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Luminous women of the Baroque

In their own time, composers such as Barbara Strozzi, Isabella Leonarda and Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre were highly celebrated. But when they died, their reputations faded with them – until now. Kate Holden
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The luscious, luminous 17th century was both a wonderful and a dreadful time to be a woman composer and musician.

It was splendid because a woman could be the most prolific, one of the most innovative and celebrated musical figures of her society, as were Barbara Strozzi and Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre in the worlds of Venice and Versailles. They could be actively sheltered in creative privilege, as was Isabella Leonarda, a renowned composer and nun in Lombardy who offered her music to the religious community and laity for the burnishing of faith.

The reputations of these women repute were enormous, their art delighted in, their patrons pleased. They played to duchesses, humble sisters in Christ, fops, intellectuals, archbishops and kings; they taught noble proteges and sang lyrics they had written themselves accompanied by their own compositions. They commanded respect that their sisters could only envy.

It was also one of many awful times to be a woman musician, because almost all of their art was soon obliterated. Much of their work was lost forever, and their names came close to extinction. Their music was loud, full, rich and defiant: and then it was silenced.

Strozzi, de La Guerre and Leonarda all had the good fortune to be part of a historical instant when the music of Italy and France was surging and flashing in bold flares of innovation. Each claimed titles of superlative achievement: the most productive, the “first woman to…”; the pioneer, no matter what sex, of a musical form. De La Guerre staged the first opera by a French woman. Barbara Strozzi published eight collections of her songs, more music in print than anyone else at the time. From the effacement of a convent, Leonarda was Strozzi’s peer in publishing.

More, each furthered musical evolution. As with women of our time, they had to go earlier, harder and better than men. Women of the 17th century seized opportunities, found sisterly support in courts and convents and wrote for female audiences and for female musicians. The stories of the three women featured in this program exemplify a brilliant moment when a few dazzling figures pushed their luck and found success. Each woman found herself in one of the most exciting, valued and prestigious scenes of the baroque era, amid the clamour of a gorgeous music made for princes and popes but also, overwhelmingly, for and by real people.

While figures like Claudio Monteverdi and John Dowland can seem impressively austere in their black jerkins and dour male melancholy, women like de La Guerre, Leonarda and Strozzi were at once powerful, sorrowful, successful, and very mortal. Their exquisite music remains, but in their vanished lifetimes they were also mothers, lovers, leaders, mentors and insecurely-employed jobbing artists, raising children and forging careers amid war, plague, court intrigues, religious contention, the culture and wars of the Counter Reformation, and all the other extravagant frenzies of 17th century Europe. With strong bonds to their childhood families and challenges in their own, these women are recognisable as humans with biographies. They were working women, complicated, poignant and intriguing – perhaps even more so than their stern male contemporaries.

They emerged from conditions prescribed by men, but their talent soon surpassed such subordination. Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre in France and Barbara Strozzi in Venice were the cherished daughters of musical masters, raised in salons and musical clans and projected into the professional world by their fathers.  Leonarda (born Isabella Calegari in 1620) was from a noble and cultured family, and she too obediently following her pariarch’s directions.

De le Guerre, born in Paris in 1665 into a family of master instrument builders and musicians, was chosen at the age of five by the Sun King Louis XIV himself to perform as a prodigy at Versailles as la petite merveille (“the small wonder”) and “the marvel of our century”. Educated at court and a favourite of maîtresse-en-titre Madame de Montespan, De La Guerre worked at the very heart of the French royal court, protégée –  literally, protected one – of the most powerful woman there.

Strozzi, born earlier in 1619, was also a treasured daughter although, unlike the wealthy Élisabeth, she was illegitimate. She was ”adopted” by her poet father, who raised her amid several groups of creative intellectuals he founded or joined, including the Accademia degli Incogniti, which can be credited with the innovation and popularising of what became known as opera. Among its poets and philosophers was Claudio Monteverdi. Strozzi herself, a handsome young woman enjoying the best of a Venice still in its Golden Age, debuted as an adolescent when she sang informally at Incogniti meetings, where the composer Nicolò Fontei called her “the most kind and virtuosic damsel, Signora Barbara”. When her father founded a sub-branch called the Unisoni, Strozzi hosted and performed. She could accompany her own voice on lute or theorbo.

