Nancy Van de Vate, Composer and Advocate for Women in Music, Dies at 92

Early in her career, Nancy Van de Vate, a celebrated modernist composer, would tell people about her work and sometimes be met with dismissive questions like “Do you write songs for children?” And though she often won competitions that she had entered anonymously, her daughter Katherine Van de Vate said, she rarely won when she entered them under her own name, a dynamic she attributed to gender discrimination.

Ms. Van de Vate refused to let such barriers slow her down. In 1968, she became only the second woman to receive a doctorate in music composition in the United States, according to “Journeys Through the Life and Music of Nancy Van de Vate” (2005), by Laurdella Foulkes-Levy and Burt J. Levy.

Ms. Van de Vate would go on to compose more than a hundred compositions in a seven-decade career, including seven operas, many orchestral works and a large body of chamber music.

She died on July 29 at 92 at her home in Vienna, where she spent the final 38 years of her life, her daughter said. Her death was not widely reported at the time.

Ms. Van de Vate created a distinct musical voice, tinged with dissonance, that drew from a variety of genres and global influences, including traditional Indonesian music, and from a wide array of composers, including Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Penderecki and Varèse.

“When you’re at a smorgasbord,” Ms. Van de Vate said in an interview with the music writer Bruce Duffie in the 1990s, “do you head for the dishes you like, or do you make a conscious choice that you should sample everything there? I go to enjoy the variety.”

Even working at the conceptual frontiers, Ms. Van de Vate composed music to be listened to, not to be dissected by theorists.

Ms. Van de Vate in 2020. Her work drew on many musical styles and influences, among them traditional Indonesian music, as well as a variety of composers.Credit…via Van de Vate family

“While no stranger to modernism, she had a deep desire to connect with her audience,” the composer David Victor Feldman, a friend, said in an email. “She didn’t see the tropes of modernism as a deal breaker, so they’re definitely in her mix. But so is infectious rhythm, color and the sounds of music coming from beyond the West.”

Among her best-known pieces was her orchestral work “Chernobyl,” a haunting rumination on the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster, which had its world premiere in Vienna in 1995 and its U.S. premiere in Portland, Maine, in 1997.

She also earned critical acclaim for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a searing antiwar opera based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque about trench warfare during World War I, which premiered in Osnabrück, Germany, in 2003.

A prominent feminist in a male-dominated field, Ms. Van de Cate led by example. In 1975, she founded an advocacy organization called the League of Women Composers, later renamed the International League of Women Composers and now part of the International Alliance for Women in Music.

In 1990, she and her husband, Clyde Smith, founded Vienna Modern Masters, a small label dedicated largely to recording new orchestral music, including many works by female composers.

Though progress was made, she believed far more was needed. “There have always been one or two women in the American musical establishment,” she told Mr. Duffie. “I don’t see that as progress,” she added. “It’s like saying we have Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court now, so therefore all women have equal rights.”

Nancy Jean Hayes was born on Dec. 30, 1930, in Plainfield, N.J., the second of three children of John Hayes, who ran an insurance company, and Anna (Tschudi) Hayes, a secretary.

A gifted pianist since childhood, she studied piano at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., for a year after graduating from North Plainfield High School in 1948. She transferred to Wellesley College, where she majored in music and received a bachelor’s degree in 1952. She earned her pioneering doctorate from Florida State University in 1968.

In addition to her daughter Katherine, Ms. Van de Vate’s survivors include another daughter, Barbara Levy; a son, Dwight; and six grandchildren. Her marriage to Dwight Van de Vate Jr., a philosophy professor, ended in divorce in 1976. She married Mr. Smith, a career naval officer, in 1979. He died in 1999.

Ms. Van de Vate was also a committed music educator; she taught at Memphis State University, the University of Tennessee and other institutions through the 1960s and ’70s. While teaching in Hawaii in the mid-’70s, she organized music appreciation courses for sailors stationed at the Pearl Harbor naval base.

“My mission as a teacher was to do as much as I possibly could to bring people to an understanding and, if possible, a liking for contemporary music,” she said in a 1986 interview with Ev Grimes, a radio producer. “And I found that if they understood it, they almost always liked it.”

“I want my music to communicate,” she added. “I don’t care to write for the shelf.”

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