Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677), a composer, singer, and intellectual activist in Venice, Italy, during its golden age, in the early and middle seventeeth century, was among the most important of the few female composers active during the early eras of European classical music.
Female classical composers were written out of the history books for many decades. When researchers restored women to their proper places, they learned of women composers earlier than Strozzi—a few, like the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), much earlier. But few of those were at the center of a major new musical scene. Strozzi was born into Venetian musical and literary circles, and she created pieces of music in the most vital genres of the day: works for solo voice or for a group of voices with accompaniment, in an expressive style allied to the new genre of opera. Strozzi never wrote an opera, but she was part of a group of Venetian thinkers who helped to advance the genre. Observers of the day praised her vocal abilities. The outlines of her life outside her compositions and musical performances are hazy, but comments that were made about her tell us much about the situation of women in her time.
Adopted or Illegitimate Daughter of Poet
Strozzi was born in Venice in 1619 and was baptized on August 6 of that year. Her mother was Isabella Garzoni, who worked as a servant in the household of Giulio Strozzi, a poet and a member of one of the most powerful families in the Italian city of Florence. He had moved to Venice and become both a patron of the arts and an influential artist in his own right, creating poetry, plays, and texts for musical works. The Strozzi's father was listed as "incerto" or uncertain, but it is thought that Giulio Strozzi was her father. He designated her as a potential heir in a will of 1628 and, as we will see, took an active interest in her musical career. In the 1628 will she was named as Barbara Valle, but at some point not long after that she began to use the last name Strozzi. Giulio Strozzi's final will of 1650 made the name official by stating that he had adopted Barbara, but the adoption story was commonly used at the time to disguise the status of children resulting from the extramarital liaisons of powerful and influential people.
Very little is known of Strozzi's musical education, but in the dedication to one of her published works she mentions Francesco Cavalli (1602–1676) as her teacher. That fact indicates the status that Strozzi's adoptive father brought her in the Venetian musical world; Cavalli was the city's top opera composer and the music director at the famed St. Mark's Cathedral. From Cavalli, Strozzi would have learned the elements of opera, which was a young genre at the time. The first operas had been written just a few decades earlier, between 1600 and 1610, and the idea for powerful, passionate solo voice music enhanced by difficult ornamentation was still a new and exciting one.
The basic idea of opera had been proposed just before 1600 by a group of aristocratic intellectuals in Florence, Italy, who styled themselves an "academy;" their aim was to try to replicate what ancient Greek singing might have sounded like. Giulio Strozzi set up similar academies in Venice, and it was in this refined, but musically influential atmosphere that Strozzi grew up. She was mentioned in 1634 as a singer at a gathering in the Strozzi family home, and the following year a composer associate of Giulio Strozzi's named Nicolò Fontei wrote a set of songs he called Bizzarrie poetiche (Poetic Bizarre Songs) that he said were inspired by Strozzi's singing. These went over well enough that Fontei produced a second book of songs the following year, again apparently intended for Strozzi, and referring to her as "la virtuosissima cantatrice" (the most virtuosic singer).
In 1637 Giulio Strozzi created a new academy, the Accademia degli Unisoni, partly in order to serve as a showplace for Strozzi's singing. The academy was something of a debating society or discussion group, with musical performances provided by Strozzi. She also apparently served as a mistress of ceremonies, specifying the evening's theme and judging the arguments put forth by other members. Strozzi was well known to all the members of the academy; a book describing its proceedings was dedicated to her.
Became Subject of Satirical Writings
The profession of composer was extremely rare among women at the time. Strozzi had a few predecessors, such as Francesca Caccini, but male composers who visited Venice reacted with surprise when they heard of Strozzi's compositional activities. The profession of singer was more common; some female roles in operas would be sung by male countertenors (falsetto singers), but Strozzi and other singers became famous for their musical abilities. Nevertheless, singing was not considered entirely respectable for women. Strozzi's activities at the Academy seem to have inspired observers to link music-making with sexual promiscuity. An anonymous pamphlet writer from a rival academy, as part of a series of attacks on the Unisoni group, cast aspersions on Strozzi's chastity, writing (as quoted by Ellen Rosand in the Journal of the American Musicological Society) that "it is a fine thing to distribute the flowers [Strozzi would apparently pass out flowers to attendees] after having already surrendered the fruit." The writer later suggested that the only reason Strozzi had never become pregnant was that she mostly spent time with a castrato—a male singer who had been castrated in order to preserve his high singing voice.