Female presence in such meetings was rare, and there were slurs on her chastity. Rumours spread that she was a courtesan; one account says she was raped by a nobleman, but this may have been a strange euphemism to cover her longterm relationship and parenthood with him, a married man. There is an extant portrait of her with one breast uncovered, holding a viola da gamba with duet music and a violin nearby. She is blushing but her gaze is steady, and perhaps is shown as an incarnation of Flora.  As her reputation as a singer grew, she was called la virtuosissima cantatrice, “the greatest virtuoso singer”. But soon her career turned to composition.

Isabella Leonarda was very different. Born a year after Strozzi in nearby Piedmont into high-status establishment clan, she was donated in adolescence, like her five sisters, to an Ursuline convent. She was to remain there for the rest of her life, rising over her long life to the rank of superiora, as well as magistra musicae, a teaching role. Convents were common residences for both regular and noble daughters, often endowed by powerful women. They were  known for their cultivation of female talent in music, where it was made by, for and about women. The value of this music was cherished beyond the walls, where its origin with “sacred virgins” was especially respected. Leonarda appears to have been mentored by Elizabeth Casata, an organist in the convent, and  Gasparo Casati, perhaps her husband, who published two of her early works amongst his own.

In time, encouraged by the security of her small world, Leonarda would compose much religious music: motets and sacred concerti, Latin dialogues, magnificats, masses, litanies, responsories, psalm settings. She innovated boldly, using vernacular texts, textless instrumental music in solo sonata for violin and continuo. Her opus 16, the eleven sonata da chiesa, was extraordinarily the first published instrumental works by a woman. We know very little about her, or what provoked her ambition, but over 60 years she created in her rest hours nearly 200 compositions and 20 volumes of music, making her, like Strozzi, one of the most prolific women composers of the time.

Publication was unusual: women’s music was commonly hemmed in the live and domestic realms and rarely preserved, much less sold. Strozzi produced eight volumes, each of the seven numbered editions dedicated to a different noble in hope of patronage, although this didn’t seem to result in secure employment. Strozzi, the supposed harlot, was acclaimed in her time as one of Europe’s finest singers and most prolific composers. She had three children to her partner, a patron of the arts, and lived with her parents until their deaths. She is thought to have supported herself with composing and of course was busy with caregiving; having a professional career under the circumstances seems extraordinary. She died in obscurity at 58 without leaving a will and further unpublished music is scattered across European collections.

Her two daughters, like Leonarda, went into a convent, and a son into a monastery; The last, lost volume of her work was apparently dedicated to the Duke of Mantua, but by 1665 the court that had cultivated Monteverdi had lost its lustre. And envy could bring injury. Strozzi had written plaintively, as a young woman, in the preface of her Opus 1, Il primo libro de’ madrigali her hopes for the work, “which I, as a woman, all too ardently send forth into the light… so that under your Oak of Gold it may rest secure from the lightning bolts of slander prepared for it”. One wonders whether it was female or male malevolence she most dreaded; certainly she struggled with calumny from the first appearance of her talent. Che si può fare, “what can you do?”, begins her aria: “The stars, intractable, have no pity… I must suffer, I must sigh, in order to eternalise my trials…”

De La Guerre had far better fortune. At Versailles she wrote most of her first works for the Sun King himself, then in 1684 at the age of 19 married a fellow musician and moved back to Paris, where she was soon teaching and giving concerts to high praise. By her mid-20s she was ranked along Lully, Lalande and Marais by chronicler of the court Titon du Tillet, who mentioned how she could improvise for hours with preludes and fantasies, “in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners”.

Three years after her marriage, when another woman might have been buried (literally or figuratively) by childbearing, she published a rare set of harpsichord pieces, one of the first printed in France that century. This included her famous pioneering unmeasured preludes and was followed by ballet scores and, then, like Caccini, an opera, Céphale et Procris.Written in 1694, it’s claimed as the first opera written by a woman in France. But French audiences, cautious about the form and its innovations, wanted only a few performances, and this was the end of her efforts in that form.

Ten years after this humiliation, de La Guerre was devastated by the deaths of her husband and 10-year-old son, as well as both her parents and her brother. Afterwards she restrained herself to performance, often concerts in her own home, and the development of her works on the sonata. This was an Italian form developed in preceding decades by Leonarda, and she continued to challenge the purity of the French styles with her interest in the rival tradition as a pioneer in particular of the trio sonata. She was exceptional in composing across a medley of forms, including pastorale en musique which was, as she wrote to Louis, “something that no one of my sex has attempted”. She was also among the first to write in the form of accompanied harpsichord works and later took up the Italian form of the cantata, beloved by Strozzi. Her last published works were collections of cantatas both secular and sacred.

