6 Genius Composers They Don’t Tell You About in School
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Imagine it’s the 1600’s and you’re a genius European composer.
You happen to be female.
You wouldn’t be able to poke your tiny satin slippered toe inside a music school.
Unless you lived in Italy.
Seventeenth century Italy apparently was this supportive star nursery where supernova female composers could explode into the universe.
For example, one Italian female composer of the time wrote operas — exclusively for Medici royalty.
Another Italian genius of the time didn’t get married because she was too busy — inventing the cantata.
So why isn’t the music of these women wafting out over the air waves of classical musical stations today?
Well, of course it’s complex but let’s go with the simplest answer.
That answer begins like this:
Because music of the late 1600’s was mostly heard in church.
And it seems church leaders in the late 1600’s silenced the voice of female composers (as well as musicians and singers) when they insisted women obey Paul’s injunction in First Timothy in the bible.
This injunction forbids women to speak, sing or play an instrument in church.
If your work couldn’t be heard in church first, it probably wasn’t going to be heard anywhere else.
So since then much of the music and memory of these Italian female composers has sunk into the quick sand of forgotten history.
But we can still reach out and give women these women a hand up and out of historical oblivion by listening to the remnants of their divine music.
The good news is there has been a recent upsurge in the publication of such work. I’ve included a mini-discography here.
They’re now a few wonderful recordings to sample or purchase online.
Let’s take a mini-trip through history that stars six of the most mind blowing Italian composers born between 1587 and the modern era.
How many of these noteworthy musicians 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 often amaze those who have dived deep into the study of early music.
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 body of work is all the more remarkable because 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 they were sternly discouraged from ever having anything they wrote professionally published.
(There isn’t much Caccini music around anymore because she came from a “good” family.)
The savvy Strozzi understood the lay of the land and consciously chose the courtesan label 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, well researched and fun to read. Pick up a copy if you’re like me and love to geek out studying baroque music, women’s music or women’s history.
You’ll want read it start to finish it on your cozy couch on a wintery weekend.
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 brilliant female composers who went unrecognized; living out their life 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 along with the work of composers Lori Laitman and Modesta Bor.
Genius Composer 5
Elisabetta Brusa (1954- )
Elisabetta Brusa is a contemporary composer whose tonal compositions often grace the airwaves of Italian classical stations, BBC radio and RAI TV in Italy.
Orchestras like the BBC Philharmonic, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra have performed her work.
Bring Home The Brusa:
Symphony No. 1, Merlin– Symphonic Poem, 2015.
Brusa is best known for her three-volume orchestral work for the Naxos Records label. The first of these, “Merlin,” conjures up the great wizard of Arthurian legend “through rich orchestral colors and powerful rhythms.”
Genius Composer 6
Lucia Ronchetti, (1963- )
Roman-born Fulbright fellow Lucia Ronchetti is a multi award-winning avant-garde composer for computer and orchestra that reminds me a bit of Phillip Glass.
She is known above all for her theatrical concert works that explore the concept of otherness.
Listen to Lucia at Home:
Have you heard of any of these women? Any others to add to this list? Other thoughts? 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?