The difficulty women composers have faced over the course of history surpasses my ability to imagine as it must have been in lived experience. Music, curiously enough, has remained one of the most persistent bastions of old boydom to the point that even today one scans the field straining for signs of famous female composers. For an overview of women composers by time period, check out the list (here) by Oxford Music Online. It’s not exhaustive, however — some names I consider very important are missing.
This post is my effort to give credit where credit is due to those women composers whose works have been important in my own experience of music. In that vein, I’ll discuss only women composers whose music forms a part of my own collection, so that I speak from personal experience rather than just putting together a checklist. The composers I discuss are important to me as composers because they wrote fantastic music. The fact that they were also women adds an additional layer of wonder to their accomplishment, because over the course of history being a woman who composed music has been fraught with all manner of impediments. Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own makes that point very well:
… there was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon her work. There would always have been that assertion–you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that–to protest against, to overcome. Probably for a novelist this germ is no longer of much effect; for there have been women novelists of merit. But for painters it must still have some sting in it; and for musicians, I imagine, is even now active and poisonous in the extreme. The woman composer stands where the actress stood in the time of Shakespeare. Nick Greene, I thought, remembering the story I had made about Shakespeare’s sister, said that a woman acting put him in mind of a dog dancing. Johnson repeated the phrase two hundred years later of women preaching. And here, I said, opening a book about music, we have the very words used again in this year of grace, 1928, of women who try to write music. ‘Of Mlle. Germaine Tailleferre one can only repeat Dr Johnson’s dictum concerning a woman preacher, transposed into terms of music. “Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”‘ [* A SURVEY OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC, Cecil Gray, P. 246.] So accurately does history repeat itself.
Some types of human idiocy obviously take longer than others to be thrown on the slag heap, which makes the accomplishments of the women composers before 1800 I know and love all the more remarkable and worthy of celebration.
The Middle Ages
Kassia (Constantinople, ca. 810 – ca. 865)
She must have been a feisty critter, since she used her wits to avoid marriage with the Emperor Theophilos, whom she struck as too uppity due to her trenchant repartee to his dull-witted one-liners. Thereafter she happily abandoned the marriage market, became a nun, founded a convent in Constantinople and was eventually its abbess.
An excellent article about Kassia is available here. The Wikipedia page on her is here. A recording of 18 of Kassia’s hymns by the group VocaMe on the Christophorus label is still available — this is the recording I have. A link to it on Amazon is here. The Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture has an excellent introduction to Byzantine chant available as a podcast from their website here. The claim on the cover of the CD by VocaMe is that Kassia was “the first female composer.” Can we really be sure about that? Might not some Greek woman have taken to the lyre some centuries before? Were there no Egyptian women with a fine voice and a penchant for making their own songs? I take the claim about Kassia with a large grain of salt. She is surely one of the earliest women composers whose works have been transmitted to our age, but I can’t believe she was the first woman composer. Women and music have both been around far, far too long for that to be likely.
It’s difficult to know with music from the early medieval period just how it should be performed. Documentary evidence is absent, treatises are scarce and of course there was no transmission of performance practice, only rules about what was liturgically allowed and what prohibited. Byzantine chant often has a drone underneath the melody, but the arrangements used in the recording by VocaMe sound almost like medieval organum from the European tradition. I’m not particularly bothered by the presence or lack of authenticity, but I can’t assess its degree based on knowledge of the music. Kassia’s chant melodies are robust, even athletic in some places. This is not the serene warbling of a saint, it’s the powerful expression of a champion of God. In her lifetime Kassia refused to bow to the Byzantine iconclasts, who were having their heyday headed by the selfsame Emperor Theophilos she put off. She consistently refused to obey orders to stop the reverence of icons, to the point of once being given lashes for her refusal. Her strength shows forth in her music very clearly.
