shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “Barbara Strozzi”

Great music by great women: just one click away

I’ve put together a playlist* so that you can discover a few gems from the hidden treasure trove of music that has inspired my book.

Discover the composers in ‘Sounds and Sweet Airs’

It’s a work in progress, but there’s one piece from each composer – I’d love to hear who stands out for you. The penultimate piece may not be high quality in terms of its recording, but if you are not moved by Lili Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 130 you have a heart of stone…and then, if you need cheering up (Boulanger, above, died horribly young and her anguish – and faith – permeate her music), click on the Overture from Marianna von Martines, perhaps the least known of all the composers I write about. I challenge you not to smile.

Of course, this is only the tip of the (YouTube) iceberg. You won’t find some of my personal favourites, such as Rendi alle mie speranze il verde, a stunningly beautiful song by Francesca Caccini, or Das Jahr, a lost masterpiece for piano by Fanny Hensel – which I wrote about here.

I’ve also started another playlist, showcasing the work of a handful of the composers who don’t feature in my book. I only had eight chapters to work with, and, believe me, there are so many riches to discover, from a haunting song written in the twelfth century to the award-winning music for Wolf Hall.

From La Comtessa del Dia to Debbie Wiseman – 900 years of creativity

Meanwhile, publication day’s getting closer and closer and, just as important, I’m now working with lots of lovely people on a whole range of events which will celebrate the music and the women I’ve been writing about. More about those events another time…but do get in touch if you think of something that should be added into the mix.

*OK – I had some help from my techies, Elise and Jesse…thank you guys!

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Barbara di Santa Sofia

It’s been a busy couple of months, working through the suggestions of my editor, Sam Carter, at Oneworld – which can be satisfying (‘God, that bit was clunky – thank goodness he spotted it’); humbling (Sam suggested a bonfire of the howevers, and he was right – it’s an academic tic that is, nine times out of ten, completely unnecessary); and anxiety-inducing (every time I change a phrase, I sense that the whole book, or at least the whole paragraph, has lost its coherence). But it is done.

Leaving a gap in life, of course. I promptly filled it by heading, with my rucksack, to a dirty, beautiful city: this time, Sarajevo – more of which another time. Getting there took around three days by train – broken by a pastoral idyll in Slovenia at Lake Bohinj – but any journey which starts with the night train to Venice is a good journey in my book. Passing through the city, and indulging in my favourite Venetian past-time (sitting at the back of a vaporetto) I snapped a picture of Santa Sofia, the church in Canareggio which Barbara Strozzi was christened back in 1619. On my return to Oxford, there was just time to add in a few more sentences to the book, sentences which simply could not have been written (at least by me) unless I had been to the place itself.

Santa Sofia’s date of foundation is hazy, perhaps as early as 886, perhaps not, no matter, myth is powerful in Venice, but by Strozzi’s own lifetime the records show that it had already been rebuilt twice, first in the early thirteenth century, and then again in the composer’s great-grandparents’ generation. Now, in the late seventeenth century, Strozzi saw her baptismal church once again restored. Santa Sofia would then burn to the ground; be rebuilt; suffer suppression under Napoleon; be sold to the Jewish community; and re-open as a church. Despite or because of all the re-buildings, the church’s façade remains unfinished. Not only that, it is hidden, now by the priest’s house, but as early as 1500 by the encroaching buildings. The campanile, once taller and more elegant according to the evidence of a woodcut of 1550, is now chunky and the interior is plain by the standards of Venice, not least because on its suppression most of the church’s riches were dispersed, amongst them a Veronese Last Supper. Santa Sofia, half-hidden by the buildings that crowd around it, stripped of its glories, such as they were, and with little obvious beauty to it, is hardly a tourist magnet, but it endures, rising from the ashes again and again.

