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Female Pioneers of Music

An introduction to female composers from the Medieval to the Baroque Periods

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(From left to right) Kassia, Hildegard von Bingen, Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi & Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (Images from Wikipedia & Britannica)

Classical music has been thought to be a male-dominated industry, even though there are several famous female composers from the Romantic (Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn) and the contemporary periods (Meredith Monk or Elena-Kats Chernin). But how about women from earlier periods? Were there any behind some of the earliest music compositions? While it is likely that many will always remain unknown, luckily for us, some female composers have survived through the centuries with their unique compositions.

One of the finest examples of medieval female composers is Kassia (810-ca865), whose works are still available for research or performance today. Coming from a rich family in Constantinople, she was able to pursue an education in the classics and religion, a rare occurrence for women at the time. With her own religious motivations, she founded her own convent and became its first abbess.

Kassia was a composer of Byzantine Christian chant, with a notable hymn called The Fallen Woman (aka Troparion of Kassiani). The troparion was believed to be associated with the biblical character Mary Magdalene. Although the piece does not explicitly mention her name, the lyrics do reference a woman who has tended to Christ’s feet with her long hair. The troparion may also be treated as an autobiographical account of Kassia herself, as she herself turns to the church after her encounter with Emperor Theophilus. Emperor Theophilus was said to have contributed to the final line of the hymn, after failing to meet Kassia once more at the monastery where she resided.

Another of her main works was about the reign of the first Roman emperor, Emperor Augustus, in a hymn called When Augustus Reigned. The hymn is structured with a sequential form of paired, rhyming couplets and corresponding paired lines of music to contrast and parallel Augustus’s life to Jesus Christ.

Female vocal group VocaMe has recorded these pieces in their tribute album to the composer herself: Kassia: Byzantine hymns from the first female composer of the Occident. The texts for these hymns have also been used as a setting for choir by other contemporary composers like Christos Hatzis and Ivan Moody, in the album Choral Settings of Kassiani.

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Example of a Byzantine music manuscript (Image by Dr. Nicolas Bell on brewanimate.com)

Medieval German composer Hildegard von Bingen (1098–17 September 1179) was relatively unknown until recent interest in her work from feminist scholars. This catholic devotee became influential in the religious circuit as an advisory and monastery founder, cementing her reputation as the author of numerous scientific texts and compositions. Bingen was well known in the 12th Century for her ‘visions’. In these, biblical figures would appear to her and convey messages of faith that she passed on in the form of song. Examples of her surviving work include the liturgical drama Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) and a cycle of antiphons and hymns Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations). Themes of rejoicing God are apparent in her work alongside a particular focus on the power of life (or ‘greenness’). Her lyrics are colourful and make use of a unique structure perhaps originating from her lack of formal training. Post-death she was formally canonised as Saint Hildegard von Bingen at the end of the 16th Century and her musical legacy continues to be celebrated today.

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Saint Hildegard von Bingen’s Vision of the City of God

The Troubadour and The Nun is a superb album of recordings on the reflection of feminine mystery from the Middle Ages to Baroque. Evelyn Tubb (soprano) performs Hildard’s O Viridissima Virga from Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum beautifully while the orchestration remains faithful to the original. The lyrics sing of viridity and the power of life, exemplifying Bingen’s common theme of ‘greenness’.

A more recent recording is a classical improvisation based on Bingen’s O choruscans lux stellarum performed by ensemble nu:n. This German trio of vocals, guitar and saxophone contrast the haunting melody with an instrumental jazz accompaniment in O chorusscans lux. The lyrics speak of glistening images of Christ, reflecting Bingen’s numerous ‘visions’. This classical interpretation from ensemble nu:n signifies Bingen’s growing recognition in the early classical world.