Hildegard von Bingen (Germany, 1098 – 1179)
Hildegard is much better known than Kassia, although to be honest I’d put them at par with one another both as composers and as administrators and champions of their faith. There’s a good article outlining Hildegard’s many accomplishments as an abbess here at feministzine.com. She was as much a powerhouse as Kassia, they seem two peas in a pod in that regard. Her music, however, is quite different, for more reasons than just the span of two hundred years and half a world that separated the two women. Hildegard’s music is rarefied and intensely inward, it is the music of spiritual striving toward God. Since Hildegard had religious visions and wrote weighty treatises on theology, it makes sense that her music should have this other-worldly quality, for she herself was in the world but not of it, as the phrase styles it. She was formally canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI after having been revered as a saint by many over the centuries since her passing, and together with her canonization came her designation as a Doctor of the Church.
There’s so much information available on Hildegard I really need do no more than mention the name. The recordings of her music I own come from different sources. Emma Kirkby, who has recorded what seems to be everything under the sun in the area of early music, has done fine recordings of Hildegard’s music, including “A Feather On the Breath of God.” Kirkby’s voice is very well suited to Hildegard’s music, being the English sparrow she is. The group Sequentia has made a special project of recording Hildegard’s complete works and did a fantastic job of it. The recordings were issued as a set of nine CDs by Sony in 2017, so they’re easily available. Sequentia is the go-to group for Hildegard’s music, but the recordings done by the group Anonymous 4 are also well worth a listen.
Hildegard was as prolific an author as she was a composer. Her works are readily available in modern editions, there’s even a Penguin edition of selected works, and if you have a Penguin edition of your selected works in print then you can be sure you’ve hit the Big Time. If, however, you’ve been canonized and named a Doctor of the Church, having your own Penguin edition likely seems little more than icing on the cake.
The Renaissance … Oops
I come up with a blank for this period, having not a single work by any female composer. What a pity, it would be wonderful to have a set of fine, saucy madrigals by some brazen hussy, since the boys were quite busy writing about getting up to all sorts. Perhaps future research will unearth some still lost works, hiding away in some manuscript, that will bring a female voice to the list of works from the Renaissance.
Francesca Caccini (Italy, 1587 – ca. 1641)
The daughter of the well-known composer Guilio Caccini, Francesca had a busy and accomplished career as a musician (a singer, primarily), teacher and composer. The Wikipedia page on her is here. The article on Francesca at Music Academy Online (here) offers more details and is worth a read. One of the most interesting points from her biography is that by 1614 she was the highest paid musician at the Medici court in Florence. Considering the musicians floating about Italy at that point in history that’s no small achievement, since the Medici were in a position to have only the best. They were also as tight as bark on a tree, so if they shelled out handsomely for Francesca’s services she must have been very good, indeed.
The problem, as usual, is transmission. This is from the Wikipedia article:
Francesca Caccini wrote some or all of the music for at least sixteen staged works. All but La liberazione di Ruggiero and some excerpts from La Tancia and Il Passatempo published in the 1618 collection are believed lost. Her surviving scores reveal Caccini to have taken extraordinary care over the notation of her music, focusing special attention on the rhythmic placement of syllables and words, especially within ornaments, on phrasing as indicated by slurs, and on the precise notation of often very long, melodically fluid vocal melismas. Although her music is not especially notable for the expressive dissonances made fashionable by her contemporary Monteverdi, Caccini was a master of dramatic harmonic surprise: in her music it is harmony, more than counterpoint, that most powerfully communicates affect.
Why people have such difficulty keeping track of things will forever escape my understanding. Music for sixteen stage works written and all we have left to hand is the music for one? Who knows, maybe there was an archivist strike at the Medici court and they brought in scab labor who just tossed things into the bin because they couldn’t be bothered to file them properly. “Lost” is a word one comes across far too often with regard to works from early historical periods. It’s galling in the extreme, since the works that have survived show us what we’re missing. All that good stuff gone forever … but let’s not think about it, we’ll just go into a grump. 🙁
I only have two recordings of Francesca’s music. The first is “Maria, Dolce Maria” with secular and sacred songs performed by the Italian soprano Elena Cecchi Fedi. The second is “O Viva Rosa” with songs from the Primo libro delle musiche performed by Shannon Mercer. Cecchi Fedi’s voice is strident and not very nuanced, to my ears at least, but she has the chops to pull off the gorgia to very good effect. Considering that vocal acrobatics formed a key element of early Baroque practice, Cecchi Fedi’s performance gets full marks for authenticity. Mercer’s performance is very subdued by comparison with a much thinner continuo group underneath it, which gives an impression of timidity that impairs the affect, in my opinion. So there you have it, one extreme or the other — Cecchi Fedi all up in your grill or Mercer dipping her toes into the water while still unsure whether or not to take the plunge (which, by the way, she never does). Where, oh where is a recording of Francesca’s music by the like of Maria Cristina Kiehr? I have no idea why none of the vocal luminaries of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis type ever recorded Francesca’s music — it’s a great pity, but there it is.