santa sofia 1550 santa sofia june 2015

Then again, I suppose I don’t really need to travel to see the past. There are other ways to get that sense of lived experience, to catch glimpses of the environment in which writers and musicians and artists do their work. In recent weeks, I’ve been searching for illustrations that would bring this out, and, when it came to the chapter on Francesca Caccini, I didn’t want another classic, ostensibly timeless view of Florence – although the terrace at San Miniato happens to be one of my favourite places on the entire planet, and when one is tired of looking down on Florence, and beyond to the Appenines, one is tired of life. I wanted an image that would act as a reminder of a living city, in which music, amongst other recreations, happened on the streets, just as much as behind closed doors. I came across a painting of a calcio Fiorentino (Florentine kick game): a early form of football (still called calcio of course in Italy) being played in the square of Santa Croce in Florence, just a few days after the performance of Caccini’s opera up at Poggio Imperiale.

calcio fiorentina

The most striking features of the sport (gleaned from Wikipedia – where it is somewhat unclear as to whether this is how the game is played now, or was played then, but so be it) is that it is/was played on sand, had a narrow slit for a goal which ran the width of each end, and that each team comprised 27 – twenty-seven?! – players who were allowed to use both feet and hands to pass and control the ball. Goals (or cacce) are scored by throwing the ball over into the netting at the end of the field. (I cannot resist, at this point, linking to a quite brilliant piece of satire produced by Norway Women’s Team – 2:30 mins is particularly relevant…)

I love this image of seventeenth-century street sport because it’s a reminder of just how blurred the boundaries between everyday life and sport/games were all those years ago – and I think the same was true for music-making.

Next stop: Sarajevo.

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 (http://www.ursulasarrow.com/) 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 (http://www.donneinmusica.org/en/).

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.

Breakfast with Boulanger

We live in exciting times when I can be getting dressed to the sound of Lili Boulanger on Radio 3’s Breakfast, or driving to and from doctor’s appointments whilst hearing about the life and work of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Composer of the Week. I take back my churlish comment in my last post: BBC Radio 3 are extending their focus on music written by women beyond a single day, and across a whole week – hurrah – which means, people, I’m mainstream. I can live with it.

Looking ahead, Barbara Strozzi gets an Early Music Show to herself, and Elizabeth Maconchy provides a fitting close to Words and Music. Hensel (or, as she is known to the BBC, Mendelssohn) and Schumann dominate a Coffee Concert, Schumann’s Piano Trio is the subject of Building a Library, and the Boulanger piece I heard on Radio 3 Breakfast (D’un Matin de Printemps) gets a live performance in the evening. Even Francesca Caccini gets a look in, admittedly not exactly at peak listening time, with excerpts from La Liberazione di Ruggiero going out in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Of the eight composers I am writing about, there’s just one who doesn’t get a look in, as far as I can tell: Marianna von Martines. And that just makes me even more passionate about her music – and even more determined to tell the story of her life. I can see why she has dropped off the radar. She writes in the classical style, and those absolute giants of music history, Haydn and Mozart, have that kind of music pretty much sown up. It probably also doesn’t help that there is a not much of a story to attach to her name, or at least not one of the stories which intrigue us when it comes to female composers. No bare breasts (Strozzi), no kings and princes (Caccini and Jacquet de la Guerre), no famous family members with the same name (Mendelssohn and Schumann); no tragedy (Boulanger and Maconchy). But to write Martines’ story, whilst challenging, has also been revelatory, and made me think hard, and creatively, about what exactly constitutes a life – on the page, and in what some people have called reality. Here she is, complete with Latin inscription and extremely interesting headwear.

Martines 1773

I tried to see the original at the Wien Museum last year, but because they are re-organising it was not possible. The musicologist Michael Lorenz explains the inscription in his fascinating blog,  http://michaelorenz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/martines-maron-and-latin-inscription.html if you want to know more.

It’s not easy to find quick and dirty access to Martines’ music, but you can find a few bars of her Overture in C, one of the most joyous pieces I have ever heard, on the BBC website, so to get a taste, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yq74f/segments. I recommend, however, a full-blown Martines feast, such as Il Primo Amore, available from Presto Classical. You will not regret it.

Great news – great music on Radio 3!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2015/international-womens-day-r3

I’d like to think they were listening to me on Radio 4….and, more seriously, one day a year is a start but how about looking at the programming for the other 364?

