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Composer Biography: Barbara Strozzi (1617-1677)
When you think of Baroque music, you probably think of the masters, like Johann Sebastian Bach, Heinrich Schutz, Claudio Monteverdi, Marc Antoine Charpentier, and Johann Pachelbel. If you’re really into the period, you probably also think of Giacomo Carissimi, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Samuel Scheidt, Dietrich Buxtehude, Arcangelo Corelli, and Henry Purcell. The odds are, though, that you haven’t heard of Barbara Strozzi.

But you should have. Let me introduce you.

Barbara Strozzi was born to Isabella Garzon, the longtime servant and heir of poet Giulio Strozzi in 1617. Although her birth father’s name is undeclared, because Giulio so clearly doted on the child, it’s assumed that he fathered her. He later adopted her legally.

By the time Barbara was 11,Giulio had declared her his heir. He was no ordinary wealthy and philandering nobleman dandling the serving girl on his knee, mind you. He was deeply involved with the Venetian literati, and formed his own music academy devoted to musical and poetic arts, at least in part to give Barbara a place to perform. In his will of 1628, he calls her Barbara Valle, and it’s probable that that document was part of a formal adoption process. In 1650, his final will calls her “Barbara of Santa Sofia, my elective daughter, commonly called Strozzi.”

She ended up inheriting very little, not even enough to cover burial costs or his own charitable wishes. Giulio requested that she use her own money on his behalf as a “remembering.” His precarious financial situation may account for the absence of a dowry and why there is no record of any marriage for Barbara or for him. Even the nunnery wasn’t an option because he couldn’t afford it, and due to the nature of his academy, her reputation wasn’t pure enough for that anyway. His reputation was that of a libertine, and rightly so.

But before all that death and debt, Giulio and Barbara (and presumably Isabella) lived happily in Venice during the heyday of the opera. Both father and daughter studied with famous opera composer Francesco Cavalli, and although Barbara was quite an accomplished singer (she was known as the “virtuosissima cantatrice”), she never sang opera, preferring the much less grand style of chamber music.
Giulio had feminist sympathies, which was a popular cause of the well-educated and super-literate, and it isn’t a surprise that he supported Barbara’s efforts at composition and performing. But women who performed in theaters and operas often had rather shady reputations, so Barbara preferred to perform in the sanctuary that was their home.

Giuio founded an academy in his home, called Accademia degli Unisoni (Academy for the Like-Minded), where regular performances of music and poetry were enjoyed by the artists themselves. It’s possible that he did this to provide Barbara with a suitable venue for her singing skills. The first indication that Barbara performed among them was in 1635, when Nicolo Fontei wrote two volumes of songs for her, to texts written by Giulio. She was 18.

Her own early compositions were underwritten by her father, and later ones were purchased by high-ranking patrons from Venice and across the Alps. She was slandered by male contemporaries, called a courtesan (which may not have been wide of the mark), and many of the dedications in her published works reflect her preparedness for the eventuality of slander. It was still quite rare for women to publish under their own names; they were accused of immodesty. Performers and courtesans were considered one and the same, and music was thought to be a kind of “gateway drug,” appealing to the sensual side of women and encouraging increasing levels of loose living.

Barbara’s personal life is poorly documented, but a married man, named Giovanni Paolo Vidman, fathered at least three of her four children (Giulio Pietro, Massimo, Isabella, and Laura, all born in the 1640s). Vidman (whose name is occasionally spelled Widmann) was a librettist and probably a member of the academy. He left nothing to Barbara and the children in his will, and she supported herself and the children through clever investments and by publishing her compositions. Despite his oversight, other members of the Vidman family helped to support Barbara’s children, including getting both daughters into a convent in the 1650s.

The need to support herself and her children led to prolific publication. In all, there were more than 100 works, all vocal music, mostly for solo voice and continuo. There were eight volumes of music published between 1644 and 1664. She published more cantatas than any other composer of her time.

It’s obvious that she was a soprano, as only two of her solo works are for other voices. The rest of the pieces are for duets, trios, quartets, and quintets, most of which include at least one soprano. Based on the lines she wrote and those written for her to sing, her voice was clearly lyrical and lithe.

The accompaniment she wrote was for continuo (a simple line, usually little more than a bass line, but expandable to creative keyboard effects) and it’s likely that she played the accompaniment herself on the lute or chitarrone.

She used only the most popular forms of music: arias, cantatas, and lamentations. An aria has a refrain at the beginning and end with a expositive melody in the middle, a cantata follows a story line and might take several movements to tell the tale. A lamentation, just as it sounds, is a song mourning the loss of something, often a Bible story that uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to distinguish the various parts, tales from Greek or Roman mythology used as allegories for something going on at the time of the composition, and occasionally, the sad story of love gone wrong. The lion’s share of Barbara’s compositions were secular, which may have been a reaction to being a female composer excluded from most traditional venues, or may simply have been what she was most familiar with.
She was particularly fond of repeated themes, and often used recognizable rhythmic and melodic patterns or moved a long and distinctive phrase to another place along the scale (Bach does this on a grander scale in the fugue form). She used long melismas (where the melody wiggles around on a single syllable rather than changing notes with every syllable), often chromatic (all of the notes on the piano, white and black, within a scale—twelve notes instead of eight), containing large leaps, syncopations, and interruptions, and all meant to expose the natural beauty of the human voice.

Barbara’s style was dependent on vocal qualities. She only wrote chamber music, which was a small sound, meant to be heard in a home rather than a performance hall. Her style indulges in word-painting (if the character is climbing a mountain, all the notes go up in steps, for example), although she liked to repeat and lengthen certain words or phrases to suit her song. Her compositions thrived on repetition and could make a full-length cantata out of four or five lines of text.

Her father wrote the texts for her early compositions and she or members of the academy wrote the rest. Her favorite subject was unrequited love, and the pieces are often ironic or humorous. She argued that there were two methods for romantic persuasion, tears and music, and joked to attendees that the previous meeting of the academy might have been less popular if they had been invited to watch her cry instead of sing.

Most of the music published by women in northern Italy in the seventeenth century was composed by nuns, especially those of Milan, Bologna, Pavia, and Novara, and were usually psalms, Magnificats, and Masses. Barbara’s mostly secular works were published throughout Italy and across the alps. Her final collection was published in 1664 and she dropped out of sight after that. There are letters from her in Venice in mid 1677, but she moved to Padua by the end of the summer and died there.

Barbara Strozzi is buried at Erimitani in Padua. She died without leaving a will, and her son Giulio Pietro inherited everything. The other three children were all in monasteries.
Sources:
      “Women Making Music,” Edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987 (article by Ellen Rosand)
      “Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates, Northeaster University Press, Boston, 1996
      “Women and Music,” Edited by Karin Pendle, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001
      “Five Centuries of Music in Venice,” by H.C. Robbins Landon and John Julius Norwich, Schirmer Books, New York, 1991
      “History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton Company, New York, 2010