The Music of Catherine McMichael (b. 1954)


















by Nico Schüler

The Seven Saints and Sinners, Floris, and Legends From the Greenwood on CD "Saginaw Valley State University Premiers Catherine McMichael," Sagi-naw, Choral Society, Midland Camerata Singers, Valley Wind Quintet, Flûtée. Order Information: Camellia Music, 485 Winthrop Lane, Saginaw, MI 48603; Phone/Fax: 1-989-792-4544; World Wide Web:; E-Mail:

In recent years, Catherine McMichael's music has found a wider audience. Subsequently, numerous of her compositions were published; several were recorded on CD. One CD was specifically dedicated to works by McMichael (which is being reviewed here), others are compilations and include one or several pieces by her.

Catherine McMichael's musical talent was first developed on the piano, having earned degrees in piano performance, chamber music, and accompanying from the University of Michigan. After years of teaching piano, privately as well as at Saginaw Valley State University in Saginaw (Michigan), she developed her own piano method, Making Music My Own (published by Lorenz Corp. / Heritage Press of Dayton). She took a fancy to composition. Over the years, more and more ensembles commissioned music from her. Most recently, the New England Conservatory, Thayer College, The Canadian Brass, the University of Massachusetts, and other institutions commissioned new compositions from McMichael.

Although Catherine McMichael has written some orchestral music, her main domain is choral music, chamber music, and Suzuki-related materials. Several of her pieces found their way to the recommended repertory list of the National Federation of Music Teachers. Two flute compositions, Floris and La Lune et les Etoiles, won the Best Newly Published Music Award from the National Flute Association.

As can easily be recognized by listening to the pieces reviewed here, McMichael's music is neither avant-garde nor is it experimental. Instead, her music is most descriptive, tonal, and very lyrical (melodically as well as rhythmically). Often, her compositions are inspired by extra-musical ideas: by nature, people, poetry, literature, and sculpture, by Biblical and other stories and by legends. Almost all of her music is written for specific musicians or ensembles, thus not only taking into account the musicians' musical abilities, but also their specific sound, their musical characteristics. This could probably be seen as McMichael's key to success, but it is rather a practical method: celebrating the enjoyment in music and in music-making.

Having said this, the pieces to be reviewed here are already characterized in general terms. A few more specifics should be added.

The CD "Saginaw Valley State University Premiers Catherine McMichael" was originally recorded in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Gallery. This gallery, hosted at Saginaw Valley State University, is a non-profit, educational gallery that features Fredericks' (1908-1998) monumental figurative sculptures. As pointed out earlier, McMichael's music fits perfectly to sculpture, because of the music's descriptive nature. Consequently, one of the CD's compositions specifically refers to the sculptures, which are also reproduced in the booklet that accompanies the CD.

The Seven Saints and Sinners is the original title of a set of seven, 3-foot tall sculptures by Marshall M. Fredericks, all relating to each other in a sequence, like the days of the week. (In 1976, all sculptures were enlarged to seven feet and mounted on a foundation at Oakland University.) For Fredericks' 90th birthday in January 1998, Catherine McMichael composed a seven-movement composition with the same title. The last two movements are through-composed. The work is for double choir, woodwind quintet, piano, soprano and tenor, and the title of each movement refers to the name of each sculpture: The Pious Monk, The Evil Influence, The Warrior Saint, Mother & Child, Temptation, Eve, and The Good Influence. Five of the seven movements include lyrics from the Latin Ordinary Mass, from Psalm 68, as well as lyrics by McMichael and by Fredericks.

In a similar way in which Fredericks saw the sculptures as "conversation pieces," McMichael's pieces of music are even more "conversational": either as dialogues between lead singer(s) and chorus, between the (often polyphonic) instrumental lines, or between the choral parts and instrumental parts in general. While the first movement is oriented on the late-medieval mass, the second, purely instrumental movement (woodwind quintet) expresses "The Evil Influence" with irony and humor, as it can be found in every-day life. The following movements are either rhythmically vivid with lots of syncopations (third movement), very lyrical (fourth movement), humorous to express the deeper meaning (fifth movement), a passionate and thoughtful piano solo (sixth movement), or rather monumental (final movement).

