Canon in She

Barbara Strozzi

3 March 2020

Welcome to Canon in She, a column all about women composers, their fascinating lives and brilliant music.

What springs to mind when you think about classical music? Maybe it’s a stuffy, formal concert hall filled with rich, old, white people listening to a symphony conducted by an old white guy. Who wrote that symphony? Beethoven? Probably Beethoven.

Or maybe it’s an opera stage, singers in period costumes screeching their lungs out and then dying. To be fair, that does happen a lot… but who wrote the music? Mozart? Verdi? Wagner?

How many women composers can you name? Before I started my music degree, the answer was very few. I’ve studied classical voice on-and-off for over thirteen years, and it was only last year that I learned about women such as Barbara Strozzi, Hildegard von Bingen, Francesca Caccini, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn and Florence Price.

I learned mostly through independent research. The thought of sticking to the dead, white, male canon seemed a shocking oversight. In my first year at Melbourne, there was perhaps one music history lecture that significantly addressed women, and one of Hildegard von Bingen’s melodies appeared in a music theory class. Even that limited offering is an improvement over traditional music study, where women are often omitted entirely.

When I had to devote a semester’s worth of written assignments to one piece of music, I dived into Google and the library’s Discovery search until I found a piece by a woman with enough scholarship to last a whole semester. That woman was Barbara Strozzi, a Baroque composer. After a taste of her music, I knew I couldn’t go back to complacency.

Usually in this column, I’ll discuss three women composers, but for today, I want to focus on my girl Barbara.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)

Barbara Strozzi was born in Venice. Her mother was a servant and her likely father, Giulio Strozzi, was a librettist (read: lyricist) with connections to the musical elite. Barbara was either his illegitimate or adopted daughter. He used his connections to have her taught by a well-established composer: Francesco Cavalli. The Strozzi family held meetings of a music society called the Accademia degli Unisoni, where Barbara performed her work. She published using the Venetian printing press and made enough money to support herself and her family, including at least four children. She was probably the most prolific composer of printed music in her time.

She may have been a courtesan. We’re not quite sure; the primary sources that make that claim could have been slander… because woman. Whatever the truth, there is a portrait by Bernardo Strozzi (relation unclear) that we believe is of her, which depicts her with one breast popping out of her dress. This could either be a symbol of a courtesan or motherhood.

Barbara published eight opuses (music books, basically) during her lifetime. Most of this was secular vocal music, mainly for sopranos, meaning she was probably a soprano herself. Most composers in the Baroque period did not write down the fancy ornamentation they expected of musicians. Barbara, however, often included more specific instructions, likely because she formally published her work. It’s possible she wanted amateur singers to buy and perform her work, since that was how she made a living. This became easier to do later in her career when she started using engraved copper plates for printing.

So, what exactly was Barbara’s influence in the music world? Well, she was among the most prolific composers of printed music in Venice of the 1600s, and arguably one of the most successful. Most composers had their works distributed in manuscript form, meaning it was handwritten and would change depending on the version. Barbara’s work was different. Because it was published using a printing press, which could be super expensive, her work was more consistent.

On top of that, she was heavily involved in the development of the secular cantata in Venice, as opposed to the Roman cantata that came before. A cantata is basically a collection of songs linked into the one piece. Barbara’s cantatas often had short songs with speak-sung recitative parts between them, or even instrumental interludes. They could sometimes look like an opera scene, but Barbara’s would not have made it onto the stage in her lifetime, since she mostly wrote chamber music. It’s hard to find information on her exact influence on the genre (yay historical sexism!) but she was writing these things before Bach was even born, so she deserves some recognition.

Barbara never wrote operas or large orchestral pieces, sticking exclusively to chamber music. There may be several reasons for this. First of all, as a woman, it was (and still is) difficult to have major pieces of music performed in theatres. Venice was the home of commercial opera houses, and women were not (and often still aren’t) considered commercially viable. In addition to her immense talent, the success she did have in publishing her music was hugely influenced by her father and his connections to the musical world. Her ability to perform her own works at meetings of the Accademia degli Unisoni allowed her to hone her skills and connect with influential music-makers of Venice and the Italian peninsula (Italy did not exist as a country quite yet).

Basically, Barbara Strozzi is a legend who carved out a composing career during a time when few women composers were able to have their works performed, let alone make money doing it. She had her share of privileges, such as a well-off father with connections to some of the finest musical minds in Venice, which certainly helped her get her foot in the door, but it is still remarkable that she was able to support herself financially by publishing her music. She has lit a fire under me to keep researching and shining a light on the women that history has tried very hard to forget.

A listening list:

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Some of these works may have more than one title.

  • Che si può fare: This one is about a lover doomed to wallow in their torment, feeling like they are in hell.
  • L’astratto: This was the focus of my research last year. It’s about a singer who picks up and discards different songs as she tries to find the perfect one to help her expel her feelings of tormented love. This is the most obvious cantata that I have heard from her.
  • Begl’occhi bel seno: I’ve sung this one! It’s a fun piece about a person who cannot reconcile their romantic, “pure” feelings with the absolute lust they feel.
  • Lagrime mie: Barbara wrote this piece as part of a challenge to depict sadness better than actual tears.
  • L’amante segreto: Content warning: Period-typical suicidal rhetoric. Some more tormented love, which seems to be Barbara’s speciality. The first two lines translate roughly to “I want to die, rather than my pain be discovered.”
  • L’amante modesto/Volano frettolosi: A small vocal ensemble piece called a madrigal. This one is about a chaste lover whose love interest is sexually involved with someone else, but they are comforted by the steadfastness of their own love.
  • Silentio nocivo/Dolcissimi respiri: Another madrigal, sung from one lover to another, telling them not to remain silent about their love.

Accompanying artwork by Sarah Peters, with contributions by Monique Marani.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *