A debut worth the wait

We all could learn a lesson or two from Mary Louise Miller Spang, Wheaton Class of 1933.

She overcame great adversity in her life, forging her own path after divorcing her husband in 1946, at a time when divorce was still a damaging social stigma for women, and working to support two young children on her own while pursuing her passion for music at Juilliard.

From 1946 until around 1959, Spang, who was an art major at Wheaton, was a prolific composer and published poet. Her musical career was cut short in 1959 when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which led to her decline and death in 1975 at age 64.

On Friday, December 6, the Great Woods Chamber Orchestra will honor her during its 7:30 p.m. concert by performing one of her musical compositions for the very first time. The orchestra will debut Spang’s “The Selfish Giant,” a musical interpretation of the children’s story by Oscar Wilde, in the Weber Theatre in Watson Fine Arts.

“Each section in ‘The Selfish Giant’ corresponds to a scene in Wilde’s story,” notes Delvyn Case, assistant professor of music and orchestra director. “The music is very colorful, depicting the giant by using the timpani and brass, and the children with the piccolo and other woodwind instruments. The composition uses beautiful, rich harmonies reminiscent of jazz, though the style of the piece is certainly classical.”

The concert’s theme, “Wizards, Witches and Fairies,” music inspired by mythical creatures, is very much in keeping with Spang’s playful spirit.

Spang’s daughter Elizabeth Ericson remembers her mother as a joyful woman who wrote plays and songs for her children, filling their lives with amusement, according to Wheaton College Archivist Zephorene Stickney.

However, Ericson has never heard her mother’s compositions performed. She donated her mother’s musical scores, as well as photographs and a written reflection on her mother’s life, to Wheaton’s Marion B. Gebbie Archives, hoping that the music would someday be performed.

This week’s performance of her music is part of a collaborative project that began in 2012. Stickney and Assistant Archivist Megan Wheaton-Book have been working with their student assistants to create an online showcase celebrating Spang, which will be available at the end of December.

It will include a recording and video of the orchestral performance, a biography and reflection written by Spang’s daughter, a gallery of photographs, a list of Spang’s works, and the text of Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant.” Thomas Van Duyne ’14, a music major and student archival assistant, has been developing the online exhibition for the past year, while Kimberly Hurst ’15 processed Spang’s collection.

“In the fall of 2012, Zeph and I were discussing under-utilized collections, and how we could use technology to highlight them in a digital exhibit,” said Wheaton-Book. “For this project we wanted a collection that would be dynamic, with moving images or sound, but that also had an amazing story that went straight to your heart. When Zeph mentioned the Spang collection, I knew that this was the one we should focus on. When I examined Ms. Spang’s collection I was touched by how she went after her dreams even in the face of very difficult circumstances. And when I read that she developed Alzheimer’s and basically lost her musical outlet, my heart broke, and I wanted her story to be known.”

“She is an exceptional example of the type of student that Wheaton helps create. She didn’t fold under pressure, and she gave back to her community. The take away from Ms. Spang’s experiences is that life is precious,” said Wheaton-Book. “You have to spend your time on things that make you happy.”

In addition to Spang’s piece, the Great Woods Chamber Orchestra will perform several other works, including Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a suite of music from the Harry Potter films.

 —Elizabeth Meyer ’14