Francesca’s opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina, has been fairly recently recorded by an Italian group under the direction of the harpsichordist Elena Sartori. It looks yummy, but I haven’t heard it yet. It’s the version I’ll go for, since the ensembles are on period instruments and the reviews are good. The page for the CD at Amazon is here.
Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (Italy, 1602 – ca. 1676)
This woman knew how to write a tune, oh yes she did. The composer she brings most to mind is Francesco Cavalli, from whom melody flowed as effortlessly as breath itself. The same gift for melody is true of Cozzolani. For all that similarity of musical temperament, no two people could be more dissimilar with regard to the lives they led. Cavalli was living it up in Venice as the darling of the opera scene there, when opera had become all the rage. Cozzolani was sequestered away in the Convent of Santa Radegonda in Milan, where she was abbess. During her lifetime she published four collections, the first of which is lost. There’s that bloody “L” word again …
There’s an excellent article on Cozzolani by Linda Maria Koldau (in English) here from the online journal Musik und Gender im Internet put out by the Hochschule fur Musik und Theater in Hamburg. Musicologist Robert Kendrick has a good piece on Cozzolani’s music and its position in the Italy of her time here, on the website Millenium of Music. In 2009 a group at the Columbia University School of Music put on a program of music by Italian nuns of the early Baroque, Cozzolani included, and in the program notes (here) one finds mention of this sorry state of affairs:
The 17th century saw the first widespread publication of music by women composers. Somewhat ironically, most of these composers—whose music was publicly praised—were nuns who were cloistered away from public display. Their reception in recent years mirrors this situation: music by Chiara Maria Cozzolani, Raffaella Aleotti, and Isabella Leonarda has experienced a significant resurgence in performance and recording, yet this music remains marginal, performed primarily by a small number of pioneering women performers who specialize in women’s music. Nuns’ music is problematic in scholarship as well; as Thomasin Lamay has shown, music by early modern women is usually dismissed as simple. Suzanne Cusick writes that “a composer’s experience of difference will show up—if it does at all—in a work’s eccentricity.” There is indeed a significant difference between the musical language of these women and that of their male contemporaries. Aleotti, Cozzolani, and Leonarda consistantly break rules of harmony, voice leading, and text setting, as if they were consciously attempting to carve out a new, disobediant musical direction.
That hits the nail on the head, I think. At this stage of the game Caccini and Cozzolani should be as much household names as are Monteverdi and Frescobaldi. As for recordings, I have performances by two different groups. The first is “I Vespri Natalizi” performed by Cappella Artemisia, a women’s group that has championed music by the Italian nuns of Cozzolani’s period. The rendition is very good and I’d heartily recommend the recording as an introduction to Cozzolani’s music. The ensemble Magnificat under the direction of Warren Stewart has undertaken a recording of Cozzolani’s complete works (website here). I have only one of their recordings, the “Messa Paschale,” and while competent it’s not very thrilling. Cozzolani’s music is extremely dramatic, it demands boldness and panache on the part of the performers in order to bring to life the excitement the music holds in its structure. Since the writing is for women’s voices, the continuo instrumentation needs to be substantial to give depth to the tonal mass. The performances by Cappella Artemisia are much better in that regard. The Magnificat ensemble is based in San Francisco, and that’s a large part of the problem, I suspect. Did Cozzolani write for a group in an auditorium lacking reverberation with one archlute and a piddly chamber organ with one 8′ flute stop as the continuo group? Of course not. She wrote for a large church with a proper Italian organ and its meaty, breathy principal stops. The Cappella Artemisia performs in a church with a proper organ, so the continuo group has some oomph to it, which makes all the difference. Americans never pay attention to the sonic end of things when they do early music, in my experience. They’re too busy being scholarly. But the proof of the pudding is in the music, not in the liner notes, and hearing the anemic continuo in the Magnificat recordings sets my teeth on edge. It wants substance. But I won’t complain too bitterly, since at least it brings that particular work of Cozzolani’s to ear where otherwise there would be only silence.
