( Hint. They’re Not Men)
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
During the baroque era almost all European royals prohibited women from poking a coiffed curl inside a music school—except in Italy.
It was there that Maria de’ Medici commissioned genius Francesca Caccini to compose the first Italian opera performed outside of the country in 1625. Caccini’s success with La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina was no one-off. Her hits kept coming.
Nor was Caccini the lone great Italian, female composer of the Baroque era. She had plenty of company. In fact the glory days of Italian women in the composer’s chair lasted into the twilight years of the renaissance.
The historical existence of this sanctuary for female brilliance is even more amazing when one considers the near-global gauntlet of censure, ridicule, and hypersexualization women in music have faced since the early fourth century.
(It was then that church leaders enforced Paul’s injunction in I Timothy, that dictated women could neither speak, sing nor play an instrument in church.)
But the good news is the women composers in Italy and across the globe are finally beginning to garner recognition once again in our own era. Let’s look at the following timeline consisting of six Italian composing supernovas born between 1587 and 1963.
1. Francesca Caccini, 1587-1640.
Francesca Caccini was twice famous. She first garnered renown for her exceptional voice, described as a finely focused thread of sound she deftly spun through the air. Caccini was an astute improviser and could modulate her harmonies and dissonances on the fly to great effect.
In her twenties she sacrificed singing to concentrate on composing music. One critic of the time commented her compositions gave audience members a momentary experience of inhabiting the heavens.
Caccini was one of those geniuses able to work at warp speed. She produced stacks of blindingly good, brand new compositions, tailor-made to royal order, at a pace most musical artists today would find intolerable.
Sadly, few of Caccini’s works were professionally published. This lack of pieces in print lead to few of her compositions surviving the centuries.
Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, by Anna Beer has the best bio of Caccini I have ever read. Beer highlights her stressful ties with the opera-mad Medici’s. I recommend this new release to any lover of biography, musical history or women’s studies.
2. Barbara Strozzi, 1619- 1677
Several music scholars insist it was Barbara Strozzi who invented the cantata form in Italy. Her body of work is all the more remarkable considering her class origins. Strozzi hailed from a modest Venetian family.
In the baroque period Italian middle or lower class women who performed or composed music, were deemed courtesans/prostitutes. Such “courtesans” could and did publish their compositions in Venice.
Women from “good” families could compose and play but were sternly discouraged from ever having anything they wrote see the light of day via professional publication.
The savvy Strozzi understood the lay of the land and consciously chose the courtesan label so she could play, compose, and most importantly publish her music at will. By making such a difficult choice, she gave herself an opportunity she did not squander.
“Strozzi had more music in print during her lifetime than any other composer of her era,” said Beer. A relatively large amount of her work has survived into the present day.
It seems Strozzi eventually embraced being deemed a courtesan with a sense of humor. Critics labeled some of her best compositions “too sexy for church.”
3. Raphaella/Vittoria Aleotti, c. 1575 – c. 1620
Would you be surprised to learn that the most famous musicians of mid-Renaissance Milan, were in fact —nuns?
Music composed by four nuns in particular; Claudia Sessa, Claudia Rusca, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, and Rosa Giacinta Badella, often delight and amaze those willing to dive deep into the study of early music.
If you want to know more about this enigmatic time period in Italian history read Robert Kendrick’s Celestial Sirens: Nuns and their Music in Early Modern Milan . It’s one of those scholarly books with a hefty price tag, you could try a library for it as well.
Ferrera-born Vittoria Aleotti (aka Raphaella Aleotti) places near the top of any list of Italian masters of music who donned habits. To hear this Augustinian nun’s celestial composition Se Del Tuo Corpo visit:www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzvZZq57ohg.
4. Elsa Respighi (1894 –1996)
Few know that Mezzo-soprano Elsa Respighi, the wife of the renowned composer Ottorino Respighi, was herself a gifted composer. I see Elsa Respighi as the Italian representative of the large global contingent of brilliant but unsung wives and sisters of famous composers whose own compositions remain underperformed and underappreciated.
Fanny Mendelsohn, Clara Schuman and Anna Magdalena Bach are three examples of acknowledged wife or sister composers whose biographies make inspirational reading.
The recent documentary “Written By Mrs. Bach,” makes the bombshell claim that forensic documents prove that Anna Magdalena was the real composer of some of J.S. Bach’s best-known cello suites.
Elsa penned all but two of her songs before her marriage to Ottorino. After she wed she focused on singing. Just recently some of Elsa’s own sophisticated pieces have seen their own premiers. (See Discography below).
5. Elisabetta Brusa 1954-
Elisabetta Brusa is a brilliant contemporary composer whose tonal compositions often grace the airwaves of Italian classical stations, BBC radio and RAI TV in Italy.
Orchestras like the BBC Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, State Hermitage Orchestra, St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and The Women’s Philharmonic of San Francisco, have performed her work.
Gramophone Magazine declared Brusa’s Symphony No. 2 a collection “not to be missed.” Listen to some of this accessible, fresh modern music for symphony at: http://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/r/Naxos/8555267.
6.Lucia Ronchetti, 1963-
Roman-born Fulbright fellow Lucia Ronchetti is a multi award-winning avant-garde composer for computer and orchestra.
She is best known for her theatrical concert works that explore the concept of otherness.
Ronchetti’s thought-provoking music reminds me of the work of the once controversial composer Phillip Glass, whose music like hers, is difficult to encapsulate in words.
Ronchetti herself seems to have no problem putting complex concepts into words; she’s an imaginative lyricist, fluent in several languages.
Watch an in-depth interview (only in Italian) and video clips of her global theatre works here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73nynlSS4Pg.
To peek into the baroque, renaissance and contemporary landscapes of sound these marvels created, download a CD or sample free bits from each on Amazon.com. I found it immersive and inspiring to listen to the music of Caccini and then Strozzi as I read essays on both in Beer’s book. The other composers mentioned here are not in her book, but can be read about online.
Click on disc covers for details.
Beer recommends listening to three specific Caccini songs to experience how this stellar composer can “convey both despair and reverence, not to mention her exquisite formal control of the music’s shape and texture.” This is a winning CD.
These songs are: Lasciatime qui solo, Dolce Maria and Rendi alle mie speranze.
Find them together on the stunning CD, O Viva Rosa published by Analekta featuring Shannon Mercer, Luc Beauséjour, Sylvain Bergeron and Amanda Keesmaat.
This Strozzi disk is a listener favorite.
Performed by Cappella Mediterranea and Leonardo García-Alarcón.
Performed by Cappella Artemisia and Conducted by Candace Smith.
Over The Fence, 2014.
World première recordings of songs by Elsa Respighi, along with the work of composers Lori Laitman and Modesta Bor. Sung by Tanya Kruse Ruck for Albany Records, 2014.
Symphony No. 1, Merlin – Symphonic Poem, 2015.
Brusa is best known for her three-volume orchestral work for the Naxos Records label. The first of these, Merlin, conjures up the great wizard of Arthurian legend “through rich orchestral colors and powerful rhythms.” Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Daniele Rustioni.