Throughout Western music history, women have produced innovative, moving compositions, and the realm of early music is no exception. In this list, we’ll profile nine of the many pathfinding women who composed from the Middle Ages to the High Baroque.
Kassia (or Kassianē) the Hymnographer (born c. 810, died by 867) was a highly educated Byzantine noblewoman. According to legend, she was offered as a potential bride for Emperor Theophilos, who challenged her with the statement, “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” referring to the biblical sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Instead of responding submissively, Kassia replied, “And through a woman came the better things.” referring to the pivotal role of the Virgin Mary. Theophilos opted for a less assertive bride, and Kassia became the founder and abbess of a convent in Constantinople, where she wrote, taught, and composed.
Kassia remained a force to be reckoned with throughout her career, for example, defending the traditional use of ikons in Byzantine worship when the Emperor sought to stamp out the practice. Despite being punished with whipping, she stood by her beliefs, supporting other persecuted clerics, and writing, “I hate silence when it is time to speak.”
Kassia composed hymns which are remarkable for their expressive melding of music and text. Her hymn on the penitence of Mary Magdalene, Kyrie hē en pollais, is also known simply as the Hymn of St. Kassiane. It remains an integral part of worship on the evening of Holy Tuesday in the Byzantine rite. Kassia holds a scroll of this hymn in the ikon pictured above. Kassia’s work has been championed by the Portland choir Capella Romana, and its director Alexander Lingas.
The eleventh-century German polymath Hildegard (1098-1179) was one of the great minds of the Middle Ages. Hildegard was a visionary, theologian, poet and composer. Like Kassia, Hildegard founded her own convent: the cloistered life was often a refuge for women intellectuals in the Middle Ages, offering the opportunity to pursue scholarship and the arts. Hildegard’s own scholarship was vast: she wrote about medicine and natural history, corresponded with popes and emperors, and embarked on public tours as a preacher. The above portrait of Hildegard comes from her hypnotically beautiful mystical work, Scivias.
The collection of Hildegard’s compositions is known as her Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. Remarkably, and unlike nearly every medieval Catholic composer, her compositions are wholly original, not based on existing plainchant. They are also sensitively idiomatic to the female voice. Hildegard’s antiphon Caritas habundat in omnia is a beautiful example of her brilliance as a composer and a poet:
“Love abounds in all, from the depths exalted and excelling over every star, and most beloved of all, for to the highest King she gave the kiss of peace.”
The Comtessa di Dia (fl. late 12th/early 13th century) was a trobairitz: a woman troubadour. History records many trobairitz active in the 12th and 13th centuries, composing courtly secular songs in the Occitan language of Provence and northern Spain. Troubadours frequently composed songs on the theme of faithful men loving aloof, unattainable women. The poetry of the trobairitz offers a fascinating feminine take on the troubadours’ tradition of courtly love poetry. The Comtessa’s poetry flips the male troubadour narrative, with the woman as the romantic pursuer.
The Comtessa is depicted in several manuscripts, including the 13th-century illustration reproduced above, along with her vida, or biographical sketch.
“The countess of Dia was the wife of Lord Guillem de Poitou, a beautiful and good lady. And she fell in love with Lord Raimbaut d’Aurenga and composed many good songs about him.”
The vida does not tell us the Comtessa’s given name, which remains a mystery. Some scholars identify her as Beatriz, daughter of the Count of the town of Dia in Provence, and wife of Guilhem I of Poitiers. For this reason she is sometimes credited as “Beatriz di Dia.”
We have several of her poems, but the Comtessa’s haunting, plaintive love song A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria is the only trobairitz song which survives with music as well as poetry intact.
Italian lutenist, singer, and composer Maddelena Casulana (c. 1544 – c. 1590) was the first known woman in European history to publish books of her own music. In total she published three volumes of madrigals, containing sixty-six works, as well as several more pieces that appeared in anthologies.
Casulana was based in the Italian city of Vicenza, but she received acclaim abroad: in 1568, she composed a five-part choral work for the royal wedding of Wilhelm IV of Bavaria and Renée of Lorraine in Munich. One of her noble patrons paid her travel expenses so she could attend the festivities and hear her work conducted by Orlando di Lasso.
In addition to composing, Casulana was a talented singer. In 1582, a listener described her singing after a banquet in Perugia: “The famous Casulana sang divinely with music of the lute.”
She was also a teacher: in 1568, Antonio Molino published a book of madrigals which he dedicated to Casulana, saying that he had studied music with her, and that he had been “led away by the art of the young woman from Vicenza and this has led him to engage in experiments of his own.”
Three of the book’s madrigal texts are poems in praise of Maddalena Casulana. In the dedication of her First Book of Madrigals, Casulana expressed her mission as a composer: “I want … to show the world (as much is possible in the profession of music) the vain error of men that they alone possess intellectual gifts, and who appear to believe that the same gifts are not possible for women.”
