discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Too sexy for church?

Urban myths start like this. A smiling, earnest young man (possibly connected to the church in which I am sitting, possibly not, impossible to tell, but that’s all part of the modern Anglican way, because we don’t want to put people off, do we?) is introducing a lunchtime concert of religious music in the heart of the City of London. The featured composer is Barbara Strozzi. The young man offers us an anecdote. He has it on good authority that the Handel Festival had rejected a similar programme because it was – pause – ‘too sexy for church’. It’s a great line, and there’s now no doubt in the audience that right here, right now, at St Stephen’s Walbrook, we can handle too sexy.

It’s a great line, and might even be true, but once again the shadow of the courtesan is being used to sex up the dossier.

I was at St Stephen’s Walbrook to hear Ursula’s Arrow ( play four works by Strozzi, interlaced with a couple of instrumental pieces by her contemporaries. It was thrilling, rare stuff and Sarah Dacey and C N Lester Sarah Dacey C N Lester  gave compelling performances. The four pieces were taken from the only religious collection published by Strozzi, her opus 5 of 1655, which she dedicated from ‘the motives of my heart’ to Anna de Medici, the Archduchess of Innsbruck, here pictured with a cute dog.

Justus Sustermans 011.jpgThe motives of her heart aside, Strozzi was, as always, looking for a patron, and therefore the most significant work in the collection is the astonishingly powerful motet for solo voice ‘Mater Anna’, which, of course, honours both the Archduchess and Santa Anna/Saint Anne, mother of Mary, and patron saint of Christian mothers. Scholar Robert Kendrick has noted that Strozzi would have been well aware of the nature of Anna de Medici’s devotion to her namesake saint. At the age of thirty (in other words, very late for the time), the Medici princess had been married to a man of eighteen, and although she did successfully breed three daughters for him, a son remained elusive through a relentless series of miscarriages and stillbirths.

I’d read that ‘Mater Anna’ culminates in a final prayer, the voice ascending over a walking bass, in a heart-rending plea for mercy and succour, reminiscent in its intensely emotional religiosity of works such as the sculptor Bernini’s ‘Teresa in Ecstasy’. To be honest, I’d wondered if this was a touch of musicological hype. Not a bit of it. In ‘Mater Anna’ all of Strozzi’s ambition as a composer (and she had bucketloads of it) is evident.

But is it too sexy for church? Well, it depends on what you think should happen in church – I was moved by Strozzi’s evocations of ecstatic religious intimacy, and not just in ‘Mater Anna’. I hope to have another chance to sit in a church and hear music composed by women, if I can get to St Peter’s in Rome for 9 May, when a Missa Pro Terrae Humilibus written by ten female composers will be celebrated, a ground-breaking event driven by the campaigning work of the well-connected, Italy-based, Donne in Musica (

Returning to Strozzi, what’s more surprising, and also perhaps more telling than her absence from church is her absence from the opera house. Strozzi lived and worked in Venice, the city for opera in the mid-seventeenth century, but despite being the – possibly adopted – daughter of one of the leading librettists of the era and despite her music often being thoroughly operatic in nature (‘Mater Anna’ is a case in point) she stood about as much chance of having her secular work performed at the Teatro Novissimo as she had of hearing ‘Mater Anna’ performed at the Basilica of St Mark.

Opera’s loss is our gain, however. Strozzi had more music in print, in single-authored volumes, than any other composer in the seventeenth century, perhaps precisely because of her exclusion from the traditional arenas for (traditionally male) composers.

Here’s what I wonder towards the end of my chapter on Strozzi:

Is it fanciful to see her publication programme as a quest for professional recognition, part of her self-definition as composer first, singer second? Could she have been seeking a fourth way, beyond wife (impossible), nun (implausible) and courtesan/concubine (only too plausible)? As a professional, published composer she could bypass the prince, not to mention the prince’s bedroom, and go straight to her public.

The audience’s engagement at St Stephen’s Walbrook in 2015 proved, powerfully, that not only did Strozzi reach her public back in 1655, but that she still does – 360 years on.


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