Between the monophonic spirituality of Hildegard of Bingen and the lush, human lyricism of Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) there lie five centuries, a Renaissance, and 150 years of religious slaughter. Hildegard’s world was one of monolithic paternalism that was internalized even as it was fought against, while Strozzi strolled through a fragmented, impassioned Italian academic scene that championed culture over orthodoxy and love above all. She was among the most published composers of songs of her time, and her music still evokes the liberating yearning of an era no longer medieval, not yet modern – an island of free, experimental humanity we are perhaps just now in a position to appreciate afresh.
Unlike Hildegard, Strozzi did not have a steadfast scribe companion to record her life or a hagiographic industry to embellish its aspects, so what we know of her is snatched in scraps and references so sparsely distributed that, for three and a half centuries, the last decade and a half of her life were a cavernous blank, and the date of her death a stark question mark. We know that she was the daughter of a servant of Giulio Strozzi, a member of the massively influential and culturally active Strozzi family. Though illegitimate, seventeenth century Italy being the more sexually fluid society that it was, Strozzi acknowledged and raised Barbara as his own, and in particular lavishly funded her music education, including training with the renowned composer Francesco Cavalli.
For, if siring illegitimate children was the number one pastime of seventeenth century Italy, then passionate discussion about the future of music came a close second. This was the era of Monteverdi (1567-1643), when debate societies sprang up across the country to advocate for a new art form, one that married drama with music. Opera. In times such as these, vocal performers and composers were in high demand to provide the music that entertained and inspired the excitable members of academy society. Giulio realized his daughter possessed talents far beyond the norm and nurtured those gifts that she might become the main attraction at his cultural gatherings. He founded a new academy (a term which then signified a regular meeting of cultural enthusiasts rather than a formal learning institution), the Accademia degli Unisoni, as a vehicle for demonstrating Strozzi’s talents. He wrote many of the poems that she set to music and she performed for and played hostess to the meetings, with duties which might have included selecting topics for discussion and judging the participants’ responses.
Her position was unique enough to attract lewd speculation among certain circles, including published accounts that cast her as little more than a high-class courtesan, accusations which stick to her name even today. Giulio died in 1652, leaving Barbara as his heir, but in spite of the wealth of the Strozzi family, Giulio’s lavish cultural patronage left little but unpaid debts as Barbara’s inheritance. Judging by the dedications of her published works, the rest of her life was spent in search of a regular patron. Her eight song collections are each dedicated to a different wealthy personage, each with the same result: appreciation but no steady financial support.
While building her reputation as a composer, Strozzi became a mother four times over, three of those children with music enthusiast Giovanni Vidmann, whose family, like Strozzi’s father, volunteered to support the children in spite of their illegitimacy because marriage shaming was simply not how 17th century Venice rolled. Moving into the middle of the century, details of Strozzi’s life are few indeed. She published her last song cycle in 1664, and died in 1677, and in between those dates live a number of educated guesses, but few firm facts. Those who maintain that she was essentially an Italian geisha in her prime believe she must have doubled down on that role once her musical compositions failed for the eighth time to attract a steady patron, and especially after Vidmann’s support dried up. Others are content with “We don’t know what she ended up doing or why she stopped composing, and that’s all that can be said.”
I tend towards the latter.
Her life largely scattered piecemeal on the historical winds, what has remained resolute and undiminished is her work. For most of the composers of this era, the music we possess is in the form of original manuscripts, the scratched notations of the artist’s or copyist’s hand, often produced for a given occasion, performed once, then stuffed away for historians to discover some centuries later. Strozzi is different – her works were published and sold, and we possess those editions today, which is a sign, if indirect, of the extent of her popularity. Others might have published, but Strozzi’s publications survive, meaning they must have been either uniquely esteemed or unusually extensively printed, and either way it points to her particular accomplishments as a vocal composer during opera’s formative years.
