Following the example of Rebecca Lentjes’ January feature “Top Ten Living Women Composers”, I have made my pick of women composers of the Baroque period in celebration of International Women’s Day.
Barbara Strozzi (b. Venice 1619; d. Padua 1677)
Barbara Strozzi was a renowned singer and composer in Venice in the mid-seventeenth century (historians have often described her as a courtesan but this seems debatable). Adopted (or illegitimate) daughter of Giulio Strozzi, librettist, poet and eminent member of the Venetian literary academy Incogniti, it seems her father encouraged her into a career as an independent musician, which was rare for a woman unless she was an opera singer. It helped that she was well connected and had wealthy patrons in aristocratic and literary circles.
Although little is known about her music education, her talent as a virtuosic singer was recognized by age 15. We also know that she studied composition with Francesco Cavalli, for whom Giulio later provided a libretto. In her lifetime, she published eight volumes of vocal works (mostly arias and secular cantatas), a remarkable achievement for the time. She was probably the earliest of the Baroque women composers to be rediscovered in the twentieth century, which was largely due to her published legacy. Her solo vocal music is lyrical and impassioned, with seductive melodies and often deliciously pungent harmonies.
Francesca Caccini (b.1587; d. after June 1641)
I first got to know Francesca Caccini’s music when the Brighton Early Music Festival in 2015 performed her opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola di Alcina (read my review). A lively and entertaining setting of the familiar Alcina story, the work was performed in 1625 at the palace of the Archduchess Maria Maddalena d’Austria in Florence. Francesca is generally acknowledged to be “the first woman known to have composed opera” (New Grove).
Francesca was exceptional for the time that she enjoyed a stable career as a court musician. Two factors were on her side: firstly, as the daughter of the renowned composer Giulio Caccini, she had an excellent musical education as singer and instrumentalist as well as an all-round literary education. Secondly, at the Medici court at the time, there was a unique culture of the “women’s court” under the influential Granduchess Christine de Lorraine. In the twenty years at court, she served as a singer and teacher, and composed music for at least 13 court entertainments and over 200 songs – although little of her work survives. Her vocal style is fluent and refined, with influences from Monteverdi and Peri. If anything, I think she is an excellent example that when a women composer was given the environment, she could thrive as well as her male colleagues.
Isabella Leonarda (b.1620; d. 1704)
Isabella Leonarda typifies the most common type of woman composer in the Baroque period, namely a nun who also composed. Isabella came from a wealthy family in Novara and entered the convent of San Orsola at 16, remaining for the rest of her life and rising to the rank of mother superior.
There were several other nun composers, especially in Italy, such as Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590-1662) in Bologna and Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c1678) in Milan, yet unlike so many of them whose works have been lost and forgotten, Isabella is unique in that 20 volumes (approx. 200 works) of her music were published during her lifetime. These consisted mainly of sacred music such as masses, psalm settings and latin motets which must have been composed for use at the convent. Her set of instrumental works (Op.16) is thought to be the earliest published sonatas by a woman. Have a listen.
Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (b.1665; d.1729)
Almost an exact contemporary of François Couperin, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre was a successful harpsichordist and composer in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV. She was from a musical family: her father was a harpsichord maker and also organist of a church in Ile Saint Louis, and she probably received musical training from him. After a period in her teens serving Madame de Montespan at Versailles, she married organist Marin de La Guerre (who later became organist of Sainte-Chapelle) in 1684 and thereafter occupied herself with teaching and performing, but importantly with royal blessing. Indeed, herOop.1 Les pièces de clavecin (1687) was published with permission from Louis XIV. In 1694, her only opera Céphale et Procris was performed in Paris, although it wasn’t much of a success.
Her published compositions include suites for solo harpsichord, sonatas for violin and harpsichord, trio sonatas, and sacred/secular cantatas. In particular, her sonatas are early examples of a French composer adopting the Italian style of Corelli.
Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth (b.1709; d.1758)
Frederick the Great’s great love of music and his flute playing is well known, but he was not the only one of 14 children of Frederick William I who showed great interest in music. Both Wilhelmine, his eldest sister and Anna Amalia, his youngest sister shared his great love in music, and they both composed too, although as dilettanti (as was Frederick II).
Wilhelmine, who was very close to her brother, married Margrave Friedrich of Bayreuth and the couple made the town into a lively cultural centre, rebuilding the Palace and building the Baroque style opera house (see our gallery of baroque theatres) that later attracted Wagner to the town. Her concerto for keyboard in G minor displays a strong influence of J.S. Bach.
Anna Amalia, Princess of Prussia (b.1723; d.1787)
Meanwhile, her sister Princess Anna Amalia studied the harpsichord and organ from Gottfried Hayne and later composition from Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Bach’s pupil. She became Abbess of Quedlinburg in 1754 but continued to host music soireés and collect music for her library, including those of J.S. Bach. The collection is housed now at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. Her flute sonata in F major is more gallant than Baroque in style.
For anyone interested in the lives of F. Caccini, Strozzi and de La Guerre, I recommend highly Anna Beer’s recent book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music for further reading.