Baroque Women Composers (Italian)


When one thinks of the Baroque era of music history, the names that come to mind are Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. However, some of the most prolific composers of the 17th century were women! These women were unique for their time and, while renowned during their lifetimes, are only recently getting the historical recognition due them for their contributions to classical music. Join Active Minds as we explore the lives and music of three notable Italian female composers: Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, and Isabella Leonarda.

Key Lecture Points

  • The term “Baroque” applies to the style of European art, architecture, and music popular between roughly 1600-1750 AD, characterized by lush detail, ornamentation, and often excessive flamboyance. Baroque composers experimented with ways to make music sound fuller, denser, and more complicated and virtuosic. The orchestra, the opera, the sonata, and the pianoforte were all products of this era.
  • Women in Baroque Europe were depicted in art and viewed as saints, sinners, or in a domestic capacity, but always represented in terms of their relation to and value to the men around them. Women composers thus had few opportunities to make a career of music in an institutional post such as a court or church. Even fewer were fortunate enough to publish works in their own name for the historical record.
  • Francesca Caccini was exceptional for her time as she had a stable career as a court musician, due both to the education given her by her musical father and to the unique “women’s culture” of the Medici Court in Florence, Italy. An accomplished singer, she composed technically demanding vocal works and published a book of secular madrigals, arias, and sacred monodies. Her 1625 comedy ballet “The Liberation of Ruggiero” is widely regarded as the first opera composed by a woman, and showed both her musical creativity and her sense of large-scale musical design.
  • Barbara Strozzi also benefited from a well-connected family, exposed to her father’s intellectual and musical circles and, scandalously, participating and performing in their midst.  Also a virtuosic singer, she published 8 collections of mostly secular vocal music that showed off the skill and power of the soprano singer. Strozzi is credited with inventing the cantata. She never married, was a single mother, and never had a musical patron, and yet her independence and entrepreneurship, not to mention her prolific composing, were unique to her time.
  • Isabella Leonarda spent most of her life in an Italian convent, but that did not stop her musical work from being renowned and published. Called “the Novarese Muse,” she wrote nearly 200 sacred motets, liturgical pieces, and vocal concertos, and was known for her musical expression and ornamentation. Most notably, she was the first woman known to have composed instrumental sonatas, of which she wrote twelve. While she claimed she only wrote music to express her devotion to the Virgin Mary, her work was renowned in her lifetime and has entered the history books.

Discussion Questions

  • How did the development of the piano represent the artistic values of the Baroque period?
  • What notable accomplishment for Baroque women did Caccini, Strozzi, and Leonarda all share?
  • How did Caccini’s vocal prowess influence her compositions and win her employment?
  • Why do some historians think that Strozzi was a courtesan, and what may prove that wrong?
  • How do Leonarda’s motets reflect the musical legacy of composers like Josquin de Prez?