Orazio gentileschi header

Orazio Gentileschi, The Lute Player. (Public Domain)

While there are lots of reasons to love Hildegard of Bingen, today we'll travel beyond her abbey in twelfth century Germany to make the acquaintance of a few more female early music composers.

Francesca Caccini (1587 - after 1637)

The powerful Medici family of Florence knew and loved good music, and could afford to hire the best musicians and composers to grace their court. The virtuoso singer and composer Francesca Caccini was for a time the highest paid musician at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II. She was also the first woman to compose opera in Italy. Today she's best remembered for her songs, while only one of her operas has survived: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, first performed in Florence for the visit of Prince Władisław of Poland during Carnival 1625. The work was praised by her contemporaries and Prince Władisław was so taken with Caccini's work that he commissioned two new operas from her.

Here's a terrific 2017 recording of La liberazione on Spotify, featuring Allabastrina and La Pifarescha.

Barbara Strozzi (1619 - 1677)

Barbara was the adopted daughter of the poet Giulio Strozzi, who actively helped his daughter develop her formidable talents. He created a venue for her to display her gifts as a singer by forming the Accademia degli Unisoni, a musical offshoot of a literary academy in Venice. The minutes of their meetings indicate that Barbara frequently sang there. Barbara was also blessed with the talent to compose, so her father arranged for her to have lessons from Francesco Cavalli, an influential composer of opera in seventeenth century Venice.

Nearly all of Barbara Strozzi's surviving compositions are arias or cantatas for solo voice, mainly soprano. Puns on her name in the texts indicate that she probably wrote them as a vehicle for her own voice. She published eight volumes of music during her life, dedicating them all to wealthy patrons, thereby earning a living for herself and her four children. She was called "the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the middle of the century."

Give a listen to madrigals from her first published collection, which she dedicated to the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1644. The texts were written by her father.

Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665 - 1729)

Élisabeth Jacquet was a child prodigy, and as an adult became something of a superstar, only to fall into complete obscurity after her death in 1729. King Louis XIV heard her play the harpsichord as a young child, and became an important patron. She married an organist named Marin de la Guerre who seemed to fully support her music-making, since after her marriage she continued to compose, perform, and teach. She became the first woman to compose opera in France, and her music was included in one of the few collections of harpsichord pieces to be published in France in the seventeenth century. A contemporary described her ability to play preludes and fantasies off the cuff: "Sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners." Besides operas and keyboard music, she also composed chamber music. Jacquet de la Guerre's last work seems to have been a Te Deum sung in August 1721 in the chapel of the Louvre in thanksgiving for the recovery of Louis XV from smallpox.

Here's a 2017 album of Jacquet de la Guerre's violin sonatas.

Leonore d'Este (1515 - 1575)

In 2017, Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens released a CD called 'Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter'. The daughter was named Leonore d'Este, born in 1515. When she was eight she informed her father that she wanted to become a nun, and spent most of her life in the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, becoming abbess when she was eighteen.

Music was her passion–we know from family records that she had a clavichord, a harpsichord, and an organ in her quarters.

All the motets on this disc are anonymous, but research suggests they may have actually been written by Leonore d'Este. A composer who was both a member of the nobility and a woman had every reason to conceal her identity. The church authorities were deeply suspicious of polyphonic music sung by nuns, saying it led to vanity, and would be too seductive for listeners to handle!

The music is progressive and daring, obviously the product of a self-assured and practiced composer. Listen to the dissonances in this work, Haec dies quam fecit Dominus, written for Easter. It celebrates the end of the penitential season by imitating the tolling of the bells in Ferrara.