Barbara Strozzi at 400

The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Susan Clermont.

Venice in the mid-seventeenth century. Martin ZEILER (1589-1661). Itinerarium Italiae nov-antiquae: oder, Raiss-Beschreibung durch Italien. Frankfurt: Matthäus Merian, 1640. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. [DG416 .Z46]

When she was 40 years of age, Venetian virtuoso singer and gifted composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) published her seventh book of musical compositions titled Diporti di Euterpe (The Pleasures of Euterpe) in 1659.  Only two complete copies of this imprint are extant today – one in Bologna’s Biblioteca del Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale and the other at the Library of Congress.  As musicians all over the world recently celebrated the 400th birthday of this prolific composer, I felt compelled to reflect on this remarkable artist’s accomplishments and assess how a part of her rare musical legacy –the Diporti di Euterpe and the 1656 anthology, Sacra Corona, lives on through our Library’s early music resources.

Acutely aware that the male-dominated Venetian musical culture in which she lived would produce overwhelming gender-based stereotypes and obstacles, Barbara Strozzi was nonetheless undeterred in the pursuit of her career as a composer. Without the conventional patronage of a noble house or the confines of a convent with the support of the Church, she persisted in her struggle to overcome financial and self-expressed gender insecurities; ultimately, she stood toe-to-toe with her contemporaries and out-published most male and female composers of her day, contributing eight single-composer collections of vocal chamber music and one sacred motet in a 1656 anthology – over 120 individual works – over a 20 year period.

I must reverently consecrate the first work, which, as a woman, I publish all too anxiously… so that under an oak of gold it may rest secure against the lightning bolts of slander prepared for it.” (Barbara Strozzi, 1644, Op. 1)

Title page for the
1656 anthology, Sacra Corona. [M1490.M185 S2 Case]

The earliest piece of published music by a woman composer held in the Music Division today is located in the 1656 anthology, Sacra Corona: motetti a due, e trè voci di diuersi eccelentissimi autori moderni (1656), compiled by Bartolomeo Marcesso.  Prominently placed as the first three-voiced motet in this volume is Quis dabit mihi, composed for alto, tenor and bass by “della Virtuosissima (most accomplished woman) Signora Barbara Strozzi.” Atypical for Strozzi (who usually composed music for her own soprano voice part) is the ATB scoring as well as composing in a sacred genre: this motet together with opus 5 Sacri musicali affetti (1655) comprise her only sacred output.  It is noteworthy that ours is the only complete extant copy of the Sacra Corona reported worldwide.

The lowly mine of a woman’s poor imagination cannot produce the metal to forge those richest golden crowns worthy of august rulers.” (Barbara Strozzi, 1651, Op. 2)

“Quis Dabit Mihi,” motet A 3.

Besides ariettas and arias, many of Strozzi’s works are Italian secular cantatas for solo voice and continuo; in fact, scholars have credited her with the establishment of this genre, a flexible format (something between a madrigal and fully blown opera scene) that enabled her to epitomize the power of the solo voice by masterfully espousing musical and textual rhetoric. This dual emphasis can be partially credited to the literary influences of her father, famous poet and librettist Giulio Strozzi, who provided her with not only the finest training in music composition but also guaranteed that she was immersed in a milieu of the cultural literary elite of Venice as a child. Focusing primarily on the subject of love, be it consummated, unrequited, denied or destroyed, Strozzi’s works demonstrate an uncanny ability to insightfully paint human emotions, burning passions, and complex sentiments via her acute sensitivity to the text, her innovative use of form and style, added tempi and dynamic markings, and a colorful harmonic palette.

Nicolo Sagredo.

Many claim that Strozzi’s finest moments as a composer are revealed in her final imprints, opp. 7 and 8.  By this time in her career, her self-confidence as well as her musical voice had evolved. No longer daunted by potential “lightning bolts of slander,” her preface to Diporti di Euterpe focuses attention exclusively on her dedicatee, Sir Nicolas Sagredo (1606-1676), identified as a patron, protector and guardian, the excellent “cavalier and procurator of Saint Mark and ambassador extraordinaire of Spain,” who later served as doge of Venice.

“Mercury holding the serpents in sway:” the connection between Apollo and the Earth via the serpent. Music of the Spheres: F. Gaffurius, Practica musicae, 1496. [ML171.G12 1496 Incun. Case]

While reading her homage to Sagredo it becomes evident that Strozzi was a highly educated woman who possessed a substantial breadth of knowledge of contemporary and classical literature that went far beyond her father’s guidance. Her familiarity with Hermetic writings compelled her to endorse Sagredo’s rebuttal of the fable that Hermes Trimegistus (Mercurius reincarnated who held “serpents in sway”) was the inventor of music; rather, he insisted that Hermes “aggrandized it [music], granting a rulership of majesty to those who possessed it.” She consequently dedicates the harmonious notes in her head – notes that channel the spirit of Euterpe, the muse of poetry – notes that are “the language of the soul and instruments of the heart…. airs [that] will be known unto the portico of Olympus…” to Sagredo.1  The serpent she references has been linked to theorist Franchinus Gaffurius’ allegorical diagram of the music of the spheres2, which pairs the musical universe with corresponding heavenly bodies, gods, goddesses and the muses – much in the same vein as Hermes’ concepts of cosmic harmony and the magical powers it holds.3

 

Title page of Diporti di Euterpe, opus 7. [M1490.S82 D5]

Gabenspielerin (The Viola da Gamba Player), c. 1635 by Bernardo Strozzi, believed to be a portrait of Barbara Strozzi.

Diporti di Euterpe, the earliest published single-composer collection by a woman held in the Music Division, is now available in modern edition, was the subject of a 2004 dissertation (Susan Mardinly), and has been recorded by multiple performers. This rekindled interest is due, in part, to the outstanding Strozzi scholarship from the past 40 years, beginning with articles by Ellen Rosand, among others.4 Even more so, Barbara Strozzi’s legacy endures because the magnetism of her music still captivates listeners today, evinced in recent concert reviews:  “This was an outstanding demonstration of the expressive union of words and music achieved by Strozzi… [sung] with a boldness that was surely the equal of Strozzi’s own…. At times, the disturbance created by sudden shifts in tempo and changes of meter gave way to the stillness of a monody which was rapturously communicative…. we certainly experienced the ‘language of the soul and instruments of the heart.’”5 How fortunate we are to include treasures from this inspiring artist’s legacy here at the Library of Congress.

                                                     Happy Birthday, della Virtuosissima!    

                              

  1. Translation of the prefatory dedication by Susan J Mardinly,“Barbara Strozzi and “The Pleasures of Euterpe” (2004). https://opencommons.uconn.edu/dissertations/AAI3166003
  2.  Francesco Gaffurius, Practica musicae. Milan (Mediolani) : Guillermus Le Signerre for Johannes Petrus de Lomatio, 30 Sept. 1496. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.music/muspre1800.100162
  3. Margaret Mendenhall, “The Music of the Spheres:” Musical Theory and Alchemical Image.Mythological Studies Journal, Vol. 4, 2013.
  4. Ellen Rosand, “The Voice of Barbara Strozzi,” in Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, eds., Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1986.
  5. Opera Today: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2019/07/proms_at_cadoga.php

One Comment

  1. Sharon M.
    September 17, 2019 at 2:11 pm

    Virtuosissima, indeed! What an accomplished woman she was. Thanks for your post.

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