Donne Baroche (Roberta Invernizzi, soprano, with Bizzarrie Armoniche)
This is an anthology of works by several women composers from the Baroque, not all of them from the early Baroque. I mention it only because it contains works by three composers whose music has barely been recorded: Antonia Bembo (no jokes from the peanut gallery about what happens if you replace the “e” with an “i,” thank you very much 🙂 ), Rosa Giacinta Badalla and Bianca Maria Meda. I’m not a fan of Invernizzi’s voice, she sounds to me like she should be singing 19th century opera. To much bombast and too much vibrato for my taste. But she’s made quite a name for herself as a soprano doing early music, so mine is decidedly a minority opinion.
Antonia Padoani Bembo (ca. 1640 – ca. 1720) was a Venetian by birth but ended up in France under the patronage of no less than Louis XIV. She studied with Francesco Cavalli, so no wonder she was good at her trade. She made a name for herself as a musician as a young woman, received an education befitting the aristocrat she was, but married one Lorenzo Bembo in 1659 and that was the end of the music career. Soon she had three kids to take care of, so no more nights out at the opera. Hubby disappeared for two years to be a soldier in Crete (1667-1669) and upon his return made it clear that he was less than keen on the wife he’d left behind. Antonia stuck it out until 1677 when she hightailed it to Paris, having got an in with the French court through one of the musicians she worked with in the good old days. She did quite well for herself there. Louis XIV gave her a pension that allowed her to work as a composer while living in a religious community for women (la Petite Union Chrétienne des Dames de Saint Chaumont). Her works are preserved in six manuscript volumes in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. An American group, La Donna Musicale, has recorded the Seven Psalms of David in two volumes. I haven’t heard it and will probably not bother, since the group is American and we know what happens with Americans and early Baroque music …
Rosa Giacinta Badalla (ca. 1660 – ca. 1710) was a Benedictine nun at Santa Radegonda in Milan, like Cozzolani. She published one collection of motets for solo voice and continuo during her lifetime. Robert Kendrick, a musicologist at the University of Chicago, opines that it is “remarkable among Milanese solo motet books … for its patent vocal viruosity, motivic originality and self-assured compositional technique.” Let’s hope some fabulous European group records the whole thing in some luscious church in Italy — how about the Basilica di Santa Barbara in Mantua, with that stunning Antegnati organ? Fingers crossed …
Bianca Maria Meda (c. 1665 – c. 1700) was a Benedictine nun at the convent of San Martino del Leano in Pavia. What was up with those Benedictine nuns, anyway? Was outstanding musical talent one of the requirements for professing vows? You gotta wonder … Anyway, the collection she published in Bologna in 1691 has the title Mottetti a 1, 2, 3, e 4 voci, con violini which fairly makes the mouth water. Again, let’s hope some European group records the whole book in some fab Italian church. Why not San Petronio in Bologna? Everthing sounds better with several seconds of reverberation. 🙂
Isabella Leonarda (Italy, 1620-1704)
With Isabella we have yet another nun on our hands, but an Ursuline this time, not a Benedictine, which just goes to show that you can’t hog the show all to yourself. She came from a wealthy family in Novara, entered the Collegio di Sant’Orsola in that city at the age of 16 and remained there for the rest of her life. This astonishing tidbit comes from the Wikipedia page on her (here):
Leonarda was a highly regarded composer in her home city, but her music was apparently little known in other parts of Italy. Her published compositions span a period of 60 years, beginning with the dialogues of 1640 and concluding with the Motetti a voce sola of 1700. Leonarda is credited with producing nearly two hundred compositions during that period, though her only works appearing before 1670 were the dialogues printed by Gasparo Casati. It appears that she was over the age of 50 before she started composing regularly, and it was at that time that she began publishing the works that we know her for today.
