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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Baroque Women

Let's start by listening to this. [listen]

Over the fifteen years I spent making Keys To Music for the ABC I received many suggestions for topics I might cover on the program. A large number of the programs I made resulted from these suggestions and I always learned a lot when I did this.

One suggestion which came up from time to time was that I make a program about women composers, but I always resisted, simply because I believed that doing this would be like making a program about gay composers or black composers. Focusing on such distinctions always struck me as somehow distasteful; to me, music is music regardless of the gender or sexuality or skin colour of the composer. And to my ears, music by black composers doesn't sound like it was written by someone who was black; the same with gay composers, or women. It's either good music or it isn't. Nationality, though, is somehow different, probably because there are often audible differences between different national styles, and I made many programs on the basis of nationality: French, English, American, even Japanese composers. Some of the scripts for these are in this blog.

Now before you kick back, I do understand that others feel differently, particularly about women composers. Given the way women have been denied equal status with men through most of human history, there is a strong argument which says that women need to be highlighted to address past inequalities, to redress the imbalance. Another issue to consider is the fact that there is simply a lot less music by women composers when compared to music by men, for all the obvious historical and social reasons.

But in 2015 a couple of things made me re-think my attitude. Firstly, with the 40th anniversary of International Women's Year, a lot of feminist issues were in the news. And secondly, after making a Keys To Music program on Clara Schumann I discovered the New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, and in particular, a chronology in its preface listing achievements by female composers throughout human history. These 13 pages were a revelation to me, and I rapidly came to understand that even though I couldn't name many women composers from the various periods of music history, this didn't mean there weren't any.

So, as was often the case, I made a program to share part of what I discovered, and its script is basis of this article. Welcome to Baroque Women.

The Grove chronology I mentioned lists a few women's names in the 2,000 years from the 7th century BCE to the 13th century CE. The most prominent of these is Hildegard of Bingen from the 12th century. But the years 1568 to 1750, roughly equating to what we now call the Baroque period, list the achievements of no less than 38 different women composers, and the vast majority of these names were completely new to me. Most of them are Italian, a few are French, plus the odd English and German name. But I'd never heard of Raffaella Aleotti, Lucia Quinciani, Francesca Campana, Lady Mary Dering, Élisabeth de Haulteterre or - and I love the sheer beauty of this name - Angiola Teresa Moratori Scanabecchi.

And of course listing the achievements of these women is one thing, but much of their music is lost, and that which still survives hasn't by any means all been recorded. But a lot has, and so I want to share as much of this music with you as I can. To say it was an eye-opening experience for me is an understatement. Here is just a little music by fourteen women of the late Renaissance and Baroque.

Maddalena Casulana was an Italian composer, lutenist and singer. She was born near Siena around 1544 and her three books of madrigals published from 1568 were the first such works by a woman to be printed. This is one of her madrigals, setting a text typical of such pieces which align death with love, and disdain the faithless lover. [listen]

Francesca Caccini, an Italian singer and composer, was the elder daughter of Giulio Caccini, one of the first composers of opera. Francesca was born in Florence in 1587 and she was surrounded by music from the moment she was born. She was the most prolific woman composer of her time and the first woman to have composed an opera. Sadly much of her music has been lost, but this sacred song for the birth of Jesus is part of a collection published in 1618. [listen]

Francesca Caccini (c. 1617)

Caterina Assandra was born around 1590. She composed sacred music which in some ways anticipates the innovations of Monteverdi. She took holy vows around the age of 20 but still continued to compose, and her sacred motets were published in a number of different collections. She wrote in both the stile antico (the "old style", the late Renaissance style of Palestrina) and the stile nuovo (the new style of the early Baroque, what Monteverdi called the "second practice"). This is her setting of the antiphon Duo seraphim, music which has a radiance reminiscent of Monteverdi's setting of the same text in his Vespers. Assandra's setting was published in 1609, a year before Monteverdi's. [listen]

Claudia Sessa was another singer and composer who became a nun and she was based in Milan. She was an outstanding singer, and her two sacred monodies in honour of the Virgin's contemplation of the face of Christ - her only known compositions - were published in Milan in 1613. The intense, passionate anguish of the Virgin's grief shines through in this music, absolutely in tune with the style of better-known Italian composers of the early 17th century. [listen]

Milan (late 16th century)

Another musical nun of the early 17th century was Sulpitia Cesis. Almost nothing is known about her apart from the publication of her volume of "spiritual motets" in Modena in 1619, a series of highly complex works ranging from two parts up to twelve parts. Cesis' style seems to span both the polychoral style of Giovanni Gabrieli and the fluid, more emotional style of Monteverdi. This is stunningly beautiful music written not only from the heart but with a superb musical technique. [listen]

One of the most extraordinary composers of the early 17th century - and another who was a nun - was Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana. She was a talented singer and organist as well. The publication of a collection of her motets in 1623 showed her assimilation of the latest styles; her modernism was on a par with that of Monteverdi at the same time. Vizzana suffered from chronic ill health, and the doctrinal and political struggles her convent was involved in led her to withdraw more and more from the world and from the life of her fellow nuns. She stopped composing entirely and according to her confessor was insane in her final years.