The significance of these remarks has been debated among music historians. According to Rosand, they could have indicated that Strozzi was a courtesan, or high-class prostitute. An existing painting of Strozzi, holding a stringed instrument and seemingly waiting for another musician to come and join her, could support this interpretation. But Rosand also pointed out that the tone of the anonymous writer's comments was typical of the titillating spirit of writings by the academicians of the time, who frequently discussed sexual matters in a joshing way and resisted the influence of the Venetian clergy. According to this line of thought, the pamphlet was a jibe directed by one colleague at another and intended in a familiar spirit.
This viewpoint has gained support from further researches into Strozzi's domestic life. Strozzi never married, but she embarked on a long-term relationship with Giovanni Paolo Vidman, a friend of Giulio Strozzi's. The couple had four children, and Vidman provided for their religious education; Strozzi's two daughters entered convents, and one son became a monk. Prostitutes were registered with the Venetian city government at the time, and lists do not mention Strozzi's name. The fact that Strozzi and Vidman did not marry is of minor significance; well-off Venetians of a non-religious bent did not consider marriage an indispensable sacrament.
The central activity of Strozzi's life, after her father began to approach old age, was composition. She continued to perform, and it is likely that she wrote most of her music for her own use. Strozzi's first published work was a set of madrigals for groups of two to five voices, published in 1644. The texts of these madrigals were by Giulio Strozzi, but after having helped provide a solid launch to her compositional career he faded into the background; just a few texts by her father are included in Strozzi's later publications. Strozzi published eight books of music during her lifetime, designated as Op. 1 through Op. 8 (a numbered "Opus" was a published musical work). Op. 4, like many other works of the seventeeth century, has been lost, but the unusually high survival rate for Strozzi's works suggests that they were held in high regard.
Wrote for Solo Voice
The predominance of instrumentally accompanied works for one or more solo voices was comparatively new in Strozzi's time, and the terminology used to classify them was fluid. Strozzi wrote works called cantatas, arias, ariettas, motets, and madrigals. These words could mean different things at different times, but the madrigals were generally works for more than one voice; the motets (she wrote only one volume, the Sacri musicali affetti, Op. 5) were religious works for solo voice; and the cantatas, arias, and ariettas were expressive solo works in the new operatic style. The arias and ariettas were mostly strophic songs, meaning that they essentially repeated the same music for each verse. The cantatas were more elaborate pieces with multiple sections and a variety of ways of setting the text that ranged from speech-like recitative (ress-iss-a-TEEVE) to full-blown melodies to arioso, an intermediate stage between the two. Few cantatas were written before the time of Strozzi's career, and her importance as one of the creators of the genre is a topic of inquiry among musicologists. The texts for her works, apart from those by her father, were by writers working in the so-called Marinist tradition of poet Giambattista Marini; they were romantic lyrics with elaborate, sometimes overcomplicated concepts.
Strozzi was, in any event, a successful composer. She wrote about 125 works, some of them of considerable length, and the continued demand for her compositions over 20 years—her last collection, Arie a voce sola, Op. 8, was published in 1664—testified to strong interest in her music. Many of them contained performance directions and expressive markings that were well beyond the norm for the era, suggesting that singers other than Strozzi were performing them and that she wanted to insure the proper effect. Strozzi did not, however, succeed in finding an aristocratic patron who could have made her life as a composer easier; each of her eight books was dedicated to a different potential noble backer. Her compositions probably served as a major source of income as she grew older.
Strozzi's music has become better known as scholars have begun to make editions suitable for performers and concert presenters have organized programs focused on music by women. Some aspects of her style were intended to show off her vocal technique to best advantage; she wrote spectacular, difficult-sounding melodies that nevertheless lay naturally in a singer's voice range, and she avoided passages of dry recitative where she could. Tim Carter of Early Music, reviewing a compact disc of music by la virtuosissima cantatrice, praised Strozzi's "contribution to a range of styles and genres in the process of formulation as the Baroque got under way." Her sectional cantatas, he wrote, "are particularly intriguing," and her solos, duets, and trios "ravishing." The music of one of Europe's first major female composers seemed likely to yield more riches as compositional and performing techniques of her era generally became better understood.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Early Music, August 1994.
Journal of the American Musicological Society, Summer 1978.
"Barbara Strozzi," Here of a Sunday Morning (radio program), http://www.hoasm.org/VD/Strozzi.html (February 9, 2006).
"Barbara Strozzi," http://www.gymell.com/doc/strozzi.shtml (February 9, 2006).
"Biography," http://www.barbarastrozzi.com (February 9, 2006).