Obviously you can’t keep a good nun down, not even when she reaches retirement age. The only recording I have is of the Suonata duodecima, a sonata for solo violin and continuo. It’s fantastic. Since a violin can go berserk with the instrumental equivalent of vocal melismas, it’s like listening to fireworks. Next to nothing of her output has been recorded. Once again we must cross our fingers hoping that some fine European ensemble takes up the gauntlet thrown down by her reputation and the excellence of her works and records everything we have from her pen.
Barbara Strozzi (Italy, 1619 – 1677)
No question of nun stuff here, Barbara Strozzi was a babe. Born in Venice as the illegitimate daughter of the poet Giulio Strozzi and one of his female help, Barbara was adopted by her father and given the best education possible including study with Francesco Cavalli. Some scandal was talked about her, but people will always talk and what is truth and what is fabrication is difficult to tell. In any case, she was not sequestered in a convent, that much is abundantly clear. She had four children but never married, so it’s not surprising people talked scandal. Music Academy Online has a good article about her here which gives ample biographical details and discusses her musical output.
She was a first-class composer in addition to having a voice that garnered praise across Venice. Perhaps because of her colorful life and the fact that she was in the thick of things in Venice, not stuck in some convent out in the provinces, Strozzi has hit the Big Time with regard to modern recordings. All but one of the collections she published are secular so she appeals to the general populace rather than just to the church crowd. Someone who lived outside the bounds of convention and gained such a high reputation for her vocal and compositional talents obviously attracts performers looking for a woman composer to latch on to. You’ll search in vain for full CDs of music by Isabella Leonarda, but if you’re after music by Barbara Strozzi you’re in luck.
I have four CDs of Strozzi’s music. One of them, a recording of sacred pieces from Sacri musicali affetti, libro I, op. 5 (1655), is sung by Maria Cristina Kiehr, one of the big guns of early music of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis persuasion. The sacred pieces Kiehr recorded are — as one might expect — less florid in their manner than the secular music Strozzi wrote. The secular music is a workout for any soprano, requiring a vocal range, a level of agility and skill in dramatic expression that must raise the eyebrows of many singers when they see the page for the first time. I have three recordings of Strozzi’s secular music for soprano, one by the English soprano Catherine Bott, one by the Canadian ensemble Poiesis, and one by the Italian soprano Emanuela Galli with Ensemble Galilei. They repeat to some degree what appear to have become “chestnuts” from Strozzi’s output — e.g. “Tradimento” and “Lagrime mie.” With regard to works like “Lagrime mie” (“My Tears”) it should be remembered that there’s a fine line between effective dramatic affect and tacky melodrama. More than one performance within my experience has gone over that cliff. So stay on your toes, kids, we don’t want to be maudlin now, do we.
The recording by Bott (“To the Unknown Goddess”) is competent, but I come away with the feeling that I’ve just heard a concert at the Chelsea Flower Show given by someone in a pastel frock with a hat of the type the Queen is wont to wear. One is perhaps edified, but not brought to the edge of one’s seat, which I’m sure occurred when Strozzi herself performed the pieces. Similarly, the recordings by Galli and Poiesis (the soprano is Cristiana Presutti) are competent enough but one feels that much of the potential the music holds goes missing. Galli’s voice struggles to embrace the wide range Strozzi demands. Presutti has an operatic voice that would work for I Pagliacci but seems misplaced singing early Baroque music because it lacks the ability to create texture by rapid contrast in the vocal line.
I’m not a singer and I shouldn’t be shooting my mouth off about vocal technique, but I do know that the training for singing early music differs significantly from training to be an opera diva. If you listen to Kiehr’s recording you notice immediately that her voice in some instances sounds like an instrument rather than a person. I will remember to my dying day the first time that quality of voice struck me — from a recording of the Symphoniae Sacrae by Heinrich Schütz done by Musicalische Compagney in 1994. Jan Kobow, the sopranist, sounded like a clarion trumpet in a way that sent chills down my spine. The human voice as instrument, that was the revelation. Kobow’s pure, clear voice suited the dense polyphonic texture of the music perfectly because it brought instrumental clarity to the vocal line. Kiehr’s voice has something of that same nature. Her voice joins with the ensemble so that all the parts, solo and continuo, blend together to create a synergy. It’s not just about a woman singing and some people playing instruments in the background as accompaniment. Continuo players are people, too, and everything counts, let’s not forget that cardinal point.
