6 of the Greatest Italian Composers You’ve Never Heard Of (Hint- They’re Not Men)
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Imagine you’re alive in Europe in the 1600s.
And you’ve been born with the brains of a genius composer.
But, you happen to be female.
So despite your brilliance, you wouldn’t be able to poke one tiny satin slippered toe, inside a music school to study composition.
Unless you happened to live in Italy.
Seventeenth-century Italy seems to have been a kind of cosmic nursery where supernova female composers were born as well as heard.
For instance, one female Italian composer of the era wrote operas of such brilliance that the Medici contracted her to write for them and them alone.
In the same vein, another Italian genius of the era didn’t get married because she was too busy inventing the cantata.
So why don’t we know of these women?
And why isn’t their music wafting out over the airwaves of classical musical stations today?
Well, it seems like one big reason was that the music of the late 1600s was mostly heard in church.
And apparently, church leaders in the late 1600’s silenced the voice of female composers when they insisted women obey Paul’s injunction in First Timothy in the bible.
This injunction was interpreted as forbidding women to speak, or even sing or play an instrument in church.
So in other words, if your work couldn’t be played in the church it probably wasn’t going to be heard anywhere else.
Since then much of the music and memory of these Italian female composers have been forgotten.
However, we can certainly still reach out and give these women a hand up and out of historical oblivion by listening to what’s left of their celestial music.
The good news is there has been a recent upsurge in the publication of their work.
As an illustration, I’ve included several tracks below.
You can listen to a track (or purchase an album)for each of the six mind-blowing Italian composers we’ll now meet who were born between 1587 and the modern era.
How many of the following six composers have you heard of?
Genius Composer 1
Francesca Caccini (1587-1640)
Our first genius composer Francesca Caccini wrote acclaimed operas for Italian Queen Maria de’ Medici.
Did you know the first Italian opera ever performed outside of Italy was Caccini’s 1625 masterwork La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina?
A music critic of the time commented Caccini’s compositions for church and stage gave her listeners “a momentary experience of inhabiting the heavens.”
Few professionally published works of Caccini exist. This is due to reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
But here is one great opportunity to experience the foremost collection of her works available today: O Viva Rosa, 2010.
In order to speak of our second composer, we need to talk about the importance of nuns in musical history.
Genius Composer 2
Sister Vittoria Aleotti (c. 1575 – c. 1620)
Who were the most famous musicians of mid-Renaissance Milan?
How about four examples of brilliant composer-nuns?
Firstly Claudia Sessa.
Secondly Claudia Rusca.
Thirdly Chiara Margarita Cozzolani.
Fourthly Rosa Giacinta Badella.
But the nun we need to focus on above all the rest in this era should be Ferrera-born Vittoria Aleotti (aka Raphaella Aleotti.)
Aleotti lands at the top of almost everyone’s list of Italian musical masters who happened to wear a habit.
Give a listen to this seriously sublime disc of Aleotti’s music here: Nuns of San Vito, 2007.
We can’t talk about Baroque era nuns without talking about the Baroque era “courtesans.”
Hence our third composer will be the genius courtesan — Barbara Strozzi.
Genius Composer 3
“Courtesan Composer” Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)
Several music scholars insist Barbara Strozzi invented the cantata form in Italy.
Her achievements are remarkable considering she came from a blue-collar Venetian family.
Because if you wanted to create or sing music in the Baroque period and you were not from an upper-class family, polite society usually labeled you a courtesan/prostitute.
Women from the most noteworthy families could compose and play without the prostitute label.
But, women from “good” families were sternly discouraged from publishing that music.
Why is there so little Caccini music around anymore?
Most likely because her work was never published publicly.
The savvy Strozzi understood the lay of the land.
I believe she consciously chose the courtesan label.
She did this in order to be able to play, compose, and most importantly publish her music at will.
Consequently, Strozzi didn’t squander her social sacrifice.
As music authority Anna Beer notes:
“Strozzi had more music in print during her lifetime than any other composer of her era [male or female].”
Beer’s book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music is inspiring and well researched. It’s jargon-free and I found it shocking, inspiring, and delightful.
Get it if you’re into baroque music, women’s music or women’s history.
How to Hear Barbara Strozzi Today:
This Strozzi disk is a listener favorite.
If you listen to this CD you may ask yourself: ‘Why a composer as brilliant as Strozzi has been forgotten?’
Genius Composer 4
Elsa Respighi (1894 –1996)
Few people know that mezzo-soprano Elsa Respighi, the wife of the renowned composer Ottorino Respighi, was herself a gifted composer.
I see Elsa Respighi as the Italian representative of a group of more modern female composers who’ve gone unrecognized.
Similarly, they remained in the shadows known only as the wife or sister of a famous male composer.
How to Listen to Elsa Respighi at Home:
2014 saw the release of world premiere recordings of songs by Elsa Respighi.
Genius Composer 5
Elisabetta Brusa (1954- )
Elisabetta Brusa is a contemporary composer whose music graces the airwaves of Italian classical stations, RAI TV in Italy, and BBC Radio.
The BBC Philharmonic, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra have performed Brusa’s work.
Here’s how to bring home The Brusa:
Symphony No. 1, Merlin– Symphonic Poem, 2015.
This piece conjures up the great wizard of Arthurian legend “through rich orchestral colors and powerful rhythms.”
Genius Composer 6
Lucia Ronchetti, (1963- )
In conclusion, we end with the Fullbright fellow on our list.
Lucia Ronchetti is a multi-award-winning, avant-garde composer for computer and orchestra.
She reminds me a bit of Phillip Glass.
Ronchetti’s is most famous for her theatrical concert works.
How to Listen to Lucia at Home:
Lezioni di Tenebra and Other Classics, by Lucia Ronchetti, 2012.
Who is your favorite composer? Are you a female musician or music lover?
Let me know in the COMMENTS below.
PS: Are you curious about the recent theory that gifted composer Anna Magdalena Bach, wrote some of Johann’s best works?