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IWD/ Barbara Strozzi

George Ruskin pays tribute to Barbara Strozzi,a female composer whose 'remarkable story' is often eclipsed.

By George Ruskin, First year French and German

George Ruskin pays tribute to Barbara Strozzi, a female composer whose 'remarkable story' is often eclipsed.

Barbara Strozzi, born in Venice in 1619, is a lone female figure in the canon of Baroque composers. Even with the present-day zeitgeist of celebration of female classical composers, Strozzi is somewhat eclipsed by Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Hildegard Von Bingen, yet her story is far more remarkable.

Strozzi’s compositional success came despite everything. Born a poet’s illegitimate daughter, she rose through the ranks of the notoriously catty Venetian court to eventually become what Gixon describes as 'the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music'. Her life was spent in liberal Venetian circles. Her father Giulio Strozzi encouraged her talents from an early age; he created an academy of music specifically to display his daughter’s precocious musical talents, who by her teenage years was already a highly-accomplished singer and lute player. Breaking all contemporary social etiquette, Strozzi went to study composition under the early-Baroque titan Francesco Cavalli. This experience was highly formative, and after her time with Cavalli, Strozzi took the bold decision to focus on being a composer, rather than the more socially-acceptable career of singer.

She is an extremely rare example of a female Baroque composer, whose works were published not only in her lifetime, but also under her own name; neither adopting a pseudonym à la “Mrs Philharmonica”, nor trading on a dynastical surname à la Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann. The majority of her works are an accompanied female voice, and she performed her own compositions to high acclaim throughout her career. Her works intimately marry her lyrical, poetic text - of paternal influence – with highly experimental harmony. This is particularly evident in my favourite of her pieces L’Eraclito amoroso.

One can only imagine how this empowered trailblazer was received by her male contemporaries, we do know that her male courtesan colleagues did their upmost to discredit her position and success throughout her adult life. As a single mother to three children, Strozzi strikes us as an extremely modern female figure, highly successful in her career, whilst raising a family singlehandedly. When the father of her children, Giovanni Paolo Vidman died, he left her not a penny of inheritance. Nevertheless, Strozzi was financially independent through her royalties and savvy investments and left her own children a princely inheritance upon her death in 1677.

Strozzi was a prolific composer who made it her business to go against the social and religious grain. This is, perhaps, the reason why her works have not prospered, and for centuries she has been overshadowed both by her male contemporaries, and by the all too few celebrated female composers. This women’s day make it your business to revel in the majestic works of this mistreated composer.

Featured Image: Bethany Marris/ Epigram

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