Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Barbara Strozzi: Venetian Intellectual, Performer, and Composer

Barbara Strozzi (baptized 6 August 1619)

A c. 1630 portrait, The Viola da Gamba Player,
generally regarded as a portait
of Barbara Strozzi
Almost certainly the daughter of the poet and librettist Giulio Strozzi, Barbara was born to Isabella Garzoni, a member of Strozzi's Venetian household. Although her 1619 baptismal certificate lists the father as "incerto" (unknown), and although Giulio Strozzi's 1628 will gives Barbara's last name at that time as "Valle," scholars generally assume that she was Strozzi's child. 

In Giulio's final will, dated to 1650, Barbara, by then identified as Barbara Strozzi, is named as his figliuola elettiva--his "adopted daughter," though music historian Ellen Rosand notes that this is likely a euphemism for "illegitimate." (Illegitimacy presents not quite the same social stigma we might assume--a member of the ancient and noble Florentine family, Giulio Strozzi was himself the illegitimate son of Roberto Strozzi, who was the illegitimate son of . . . Well, you get the picture.)

Whether Barbara was his natural or adopted daughter, Giulio Strozzi provided his figliuola elettiva with an education and training--and entrance into a musical world that would otherwise have been closed to her as a woman. Although not much about of her formal training is known, she later named the composer Francesco Cavalli, an early composer of operas and the musical director of St. Mark's Cathedral, as one of her tutors. 

By 1634, Barbara Strozzi was noted for her performances at gatherings of both writers and musicians at the Strozzi home, perhaps arranged by Giulio in order to advance her career. If so, his plan succeeded--her voice and performance inspired the composition of two separate sets of songs by Nicolò Fontei, who described Barbara as la virtuosissima cantatrice (the most virtuosic singer).

By 1637, Strozzi had founded his own musical salon, the Accademia degli Unisoni (Academy of the Like-Minded), the group's name a pun on both "like-minded" and the practice of singing "in unison." Barbara Strozzi's role as both a participant in the meetings of the academy (Rosand indicates she was a kind of "hostess and guiding spirit" directing intellectual debate of the academy) and as an exceptional performer drew the attention of male observers--a pamphlet published by a member of a rival academy not only attacked the "like-minded" members of Giulio Strozzi's academy, it insulted Barbara Strozzi, linking her musical performances to her sexuality, suggesting that she was promiscuous if not perverse (the pamphlet claimed she had not become pregnant because she was spending most of her time with and all of her affection on a castrato) and implying she was a courtesan.

This attack was probably either intended as satire or as a "joke," but the suggestion has stuck--in her recent Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Anna Beer not only seems to accept the old story at face value but also suggests that Giulio Strozzi prostituted his daughter--adopted or otherwise--to one of his own patrons. Okay, Beer doesn't "suggest" this--she claims it. 

Barbara Strozzi, trained and encouraged by Giulio, had a prolific and public career, her achievements recognized and accepted in Venice. She was also widely published--between 1644 and 1664, she produced eight volumes of work, some 125 compositions, including madrigals, arias, and cantatas. It is a significant body of material, and while the genres may be limited, Rosand notes that her work and its contents "places her directly within the cantata tradition of the mid-seventeenth century, along with such major figures as Luigi Rossi, Giacomo Carissimi, and Antonio Cesti. . . ." 

As Rosand also notes, it is "immediately striking" that Barbara Strozzi planned and oversaw the publication of her work, which today survives as an impressive testimony to her accomplishments.

While Beer seems unintentionally to belittle Strozzi's life and work, describing it as "erotic songs" performed by "a teenage girl" for men, Rosand provides extensive, thoughtful analysis of Strozzi's varied compositions and many examples of text and musical settings. Her article, "Barbara Strozzi, 'virtuosissima cantatrice': The Composer's Voice" (Journal of the American Musicological Society 31, no. 2 [1978]: 241-81) is an excellent resource.

And while I usually bitch about the crappy coverage--or missing coverage--of women in the Encyclopedia Britannica, you'll can find the encyclopedia's excellent entry on Strozzi by clicking here.

Rather than linking to performances of Strozzi's music on YouTube, I'll just note that there are so many available, you're spoiled for choice.

Update, 20 December 2019: A truly wonderful essay on Barbara Strozzi in today's New York Times, Bonnie Gordon's "She Quickened the Pulse of 17th Century Music," on the occasion of "her 400th birthday year."