Updated: Jun 23
The Most Prolific Composer of Secular Vocal Music in Venice
The history of that arts—and Western history in general—has often been criticized as focusing on the HIS-stories of men, particularly focusing on wealthy and powerful Europeans and those of European ancestry. However, as we have already learned in previous posts like Women in Music – Hildegard von Bingen, Celebrating the 20th Annual Jazz Appreciation Month - "Ellas" Edition, and Celebrating Women in the Arts – Contemporary Women in the Arts, the “great women” have played an equally important role as the “great men” in the history of the arts. In honor of the 402nd anniversary of her birth, we are going to take a look and a listen into the life and music of Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi (baptized Aug. 6, 1619 – Nov. 11, 1677).
A Poet's Only Daughter
Born in Venice as Barbara Valle, Barbara Strozzi was the illegitimate daughter of renowned Venetian poet and librettist, Giulio Strozzi (1583 - March 31, 1652) and his servant Isabella Garzoni. (Some sources give her mother's name as "Isabella Griegha.") The exact date of her birth is not known. However there are records that show that she was baptized on Aug. 6, 1619, which means she was probably born only a day or two before Aug. 6.. Although the records do not give the name of her father, most scholars agree that it was Strozzi was Giulio’s daughter as bother Barbara and her mother lived in his household and were mentioned in his will. Her father always referred to himself as her “adoptive father.” Guilio was himself an illegitimate son regocnied Strozzis were a wealthy and influential Florentine family, second to only the Medicis.
Whether he was her biological father or not Giulio used her connections as a member of the intellectual elite in Vienna to provide Barbara with opportunities to study, perform, and publish her music. Without Giullio’s connections and direct involvement in her career, it is unlikely that Barbara as a woman would have been able to have a career in music. Guilio founded his own academy when Barbara was about 16 years old, called Accademia degli Unisoni, where Barbara's performed as a singer and an instrumentalist. It is likely that he founded he academy at least in part so that Barbara would have a place to share her music.
Barbara often wrote music in response to challenges by members of the Academy who would provide her with a text which she would then set to music. Many of these poems were love poems. She adapted form to match the mood of the texts and would switch between speech-like recitative and more fluid songs or airs (arias in Italian). Besides her music talent, she was also for her intellect and wit, and she presided over the meetings, choosing the subjects to be debated during the evening. She had such a reputation as a musician and intellectual that an anonymous manuscript of her time implied she was a courtesan as an attempt to slander her. While it is unknown whether or not this accusation had any basis in reality, it is most likely they work of a jealous competitor.
Barbara was a prolific composer, composing eight volumes of music which were well-received in her lifetime. In fact, she is considered "the most prolific composer—man or woman—of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the middle of the [17th] century.” She was aware of the obstacles that she faced that did not impede her male counterparts. In the preface to her first volume of works she wrote, “Being a woman, I am concerned about publishing this work. Would that it lie safely under a golden oak tree and not be endangered by swords of slander which have already been drawn to battle against it.”
Barbara was adept at using advanced compositional skill to manipulate the emotions of her listeners. Although it is very nearly impossible to sing while crying as the breath becomes restricted, Barbara used her knowledge of vocal technique and music theory to create sound effects that made it seem as if the singer was weeping. Listen to her lament, “Lagrime mie” (“My Tears”) and notice how the descending melody line with its almost stuttered embellishments sounds like someone’s in a crying fit.
Barbara’s own performances of her music were described emotional experiences where she could express pure joy one moment and the dredges of despair the next. Giovanni Francesco Loredano (Feb. 27, 1607 - Aug. 13, 1661), a Venetian write and political described a Strozzi performance:
“[She] usually lifts the face [and] shines forth through the gaze, and the mouth— as if happy and smiling at so worthy and masterful an exercise—by opening its rich mines, shows off its treasures [i.e. teeth]. But the one who cries lowers the face and wrinkles the brow; and it seems that the eyes, for having demonstrated their imperfections, grow red with shame, and while looking down and shaded, in some way try to hide from the person looking at them.”
The first of her volumes was published in 1644 and continued madrigals, a song for several voices, based on the poems of her father. She published her second volume in 1651, and it contained cantatas (medium-length narrative piece of music for voices with instrumental accompaniment), ariettas (short songs), and duets. She dedicated it her to her music teacher, Francesco Cavalli (Feb. 14, 1602 — Jan. 14, 1676), director of music at St. Mark's Basilica and himself a student of Claudio Monteverdi (baptized May 15, 1567 – Nov. 29 1643). After her father’s death in 1652, her pace od publication increased, and she dedicated her subsequent volumes to various royals, including Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria. Unfortunately, the fourth of her volumes has since been lost. All but one of her volumes contain secular music. She published her last volume in 1664. Sometime during this period, it is believed she sat for the painting, "Suonatrice di viola da gamba" (The Viola da Gamba Player") [above] by painter Bernardo Strozzi (c. 1581 – 1644). It is unknown if Bernardo Strozzi was a relation. It is most likely that he was not.
At least three of Barbara's four children were with Giovanni Paolo Vidman, a patron of early opera and an associate of her father. Vidman and Strozzi maintained a long-term relationship but never married because Vidman. This was not uncommon in a time period where aristocratic patrimony was of higher importance than marital status. Barbara lived with her parents until their deaths and continue to reside in the family home which was rented from the Vidmans.
In 1665, she composed a group of songs for Carlo II, Duke of Mantua. However, there is not much information of her life after this. Strozzi died in Padua, a city in the Venetian region, in 1677 the age of 58. Although it is possible that she was in fact older as a person who was present at the time of her death wrote that she died at the age of 70. She died without a will and her son Giulio Pietro inherited in full. Barbara's two daughter joined convents, and her other son became a monk.
Fontijn, Claire Anne. Uncovering Music of Early European WOMEN (1250-1750). New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2020.
Glixon, Beth L. “New Light on the Life and Career of Barbara Strozzi.” OUP Academic. Oxford University Press, July 1, 1997. https://doi.org/10.1093/mq/81.2.311
Glixon, Beth L. “More on the Life and Death of Barbara Strozzi.” OUP Academic. Oxford University Press, March 1, 1999. https://doi.org/10.1093/mq/83.1.134
Greenberg, Robert. “Music History MONDAY: Barbara Strozzi: Now You Know!” Robert Greenberg | Speaker, Composer, Author, Professor, Historian. Accessed August 6, 2021. https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-barbara-strozzi-now-you-know/
Magner, Candace. “Barbara Strozzi.” Complete texts, translations, and references, May 13, 2020. https://barbarastrozzi.com/
Miller, Cait. “Barbara Strozzi at 400.” Barbara Strozzi at 400 | In The Muse: Performing Arts Blog, September 17, 2019. https://blogs.loc.gov/music/2019/09/barbara-strozzi-at-400/
Stevenson, Joseph. “Barbara Strozzi: Biography & History.” AllMusic. Accessed August 6, 2021. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/barbara-strozzi-mn0000365512/biography
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.