Mandel developed a deep appreciation for art songs. Between projects, a tenor colleague of hers sent her texts by e.e. cummings to set to song for an upcoming recital. Mandel had an index card with poets whose texts she wanted to set to music. At the top of that list? cummings. This moment was the boost she needed into her career of writing art songs.

Mandel describes her compositional style as mostly tonal and melodic. Her songs often have a jazzy feel even if she isn’t always thinking of that. Especially with theater music, the style goes along with the intended emotional feel of the content. It could be abstract, medieval, big and theatrical, and much more. She is an adaptable composer with an eclectic arsenal of styles.

A few examples of Mandel’s art songs that stand out among her oeuvre are her cummings songs including a wind has blown the rain away, jimmie’s got a goil, the first of all my dreams, and this is the garden. To an Isle in the Water (Yeats) and Gray Room (Stevens) are two of her most performed pieces. 

The term “woman composer” has been used a lot recently, especially as musicians aim to perform the works of under-represented composers. Mandel says she “never thought about [the term “woman composer”] until it started coming up in the world. I thought ‘well, I’m a composer. Period.’” Now she is delighted that many people have discovered her through their search for living women composers.

Most of the professional experiences Mandel has had have been positive. In a couple of less positive situations, she found that a fragile male ego felt threatened by a woman’s ability to create or play music in a way that he couldn’t understand or do himself, leading to a difficult work environment. She recalls two situations: one as the musical director and the other as a composer/performer, when the directors would compliment everyone except Mandel, very obviously overlooking her. She persevered, remained polite, and was determined to get through the rehearsal process so she could perform in the shows.

On the other hand, Mandel says she is inspired by her colleagues. They give her great ideas and are wonderful to work with. Other musical inspirations include Mozart, Schubert, Ray Charles, and Teddy Wilson. Her piano teacher, Goodwin Sammel taught her to listen while she was playing and to feel the keys, not strike them. She is also inspired and encouraged by her husband who is a singer/songwriter.

The main goal of Mandel’s songs is to express what is in the poem. Because the music wouldn’t exist without it! She explains that after hearing her songs, many people have felt inspired to dive deeper into the poem and explore more by the poet. She considers this a success. 

Mandel’s tip to singers learning her music is to make it your own and develop your own interpretation. By writing minimal dynamics, tempi, and other notations, she makes an effort to help the singer truly make the music come alive. A specific tip she provides regards held notes. She doesn’t want to write the end of a phrase so long that it confines the singer. Her intent is to show that the note shouldn’t be let go of too soon, but the length of the note is mostly up to the singer. Above all else, she wants singers to enjoy performing her music.

Mandel’s current project is a collaboration with librettist and baritone Daniel Neer, writing a set of songs based on Edward Hopper paintings. The first set was premiered at Otterbein University by Neer and pianist Suzanne Newcomb in February 2022. Additionally, she is working with the Phoenix Theater Ensemble. You can discover more about Ellen Mandel by visiting ellenmandel.com.

Alec Arnett

Alec Arnett is a baritone, writer, and conductor currently based in Ohio. He holds degrees in vocal performance and music history and literature from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. He is a 2022 CS Music Certified Artist and was a semi-finalist in the 2021 Orpheus Vocal Competition. Alec can be contacted via email at alecarnettmusic@gmail.com