Particularly looking forward to the Strozzi concert!

And what I actually said was…

Here are a few of the bits that were cut by Radio Four – a pity, since I think they took out some feisty stuff.

Here’s Fiona Maddocks (a music journalist who knows a hell of a lot about the classical music industry today):

it seems baffling, if not shocking, that even now we still use the two words woman and composer together as a collective noun, whereas it has long been out of date to refer to Barbara Hepworth or Tracey Emin as women artists.

And here’s a bit more about publication as prostitution (and Fanny Hensel…)

Respectability is never going to work for you, so you decide to move into the new media (which in the seventeenth century is print, not old-fashioned manuscript). Now, women are not supposed to publish (publication is often figured as another form of prostitution – an idea that continued well into the nineteenth century, and is one of the reasons that you know Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March but you don’t know his just as talented sister’s music…) but, ironically, you’re not really a woman, you’re a courtesan. You’re already damned, you might as well publish. You are Barbara Strozzi, and you have works in print than any other composer of your generation, your century even.

And, finally, here’s how I thought I had ended the talk….

I wanted to end with Chrissie Hynde’s admirable ‘advice to chick rockers which sums things up pretty well (for the record its “Don’t think that sticking your boobs out and trying to look f*ckable will help. Remember you’re in a rock and roll band. It’s not ‘F*ck me,’ it’s ‘F*ck you!’”), but, sadly, I can’t because this is the BBC – but I can quote Beth Ditto – who is riffing on Mahatma Gandhi, as you do…‘if you don’t see it, create it. If you don’t see what you want, be the change you want to see’. Or hear in this case…Because the silence of the women is a symptom of a much wider malaise that stifles female creativity from cradle to grave – so, why not get on to Radio 3, call in to Classic FM, let’s do it for Francesca and Barbara, for Chrissie and Beth – let’s escape or embrace the shadow of the courtesan, and make hearing women’s music the new normal.

 

The heart is not for sale

Image

This image, of the fish market, has stayed with me from my trip to Venice, some weeks ago. My first morning in the city, I tried, and for the moment failed, to visit the church of Santa Sofia in Cannaregio, where Barbara Strozzi – father incerto, mother perhaps a courtesan, certainly a servant – was baptised back in 1619. Strozzi didn’t just live and write music in the shadow of the courtesan. She was a courtesan. (Well, actually, as ever, it’s bit more complicated than that, but it will all be explained in chapter two. Probably.) Cannaregio was Strozzi’s territory. She lived and worked in the neighbourhood, plying her two trades, music and sex.

So, when I turned from Santa Sofia, and looked across the Grand Canal to the Pescheria’s red awnings, the words I saw scrawled there seemed to speak across the centuries. I think the words mean, in Venetian dialect, that ‘the heart is not for sale’. Brave, defiant words but they don’t carry much weight in Venice now, and they certainly didn’t for Strozzi.

It’s impossible to wander around Venice without beginning to question one’s own sense of time and space. (It’s also impossible to write about Venice without stumbling over clichés). My grip on reality was not helped by running into a film crew

venice film recreating a vision of fifteenth century (?) Venice nor was it helped by seeing young naval officers lined up in their finery, a triumphant expression of la bella figura, overlooked by the lion of St Mark. It was hard to imagine them at war.

naval

Fortunately, reality can always be restored with an aperitivo. Go to the square of San Giacomo dell’ Orio, look for ‘Al Prosecco’ – but don’t have prosecco, have one of the well-kept, beautifully-served big northern Italian reds, and watch a more mundane world go by. In a city where you can pay an awful lot for terrible food, you can enjoy a plate of lovely cheeses, complemented by home-made chutney, for, well, still a lot more than Palermo, but it is Venice. Kids play football, people talk, buy groceries at the Co-op. When I briefly lived in Venice, this was ‘my’ bar, and I am still very, very fond of it and its owners.

I stopped off there before taking the night train to Vienna. A glass of nebbiolo, a plate of cheese and salad, a few minutes of ordinary life, Venetian style, and I was ready to say goodbye, at least for a while, to Strozzi and her city.

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