The 6 Great Italian Composers, They Don’t Tell You About in School
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Imagine you’re alive in Europe in the 1600s.
Fortunately, you’ve been born with the brains of a genius composer.
But you happen to be female.
You wouldn’t be able to poke your tiny satin slippered toe inside a music school to study composition.
Unless you lived in Italy.
Seventeenth-century Italy seems to have been a kind of cosmic nursery where supernova female composers could be born.
For example, one Italian female composer of the seventeenth century wrote operas — exclusively for Medici royalty.
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?
Why isn’t their music wafting out over the airwaves of classical musical stations today?
But the simplest one is because the music of the late 1600s was mostly heard in church.
And it seems 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, sing or play an instrument in church.
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 has been forgotten.
But we can still reach out and give women 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 such work.
I’ve included these tracks below.
Let’s take a mini-trip through history that stars six mind-blowing Italian composers born between 1587 and the modern era.
How many of these composers have you heard of?
Genius Composer 1
Francesca Caccini (1587-1640)
Genius composer Francesca Caccini wrote acclaimed operas for Italian Queen Maria de’ Medici.
Caccini’s 1625 La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, was the first Italian opera ever performed outside of Italy.
A music critic of the time commented Caccini’s compositions for church and stage gave listeners “a momentary experience of inhabiting the heavens.”
Few of Caccini’s works were professionally published due to reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
But here is one great opportunity to experience the best collection of her works available today: O Viva Rosa, 2010.
Now let’s talk about nuns.
Genius Composer 2
Sister Vittoria Aleotti (c. 1575 – c. 1620)
Would you be surprised to learn that the most famous musicians of mid-Renaissance Milan, were in fact — nuns?
Music composed by four nuns in particular; Claudia Sessa, Claudia Rusca, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, and Rosa Giacinta Badella is sublime.
Ferrera-born Vittoria Aleotti (aka Raphaella Aleotti) places near the top of any 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 Baroque era “courtesans.”
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.
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 “good” families could compose and play without the prostitute label.
But, women from “good” families were sternly discouraged from publishing that music.
Why is there little Caccini music around anymore?
Probably 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 so she could play, compose, and most importantly publish her music at will.
Stozzi 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 is inspiring and well researched. It’s jargon-free and delightful to read.
It’s a great book to bring on a vacation 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.
When you hear CD’s like this you too may question why women like Strozzi have 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.
They remained in the shadows known only as the wife or sister of a famous male composer.
Listen to Elsa Respighi at Home:
Over The Fence, 2014.
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, BBC radio and RAI TV in Italy.
The BBC Philharmonic, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra have performed Brusa’s work.
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- )
Fulbright fellow 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.
Listen to Lucia at Home:
Have you heard of any of these women?
Any others to add to this list? 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 finest works?