The 1623 publication, called Componimenti Musicali, is one of the most dazzling and ground-breaking publications of its time. It's the only music by Lucrezia Vizzana known to exist. [listen]

Claudia Rusca was a singer, teacher, organist and composer - and also a nun - who died in Milan in 1676. Her volume of sacred concerti was published in that city in 1630, only to have been completely lost in 1943 when the Ambrosian Library in Milan was bombed during the second world war. Some of the motets, though, have been rediscovered in later arrangements, which scholars have used as the basis for reconstructing the lost originals. This is one of the "rescued" motets by Rusca, Gaudete gaudio magno for two sopranos, continuo, and an obbligato soprano instrument (played here on cornetto). [listen]

Ambrosian Library, Milan

Yet another Milanese nun who had considerable musical skills was Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, who was born in 1602. She had a number of major collections of music printed during her lifetime - in 1640, 1642 and 1650 - and they show that despite her cloistered life she was well aware of the latest musical developments in northern Italy at the time. The publications - like those of other nun composers I've mentioned - include tenor and bass parts, which would have made them appeal to a wider market. In the nuns' services, though, these would have been transposed for all-female performance. But even then, there were women who specialised in singing low parts, and the bass lines often don't go very low, meaning that a contralto with a low range could manage to sing them at pitch. [listen]

In the person of Barbara Strozzi we come to one of the few female composers of the Baroque whose name is to some extent familiar today. She was Venetian, born in 1619, the adopted (and possibly illegitimate) daughter of the poet and dramatist Giulio Strozzi. Barbara Strozzi was most definitely not a nun. She lived boldly in a man's world, never married but had several children, and had an enviable career as both a singer and as a composer. She published nine collections of vocal music, nearly all of it secular and highly dramatic. This aria from her Opus 8, published in Venice in 1664, describes the madness of the heart which insists on falling in love. [listen]

Bernardo Strozzi: The Viola da Gamba Player (c. 1635). This is thought by some to be a portrait of Barbara Strozzi, who may or may not be related to the artist.

Fortunately a great deal of music by our next composer, Isabella Leonarda, was published and has survived. Leonarda was born in 1620; at the age of 16 she entered a nunnery and eventually rose to the rank of Mother Superior. She was called "The Muse of Novara", named after the town where she was born. About 200 works by her are known, nearly all of which are sacred and were published in Bologna between 1665 and 1700. She also published a collection of instrumental sonatas in 1693, one of which I linked to at the start of this article. This is her setting of the psalm Beatus vir, published in 1698. [listen]

Isabella Leonarda (from a family tree)

Very little is known about another musical Milanese nun, Rosa Giacinta Badalla, who died around 1710. Almost all her known compositions are in a single collection published in 1684, a collection which makes great demands on the singer and which displays bold compositional ideas. [listen]

As I mentioned earlier, the Baroque composers I found in the New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers were predominantly Italian. But one of the major female figures in French music in the high Baroque was Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. She was born in 1665 and most of her life overlapped that of her younger countryman, Jean-Philippe Rameau. Jacquet de la Guerre was renowned as a virtuoso harpsichordist, and she composed in a wide range of genres. She was the first French woman to write an opera and she made major contributions to the chamber cantata, sonata and keyboard suite. From an early age she was supported by the highest ranks of the nobility and she was active in and supported by the highest circles of European royalty.

Here's a movement from one of Jacquet de la Guerre's harpsichord suites. [listen]

de Troy: Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre

All the vocal works we've looked at so far in this program are on a rather small scale but some women in the Baroque did compose in larger genres. Camilla de Rossi was probably born in Rome but the only thing we know for certain about her life is the fact that she was active in Vienna around 1707-10. It was during these years that four of her large-scale oratorios were performed in the Vienna court chapel, works which show her following in the style of Alessandro Scarlatti, whose work was well-known and very current at the time. This is the conclusion of her oratorio Il Sacrifizio di Abramo (The Sacrifice of Abraham), performed in Vienna in 1708. [listen]

Finally in this rapid survey of women composers of the Baroque era we come to Maria Teresa Agnesi. Living from 1720 to 1795, she was twelve years older than Haydn, and Mozart's entire life span was contained in hers. Agnesi wrote concertos, sonatas and arias, as well as a number of operas and other theatrical works. She was a gifted harpsichordist and her music was performed in major centres like Vienna as well as in her native Milan. Sections of her operas La Sofonisba and Il re pastore show she was more than capable of writing powerful, dramatic music. We'll end, though, with one of her elegant instrumental works, part of a concerto for harpsichord and strings dating from around the 1760s. [listen]

Maria Teresa Agnesi

I'd encourage you to search out more music by all these women, because it's evident they were all highly-skilled creative people who left some brilliant works. A lot of it has been uploaded to YouTube (a fact which made this blog post possible) and the CDs from which these uploads originated are credited under each video.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2015.

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