Her Harpsichord Suite No. 3 in A minor, included in her debut Pièces de clavecin published at the age of 22, includes one of her famous “unmeasured preludes”, in which the bars and time signature are not indicated, while notes are left whole, meaning that the duration of each note is decided by the performer. The concept, enjoying the sense of the prelude as a renegade “warm-up”, was not invented by de La Guerre –  it probably emerged from Renaissance lutenists,as evoked in the terms used in the 17th century, style lute or les choses luthées, and was popularised in France by Louis Couperin in the 1650s – but it was bold. De La Guerre’s printed work flows across the measures like waves on a shore, undulating supply and confidently through their arpeggios and shifting dominants. It’s too tempting a metaphor: she pushes past constraints, she over-runs formal limits, she recoheres harmony and meaning: the form is expanded, not broken, and the music continues, uninhibited, liberated.

“You never spurned my youthful offerings,” she wrote shyly to the king in 1707. “My slender talents have since grown…” When his great-grandson Louis XV survived smallpox she dedicated her last known work, a Te Deum of 1721: the bonds of that royal court stayed strong. Within a decade, she died in Paris. She had been known for her ferocious talent, her strong and resilient character, and her devotion to music and a musical career in a period when a woman making music for anything other than diversion seemed a small wonder. In 1729, the year of her death, a medal was made in her honour inscribed with the proud boast, Aux grands musiciens j’ay dispute le prix, a proud boast: “with the great musicians I competed for the prize.”

Strozzi was likewise a pusher of form, said to have used irregular barring and daring to add discordant clashing notes for emphasis, drawing out dissonance and establishing uncommon harmonies. Her instinct for lyrics – often her own – and the human voice meant her experiments with cantata used the combination of recitative and  a single instrument to gorgeously extend its potential and execution. Her aria Che si puo fare is one example; Amor dormiglione leaps with playful teasing, its lyrics prodding a dozy Cupid, its melodies contrasting a full octave range in the soprano line and the ease of a somnolent basso continuo. Strozzi was lucky because her manuscripts were published and conserved, so that scholars could resuscitate her voice 400 years after her lifetime, and the virtuosissima cantatrice might entertain us now.

Leonarda’s Sonata for 2 violins is from her Opus 16, the first female work of sonatas and one of only two works by Italian women in instrumental rather than vocal form, which nevertheless demonstrates the intricate harmonies and plaiting of melody she would have enjoyed in the polyphonic vocal work associated with convent music since Hildegard of Bingen. Improvised ornamentation was one of the perquisites of polyphony, usually supported by very formal structure. Leonarda eschews the traditional alternation of slow and fast movements, using up to 13 in Sonata 4 of the collection, and including two refrains in No. 10. Her portrait shows a narrow, slightly sardonic face, wise under a wimple, expressive in its silence, the eyes just a little amused.

These women shone in their lifetimes, but when they died their musical legacy quickly began to fade. Leonarda’s work – unlike Strozzi’s which was sent to various Italian courts – was little known outside her native Novara. But her legacy was kept alive just a little longer when the musicologist and collector Sebastien de Brossard gained some of her works in France around the time of her death at the end of the 17th century. “All the works of this illustrious and incomparable Isabella Leonarda are so beautiful,” he wrote, “so gracious, so brilliant and at the same time so learned and so wise, that my great regret is not having them all.”

The following century ushered in the classical era, which returned music firmly to the grip of men. Even with 20th century rediscoveries of female artists, risk-averse orchestras and ensembles hesitated to include now-unknown composers in the repertoire. Perhaps it’s only in the past decade or so that glances have been cast back into the annals of baroque and these gleaming illuminated pages reopened.

With its long commitment to including the diverse and the exceptional, the ACO now presents this program to deliver a baroque that reaches beyond the dainty,  solemn or sacred classics we expect. Here we can encounter the music of real people – songs of the human soul and the stuff of sweaty dreams. And among them is the work of extraordinary women who in their own time were celebrated for their talent as much as their sex.