Margaret Ruthven Lang was an American composer of songs, solo piano, chamber, choral and symphonic pieces. A member of the Second New England School, she has the distinction of being the first woman composer to have a composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra. Though she destroyed most of her works, her songs, an American treasure, survive in libraries and collections throughout the country.
Margaret Lang was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the eldest child of the prominent musician Benjamin Johnson "B. J." Lang and Frances Morse Burrage Lang, an amateur singer. B. J. Lang was influential in the musical life of Boston (starting the Cecilia Society, the Apollo Club, and was instrumental in forming the Boston Symphony) and an active teacher, conductor, pianist, composer and organist. The Lang family frequently hosted prominent musicians of the time, including Dvořák and Paderewski. B. J. Lang was also a friend of Franz Liszt and his daughter Cosima, Hans von Bülow and Richard Wagner (their children were playmates) and in fact advised Wagner when he considered buying a home in the United States.
Margaret demonstrated an early talent for music and studied piano and composition with her father. Her studies also included spending two winters in Munich with her mother, where she studied violin with Franz Dreschsler and Ludwig Abel and counterpoint and fugue with Victor Gluth. Lang's other teachers included George Whitefield Chadwick, John Knowles Paine, and J. C. D. Parker, and Edward MacDowell was a mentor.
The first public performances of Lang's works were in 1887 in Boston and she received critical acclaim. Her first published works date from 1890. In April 1893, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Arthur Nikisch, premiered her Dramatic Overture, Op. 12. This inspired more national and international performances of her works, including for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, her Witichis Overture, Op. 10. Indeed, Lang was described as "among the most prominent American women, whose position in the front rank of the best modern composers is no longer a question"(Program Notes, Baltimore Symphony Concert, 1901).
In 1889 Margaret Lang's song "Ojalá" was performed in Paris at the July 12th concert during the Paris World's Fair Exposition. Edward MacDowell (American's most famous composer of the time) championed Lang and sent her the following telegram:
"Dear Miss Lang,
I showed your songs to van der Stucken (another well know composer of the day) who says he will put "Ojalá" on his programme. I expect to accompany it myself and hope to bring down the house. Concert is day after tomorrow. All Well. Kind regards to all. "
"Ojalá" (which is Arabic/Spanish for God Willing) was also part of the Inauguration Concert of American Composers at the Lincoln Concert Hall in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1890. The poet of this song is the famous George Eliot, a pen name of Mary Anne (Mary Ann, Marian) Evans (1819 -1880).
Margaret Lang enjoyed an important position as a female composer through the turn of the century. Her publishers included Arthur P. Schmidt, Oliver Ditson and Theodore Presser. Lang stopped composing when Theodore Presser published her final composition, Three Pianoforte Pieces for Young Players, Op. 60, in 1919. After this she devoted much of her time to religious work.
Hers is a music of remarkable freshness and originality. Her songs, some 140, reflect a fine craftsmanship and a wide range of styles and influences, including the German romantic tradition, Impressionism and Eastern music. She often chose noted female poets of the day for her texts, including Alice Meynell, George Eliot, Lizette Woodworth Reese, Harriet Fairchild Blodgett, Judith Gautier, Julie Lippman, and Louise Imogen Guiney. Her songs were performed by the great singers of the day, including Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Dan Beddoe and John McCormack.
Margaret Lang also has the distinction of being the longest consecutive subscriber to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1967, the orchestra performed a concert in honor of her 100th birthday and installed a small plaque on her seat, first balcony right, B1.
-- Donald George and Lucy Mauro