That said, Strozzi was not an operatic composer, but rather something far more interesting. Her eight collections, of which seven survive, include songs for solo and multiple voices to texts written by herself and others, and include the musical form she stretched to new lyric and dramatic possibilities: the solo cantata.
For most people, the term cantata brings to mind the roughly twelve million composed by J.S. Bach for the Lutheran church in the early 18th century or the jagged monoliths created by 20th century composers seeking new directions amongst the dead forms of previous ages, but to the 17th century the cantata was a far less weighty affair. Part recitative (basically sing-talking), part other stuff, it was a loose form that allowed a vocalist accompanied by a single instrument to present a story by employing a variety of musical structures, and Strozzi was a master of its intricate potential.
Two examples that stand out to me as uniquely stretching the capabilities of the form are Sino alla morte and L’Astratto, from her 1659 Opus 7 and 1664 Opus 8 collections, respectively. Sino alla morte is an uncommon song set perfectly to an uncommon text. The words speak of a lover wishing for time to grey her beloved’s hair and trample his beauty, for the passage of such glorious decay means more time united on this Earth, where happiness and its bittersweet companion, longing, dwell. Usually, these cantatas consist of passages of sing-talking recitative alternating with more lyrical, affecting sections, but in this work from later in Strozzi’s abbreviated career, the boundaries blur as she switches between meters and the recitatives take on more song-like dimensions to capture the conflicting but deeply true insights of the text.
L’Astratto, from the last song collection she ever published, speaks directly to the sensibilities of the modern age with its meta-narrative, fourth-wall-breaking text which Strozzi expertly manipulates. It is a song about failing to write a song, wherein the author attempts to express her feelings in musical form, grows dissatisfied with the results, and casts them aside one after another until she finally finds the right words and notes. Strozzi’s setting adheres faithfully to the words as the singer keeps attempting new flowing melodies only to halt them midway, breaking down into frustrated recitative only to try and fail again, mocking herself and songwriting generally. It’s art that is self-aware in a way we usually reserve for our own times, funny and beautiful by turns, and altogether the sort of music that only a Barbara Strozzi could have written. There are more purely beautiful pieces in her oeuvre, but none, I believe, so daring in plan and free in execution.
Today Strozzi’s works, though no longer invisible, are almost never recorded by the major labels and just as rarely performed live. Partly, this is a fate shared by all early 17th century composers who aren’t Monteverdi, but that is not the full story. Glancing at the 1986 New Harvard Dictionary of Music’s section on the history of the cantata, there is no mention of Strozzi at all, but the authors fall over themselves to list the likes of Agostino Steffani, Alessandro Strellani, and Sigismondo d’India, one of whom I just made up and more power to you if you know which. Perhaps the accusations of being a courtesan hampered the esteem in which later times held her, perhaps the fact that she composed solo music in an age that was giving itself over to opera has played its role in keeping her works far from the public ear. But if you’re willing to dig about in the off-brand classical cd stacks for a while, there is a whole world to discover here, a rich soundscape in which humans sing their earthly woes and lament their tragic loves in a world emerging from the horrors of religious war and taking its first steps to free secular modernity, and us.
Lead image: Barbara Strozzi, painted by Bernado Strozzi c.1630-1640, public domain.
One of Strozzi’s most popular pieces is the lament Lagrime mie, the fourth song from her opus 7. Here it is being performed to the accompaniment of the comically large theorbo instrument. And the text can be found here on a page that has gone to great lengths to provide all the texts, information, and recordings of all her major works.
L’Astratto is a piece which requires real insight into both its dramatic and comic elements, and is correspondingly difficult to pull off in a fully realized way. This recording by soprano Anne Slovin just knocks it out of the park.
There are a lot of versions of Sino alla morte to choose from, and I went back and forth between some of my favorites and found I couldn’t decide, but I think I like this one just because (a) it’s complete, instead of being just a section of the piece, and (b) Emanuela Galli has a depth to her voice and a way of presenting soft notes that I just rally dig. So here ya go!
Dale is also the author of our very popular Women in Science series!