Enrich Your Life with the Music of 6 Unacknowledged Supernova Composers
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
If you were a woman in 17th century Europe you would have been forbidden to even poke your little satin slippered toe inside a music school — unless that is, you lived in Italy.
Italy in the 1600’s saw the flourishing of several supernova female composers.
These women wrote opera exclusively for royalty and invented new music forms like the cantata.
Why isn’t the transcendent music of these women wafting out over the air waves of classical musical stations today?
Several reasons. One big one is the music of that era was given voice in church.
It’s thought ecclesiastical leaders helped silence the voice of female musicians around the close of the 1600’s by invoking Paul’s biblical injunction in I Timothy. This injunction dictated women could neither speak, sing nor play an instrument in church.
Since then much of the music and memory of these female composers has perished.
But we can still reach out and reclaim women like these from historical oblivion by enjoying what is left of their celestial music.
I want to share with you my mini history/discography of six Italian composers born between 1587 and the modern era who’ve blown my mind and ears.
Any of these 6 names ring a bell?
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.
But here is one great opportunity to experience the best collection of her works available today:
O Viva Rosa , 2010.
Below is a short clip of Caccini’s Music to enjoy on youtube.
Now let’s talk about nuns…
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.”
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 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, you were labeled 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.
(This is probably why there isn’t more Caccini music around. Caccini 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].”
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 Stozzi have been forgotten.
4. Elsa Respighi (1894 –1996)
Few 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.
World premiere recordings of songs by Elsa Respighi along with the work of composers Lori Laitman and Modesta Bor were released in 2014.
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.”
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 best known for her theatrical concert works that explore the concept of otherness.
Listen to Lucia at Home:
Had you heard of any of these women before? Let me know your thoughts or experiences in the COMMENTS below. 🙂
PS: Are you curious about the recent theory that gifted composer Anna Magdalena Bach, wrote some of her husband Johann’s finest works?