In recorded history, a comprehensive timeline of Francesca Caccini (18 September 1587 — after 1641) offers limited insight. Caccini was an Italian born baroque composer and received musical training by her father, the composer Giulio Caccini. She became part of a performing ensemble with her parents, sister and brother, and developed an interest in composition. In later years she had a small family of her own (a son and daughter) and became involved with the Medici court as a music teacher, composer and entertainer. She is considered to have composed the oldest opera by a female composer La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina’s Island). The opera was written and performed to celebrate the visitation of Polish prince Ladislaus Sigismondo (later Władysław IV) at the Medici court in 1625. This comedy-ballet was enthusiastically received by the Prince, after which he commissioned Caccini to produce two further works for him. Unfortunately, like a lot of her work, the lyrics and notation have been lost.

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La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, 1625

A recent production directed by Elena Sorti utilises the collective power of multiple voices and ensembles. La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina remains a testament to early opera with sweeping vocal lines enhanced by instrumental ornamentation.

Another significant body of work is a songbook of various hymns produced during her time at the Medici Il primo libro delle musiche (The First Book of Music). These pieces show her craftsmanship for beautifully poetic lyrics with expressive vocal ornaments and trills. In 1641 guardianship of her son Tomaso was handed over to his uncle and this concludes Caccini’s recorded history. It’s presumed that at this time she either re-married, died, or disappeared.

One example from Il primo libro delle musiche is №3. Lasciatemi qui solo performed by English soprano Ruby Hughes. The lyrics have melancholic themes of suffering and death and this recording, in particular, emphasises Caccini’s love of expressive vocal writing.

Barbara Stozzi (1619–1677) was believed to be the illegitimate daughter of poet and librettist Giulio Strozzi. Regardless of their illegitimate connection, her father did support his daughter’s musical endeavours, including setting up an academy for her to perform publicly and arranging for her to study with the composer Francesco Vacalli. While most female composers during that period would publish their own works under a male pseudonym, she was one of the very few who signed her compositions under her own name.

Barbara Strozzi was known for composing secular vocal music, having published about 8 volumes of vocal works during her lifetime. Giulio Strozzi even contributed with lyrics to some of her works, such as the joyful sonnet Merce di voi from her very first collection of songs. Many of the texts used in her works come from lyrical, romantic poetry, instead of dramatic or narrative verse. Her songs about love can have contrasting moods, from slow laments of heartache and helplessness in Che si puo fare, to upbeat and playful pieces like Amor dormiglione — a song about urging Cupid to stop resting so that he may shoot his arrows of love.

Raised in a family of musicians and harpsichord builders, Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665–1729) was a child prodigy. At 10 years old, she was able to sing challenging pieces, accompany herself or other singing partners while playing on the harpsichord, and perform in any requested key. She received musical training from her own father and, following her musical debut at Versailles in 1673, was later invited to complete her education there by the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan. She continued composing even after her marriage to composer and organist Marin de la Guerre in 1684.

Like most French composers during the late Baroque period, she too was experimenting with two Italian music genres that have recently been developed: the cantata and sonata. She published three cantatas during her lifetime, two based on biblical subjects and the third based on the Greek mythology of Semele, which is available as a recording by Ensemble 392 in Bouillabaisse: French Cantatas & Chansons. This cantata is about a mistress of Zeus, Semele and her desire to see her lover that eventually destroys her. While many of her cantatas are composed for one singer and continuo, this cantata is ‘avec Simphonie’, in which the instrumental part is expanded to either another violin or an optional flute, in addition to a basso continuo.

Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre composed six violin sonatas during her life, which are performed with violin, basso continuo and harpsichord. In Jacquet de La Guerre: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1–6, all six sonatas are performed by the Spanish violinist Lina Tur Bonet, with Patxi Montero on the bass viol and Kenneth Weiss on the harpsichord.

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(Image by Oscar Bejarano from Pan Classics)

Whether it is religious choral songs or works about love or mythology, these women have composed a variety of pieces that can be included in the classical music canon. While these are some examples of well-known female composers before the Classical era, there are still others from that time, including Caterina Assandra from Italy and Gracia Baptista from Spain (each of whom having only one surviving work).

With this short guide, we hope that we have piqued your interest and inspired you to discover more female composers on Primephonic.