Although The Seven Saints and Sinners are generally tonal (or partially modal), chromaticism and tonal shifts enrich this tonality throughout. The color is mainly provided by the woodwind quintet. Unfortunately, the recording by Saginaw Valley State University lacks a good soprano: Dee Blair (soprano) lacks professionalism in vocal expressions and vocal capacity. (However, McMichael found in Robert Bracey an excellent tenor.) Other minor deficiencies are in the sound quality and result from recording a live performance.

This obviously religious composition has certainly deep meanings that could even be expressed in performances without the connection to the sculptures. One of the interesting connotations is the connection of "Eve" and "The Good Influence" because of the through-composed set-up and the musical references, especially in setting the mood. Last but not least, The Seven Saints and Sinners are well balanced in the musical dramaturgy and in the length of each movement. Thus, this almost 33-minute composition is very far from radiating boredom, but instead is a deep and very enjoyable expression of life.

Floris is a composition that connects Catherine McMichael's music with her love to nature and gardening. (In fact, McMichael is not only a talented musician and composer, but also an excellent gardener.) Floris is for four flutes and piano, commissioned by, and dedicated to, the members of Flûtée, a professional flute quartet in residence at Saginaw Valley State University.

The flutes in Floris symbolize-with their sweet, pure timbre-white flowers. Specific names of flowers are the titles of the five movements: Trillium, Baby's Breath, Lily Pond, Snowdrops, and Calla. All these flowers certainly create a geographical connection to Michigan (McMichael's home state). "Trillium, " a woodland wildflower which blooms in Michigan in May, is musically expressed by a very lyrical, peaceful, and tonal movement with a tune that can easily be remembered. "Baby's Breath" provides a contrast with a catchy boogie; it is playful, fun, and grows from a single pattern to a large-scale movement (though only 1'40'' in length). "Lily Pond" functions a musical metaphor for hot summer days with their birds, little buzzing bugs, and other animals; it is musically close to impressionism, partially using a whole-tone scale. And while "Snowdrops," enduring Michigan's snow, is a short, playful variation on Jingle Bells, "Calla" is-again-dreamful, impressionistic, and provides a sense of arrival. Thus, the last movement finalizes, while tonally more vague (with many key changes), a formal outline of the five-movement composition, which is characterized by a musical departure, adventure, and home-coming.

The musical style and structure of the last composition of the CD, Legends From the Greenwood, is similar to that of Floris. However, as a suite for mixed flute quartet, it is rather polyphonic and makes use of more avant-garde flute techniques, like flutter tongue and multiphonics. Legends From the Greenwood is based on three North American legends: "Hiawatha And The West Wind," "Evangeline And Gabriel," and "Paul Bunyan And His Blue Ox, Babe." Musically, the first movement is the most appealing one, because of its extended harmony, use of seventh chords, and the avoidance of dominant functions. The performing ensemble Flûtée certainly expressed all nuances of this wonderful composition.

Generally, Legends From the Greenwood is very characteristic of Catherine McMichael's aesthetics, which is similar to the aesthetics of New Objectivity. Catherine McMichael's music is not supposed to be academic, but is supposed to emphasize the artistic and technical aspects of making music. In this respect, her music can also be characterized as Gebrauchsmusik (Music for Use); music is her deepest expression of her world-view, her philosophy of life. Part of this philosophy is surely making clear that music is available to all, in all life situations. Catherine McMichael's music is for the musician and for the listener. It is indeed music by a musician and for musicians.

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A shorter version of this review was published as: Nico Schüler: "Saginaw Valley State University Premiers Catherine McMichael," Journal of the Interna-tional Alliance for Women in Music VIII/3 (2002): 62-63.

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last revised: 3-20-2003