Strozzi has developed something of a star quality in the past decade so I expect we’ll find more recordings coming out. Somebody ought to suggest to Miriam Feuersinger that she should record a set of Strozzi pieces. Now that would bring me to the edge of my seat …
Camilla de Rossi (Italy, fl. 1707 – 1710)
For someone who composed four oratorios for the Imperial Court at Vienna, you’d think something would have sifted down the centuries in the way of biographical information. Instead we find that nobody knows anything about Rossi. I wrack my brain trying to imagine the historical processes that could lead to total ignorance of someone who was commissioned by the Emperor of the Habsburg Empire to compose oratorios for performance at the Imperial Court, but I just bog down into “DOES NOT COMPUTE.” Pardon me while I find the Excedrin …
This dire biographical situation is mirrored in the state of recording for Rossi’s music. I have two of the oratorios, the best performance being by Weser Renaissance (hard core Schola Cantorum Basiliensis types) of Il Sacrifizio di Abramo, which appears to be out of print — what a pity! The other recording is of Sant’Alessio done by Musica Fiorita, which is still available on Amazon. The voices are less than ideal, I fear … but lest I be judged too picky I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
The music is excellent, as one would expect of something commissioned by an emperor for an imperial court. Rossi is very good with a tune and uses the accompanying instrumental parts to good effect. It’s a great pity that only one of the oratorios is currently available, but yet again we’ll keep our fingers crossed in the hope that some enterprising European group will record the complete works.
Maria Antonia, Princess of Bavaria, Electress of Saxony (Germany, 1724 – 1780)
One hardly expects to come across royalty in a list of women composers — aristocrats, yes, but royalty? Whoda thunkit. She belongs in the same class as Kassia, Hildegard and Cozzolani because she was a power broker as well as a composer: she was regent for her son, Frederick Augustus I, from 1763 to 1768. That takes the title “Supermom” to a whole different level.
Her musical formation was first-class, as the Wikipedia article on her (here) makes quite clear:
While in Munich, Maria Antonia studied music with renowned opera composers Giovanni Battista Ferrandini and Giovanni Porta. After moving to Dresden she continued her studies with Nicola Porpora and Johann Adolph Hasse. Indeed, opera played a major part throughout Maria Antonia’s life. The court of Munich celebrated her birth with a performance of the opera Amadis de Grecia (Pietro Torri). Her betrothal to Friedrich Christian was likewise celebrated with opera performances, including Hasse’s La Spartana generosa, sets by Bibiena, and Gluck’s opera Le nozze d’Ercole e d’Ebe. Shortly after moving to Dresden, she penned the libretto for Hasse’s oratorio, La conversione di Sant’Agostino (1750), in addition to her composing work. Her own compositional style shows a strong affinity for that of Hasse, especially his conception of opera seria. She also performed actively as a singer and keyboard player in court performances, including leading roles in both of her operas. In addition to her two operas, a number of arias, a pastorale, intermezzos, meditations and motets are attributed to her.
Although published using the pseudonym ETPA, standing for Ermelinda Talea Pastorella Arcadia, Maria Antonia’s operas were successfully published by Breitkopf and enjoyed warm reviews both in their premieres at the court theater, which she sang in, and also throughout other European cities. Music critic Charles Burney praised her opera and her singing in his 1773 work, The present state of music in Germany, the Netherlands and United Provinces. Also of note, the philosopher and music theorist, Antonio Eximeno y Pujades included an aria from Talestri in his 1774 treatise Dell’ origine e delle regole della musica, putting her in the company of five other selected composers: Palestrina, Nanini, Clari, Pergolesi, and Corelli. Although her music is treated somewhat more broadly with less musical analysis, the entire treatise is used to model compositional techniques, implying a high regard for her work by Antonio Eximeno y Pujades, and presumably other contemporaries.
