As one of the most prolific composers of the seventeenth century, Barbara Strozzi was not only a renowned soprano, but a profoundly accomplished and empowered woman, who forged a career for herself as a composer of cantatas and arias. Her 400th Birthday offers an opportunity to explore the life and works of one of the first women to openly characterise herself as a composer, and to be accepted as such, in what was an oppressive and problematic social environment for women.
Strozzi was born in Venice on 6th August 1619, to Giulio Strozzi, and his long-term servant and mistress, Isabella Griega. Giulio played a key role in setting his illegitimate daughter on the path towards a musical career, encouraging and including her in his academic activities, especially those which were musically inclined. He co-founded an academic movement called the Academia degli Unisoni, an offshoot of the distinguished Academia degli Incogniti, which focussed on musical activities and debated musical topics. Taking place in the Strozzis’ home, Barbara acted as a master of ceremonies, directing debates, giving vocal performances, and ultimately, having the last word. These types of academic societies were key to Renaissance and Baroque culture, as they provided intellectual and financial support to the arts, and therefore were frequently responsible for dictating cultural, artistic fashions.
Giulio Strozzi arranged for Barbara to be taught by Francesco Cavalli, himself a student of Claudio Monteverdi, who was a prominent composer of opera and other dramatic works. Giulio was a great admirer of music, and wrote libretti for composers such as Monteverdi, Cavalli, Manelli and Sacrati. It is no wonder that this passion for music lead him to encourage his daughter’s talents, although the degree to which he included her in musical activities in an academic, intellectual context is remarkable.
The liberal approach of her father enabled Barbara Strozzi to establish herself as an autonomous and serious composer, although doing so was not without its risks. Her female contemporaries were performers; Prima Donnas of the operatic stage, whose status as actress-singers at times gave them little more than aesthetic significance in the public eye, and generated comparatively little cause for concern in the predominantly conservative society. Some of these singers also composed, but none made a name for themselves through their compositions.
Due to the controversy of Barbara Strozzi’s musical activities and her interaction with men in academic circles, it has been frequently suggested by her contemporaries and by recent scholars that she was a courtesan. In 1637, eight satires were anonymously published, which criticised the Academia degli Unisoni, with comments made about Barbara, including; "It is a fine thing to distribute the flowers after having already surrendered the fruit”, and "to claim and to be [chaste] are very different”.
In the period of 1640-1646, Barbara became a single mother, bearing three children by Giovanni Paolo Vidman. She later gave birth to a fourth child, the father of whom is unknown. Her status as a single mother has propagated the courtesan narrative, as has a portrait of the composer by Bernardo Strozzi (no relation of Barbara), which features Barbara with a nude breast, alongside a viola da gamba and sheet music (indicating her ability to perform and accompany her own music). Whether or not Barbara was a courtesan cannot yet be determined, but it does not alter or undermine her musical achievement.
Strozzi’s exposure to the academic sphere inspired her to go down the route of composition, and she shrewdly chose to focus primarily on one genre of works. So far, research has uncovered over eighty-two works composed by Strozzi, the vast majority of which are short, secular songs set to poetry with a consistent theme: unrequited love. This theme is approached in a variety of ways: with humour, irony, and solemnity, depending on the piece. She composed cantatas and arias, which vary in form and length, clearly showing an attempt to play with different structures. Her vocal ability as a soprano seems to have dictated the music she wrote, as all but a few works are for, or include, a soprano voice. Her pieces are lyrical, emphasising the power and diversity achievable with the soprano register, with long, melismatic passages giving the performer plenty of opportunity to show off. She added dynamics, tempo markings and a plenitude of ornamentation such as trills, tremolos and runs, suggesting that Strozzi was keen to show the singer how to best to exhibit their skills.
A particular example of this is “Appena il sol”from Opus 7, Diporti di Euterpre (1659), which contains numerous markings and instructions from Strozzi, as well as exhibiting the long melismas which show off the soprano voice to its fullest.
Although Strozzi composes in the seconda prattica style, which puts emphasis on music being secondary to the words and emotions it is expressing, she shows an affinity for choosing short passages of text to set her music to. Her use of text is often repetitive rather than expansive, as can be seen within her strophic arias and their repeated choruses. Although typical seconda prattica techniques such as word painting are used to emphasise certain lyrics, her works indulge the singer’s abilities, rejecting the narrative voice adopted by her contemporaries, in favour of a more self-expressive one. She deals with the inherent drama of her theme: the agony of unrequited love, by using the voice to truly expand on the feelings expressed in the lyrics, with her lyric-less portions of melody creating just as much, if not more, emotional impact upon the listener. The aria “L’eraclito amoroso”, from Opus 2, Cantate, ariette e dueti (1651), exemplifies this repetitive use of text and expressive, lyric-less vocal melismas to create a significant emotional impact.
Her attention to detail, as well as the fact that almost all of her works were short cantatas and arias, provides a stark contrast to the work of her teacher Cavalli, and the work of her other contemporaries. Whilst opera was an extremely popular phenomenon, demand for printed books of works which could be performed in the home were also very popular. Most composers attempted to supply both dramatic and domestic markets, as well as writing sacred music, but Strozzi focussed her attention on producing her Opuses, which were monographic collections of musical works for general, domestic use. Appealing to the domestic market, Strozzi was able to see eight of these Opuses, consisting entirely of her own compositions, through the press.
Unlike composers who belonged to a particular court or patron, Strozzi was not required to churn out music for particular occasions or at the whim of an employer. She was able to perfect her own works at her own pace, and ensure that they were all printed, avoiding the ephemerality of many court composer’s outputs. Although she was not able to rely on a consistent salary, she managed to earn enough to support herself, her children, and for a time, her ailing parents. She dedicated her works to a range of high-ranking, European patrons, such as the Duchess of Mantua and King Ferdinand of Austria, implying a high level of renown and success.
Barbara died in November 1677 after travelling to Padua. We can only trace her career as far as her last published set of cantatas and arias in 1664, but in the final thirteen years of her life, Strozzi may have composed several works which were not published, or were lost.
Barbara Strozzi’s music demonstrates her impressive knowledge of the soprano voice, and expresses her passion for vocal music, cultivated by her supportive father. Her exposure to the academic societies of Venice allowed her to flourish in an environment which was hostile toward women in her position, and her shrewd approach to her compositions enabled her to create and perfect music which was not only popular, but commercially saleable. In doing this, Strozzi created a musical legacy which has lasted over three centuries, long outliving the works of many of her contemporaries.
© Annabelle Page (2019)
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