Not a bad outcome for pursuing a hobby while you have nine kids and stand in for five years for your son the King until he reaches majority. As I said, it goes way beyond Supermom.
Since she married into the Saxon court she landed in Dresden, which had one of the best court orchestras in Europe at the time. Johann Adolph Hasse was Oberkapellmeister there between 1744 and 1763 and was massively famous as one of the foremost opera composers in all of Europe. The musical environment of the Dresden court seems made to order for Maria Antonia with her love of opera and the itch to compose.
She wrote two operas of which only one has been recorded: Talestri, Regina delle Amazzoni (Talestri, Queen of the Amazons). Now there’s a theme a woman with her own mind can sink her teeth into … The recording I have was done by the Batzdorfer Hofkapelle and appears to be out of print now, so nothing by Maria Antonia is currently available in the marketplace. That state of affairs puzzles me, since the music she wrote is so accessible to a broad audience, so tuneful, so easy on the ear. As so often with women composers before 1800, all we can do is wait with fingers crossed hoping that some ensemble will take it upon themselves to give these works the performances they deserve.
Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre
A fine portrait of Elizabeth was painted by Francois de Troy, so let’s have a look:
As elegant and intelligent as she looks in the painting, so is her music. The Wikipedia page on her gives ample biographical information (here). Even after she married the organist Marin de la Guerre and had three kids she continued her musical activity, so she also deserves the title Supermom.
This snippet from the Wikipedia page seems especially meaningful:
Jacquet de La Guerre was one of the few well-known female composers of her time, and unlike many of her contemporaries, she composed in a wide variety of forms. Her talent and achievements were acknowledged by Titon du Tillet, who accorded her a place on his Mount Parnassus when she was only 26 years old, next to Lalande and Marais and directly below Lully. A quote from Titon du Tillet describes her
“marvellous facility for playing preludes and fantasies off the cuff. Sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners.” (Le Parnasse Français, 1732)
For those without a background in 18th century French music (it was my specialty as a harpsichordist), Titon du Tillet was the Grove Dictionary of his day and getting kudos like that from him meant you were definitely a Big Deal. At long last, official credit given where credit is due to a woman composer during her lifetime. For Elizabeth to be placed just under Lully, the head music honcho for Louis XIV and a very Big Deal indeed, is completely justified.
I have three recordings of music by Elizabeth, although many more are currently available as a search on Amazon will show. “Le Sommeil d’Ulisse” is a collection of cantatas and instrumental pieces, the cantatas sung by soprano Isabelle Desrochers with Les Voix Humaines, the go-to gals for viola da gamba music, among the instrumentalists. There is a right way and a wrong way to do French Baroque music, and they do it the right way. All the elegance and subtlety of the vocal pieces is where it should be and the instrumental pieces are delivered with a happy combination of verve and suaveness. The opera “Ophale et Procris” done by Musica Fiorita directed by Daniela Dolci is also in my collection. The music is superb but the recording leaves me biting my tongue because of the voices. Once again, there’s too much I Pagliacci and not enough Baroque for my taste. You’d think because I’m a harpsichordist I’d own Elizabeth Farr’s recordings of the harpsichord suites on the Naxos label, but when it comes to harpsichord music I’d rather play it than listen to it — go figure. So I know the recordings are out there and would recommend them, having had a listen on YouTube. Elizabeth’s instrumental sonatas are superb, I hope someone records all of them using period instruments and period performance practice. Once again, fingers crossed …
So, there we have it, a brief foray into the world of women composers in my own collection. As you move into the 19th and 20th centuries there are many more composers to discover, of course. I’ve just listened to “Carillons Mystiques,” a piano piece by the 19th century French composer Melanie Bonis — absolutely gorgeous stuff. But I’ll leave things according to the plan I set for myself and stop at the year 1800. Let’s hope that as time moves forward more fine performances of works by women composers from all periods grace our auditory canals. The composers deserve every bit of the attention and we deserve to hear the products of their craft.