Florentine singer and composer Francesca Caccini (1587 – after 1641) was enough of a star to be known by a single name: “La Cecchina.” A virtuoso soprano, she excelled in the early baroque style known as monody: music with an expressive, fluid vocal melody layered over a simple continuo accompaniment. In 1618 Caccini published her Primo libro delle musiche, a collection of both which sacred and secular monody.
Caccini spent much of her career working for the Medici family, and at one point was the highest-paid musician at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II. In addition to singing and composing for court entertainment, it appears she also led a women’s vocal ensemble, referred to in court diaries as “La Signora Francesca and her pupils.”
Caccini’s family was musical: her sister, Settimia Caccini, was another singer and composer. Their father was Giulio Caccini, one of monody’s first proponents, and part of a circle of Florentine writers and artists who used monody as the expressive language for a brand-new genre around 1600: opera. In 1625, Francesca Caccini became the first woman to compose an opera, when her Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina premiered in Florence. The work is notable for its dramatic vocal writing and powerful female characters.
Leonora Duarte (1610 – c. 1678?) was a Flemish lutenist and singer. Her family were Portuguese Jewish conversos, a term which referred to Jews who had converted to Catholicism for social reasons, but who likely maintained their Jewish faith in private. Leonora and her siblings were trained in music, and their performances were of such quality that the Duarte home became a gathering place for artists, singers, poets, and composers passing through Antwerp from throughout Europe. One member of their circle, diplomat and composer Constantijn Huygens, called the Duarte home the “Antwerp Parnassus.”
The Duartes are thought to be portrayed in a 1653 painting by Gonzales Coques, which shows a family holding a variety of musical instruments. It is thought that the lady holding a guitar is Leonora Duarte.
English diarist John Evelyn visited the Duarte home in 1641, and wrote, “In the evening I was invited to Signor Duerts, a Portuguese by nation…and his three daughters, entertain’ d us with rare musick, both vocal and instrumental…”
Leonora in particular was a fine singer: her friend, British writer Margaret Cavendish, wrote to her, “your Harmonious Voice … Invites and Draws the Soul from all other Parts of the Body, with all the Loving and Amorous Passions, to sit in the Hollow Cavern of the Ear, as in a Vaulted Room, where it Listens with Delight, and is Ravished with Admiration.”
Leonora Duarte composed music for her family’s renowned performances. Her single surviving composition is a set of elegant Sinfonias, fantasias for viol consort. As for Duarte’s performance of her works, we have this praise from one of the many cultured visitors to the Duarte home: “Music heard there sounded better than at the house of Monteverdi in Venice.”
Photo: Some researchers have suggested that this portrait portrays Leonora Duarte.
Like Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677) was a virtuoso singer from an artistic family. Her adoptive father (possibly also her biological father) was poet Giulio Strozzi, a member of Venetian creatives who called themselves the Accademia della Incogniti (Academy of the Unknowns). The Incogniti met regularly to discuss and promote innovation in the arts. Giulio Strozzi founded an offshoot group to provide Barbara with performance opportunities and an intellectual forum. Strozzi sang, composed, and suggested debate topics within this stimulating circle, and she had the respect of her colleagues: Incogniti composer Nicolò Fontei called her la virtuossima cantatrice (that most virtuosic singer).
Barbara Strozzi had four children, but her illegitimate birth meant that if even she did desire the social and financial security offered by legal marriage, it was likely not an option for her. Instead, after the death of her father, Strozzi appears to have supported herself almost entirely by composition, a remarkable feat for any 17th century musician. Strozzi published a total of eight volumes of compositions over the course of her life.
Most of Strozzi’s works are cantatas and arias for solo soprano, styled with a thorough understanding of the lyric soprano voice – probably her own voice, as scholars think that Strozzi regularly performed her own works. She also tucked puns on her own name into her compositions, a delightful fact that offers a glimpse into the confident, witty personality who held her own in academic meetings among with the intelligentsia of Venice.
Italian abbess Isabella Leonarda (1620–1704) was the Baroque’s most prolific woman composers, with more than 200 compositions to her name. She as served music instructor at the Collegio di Sant’Orsola, an Ursuline convent in the Italian city of Novara, where she eventually rose to the rank of Mother Superior.
Leonarda’s order was not cloistered, so in addition to the musical life at her convent, she maintained an in influential professional and social life in Novara. In 1701, writer Lazaro Agostino Cotta published a glowing profile of Leonarda in his Museo novarese, a directory of Novara’s eminent citizens.
“There shines with glorious fame the name of Isabella Leonarda, who because of the singular esteem in which she is held in the art of music could rightly call herself the Novarese Muse par excellence.”
Leonarda composed and published many collections of sacred music for voices, ranging from passionately expressive solo motets, to grand choral works like Ave, Regina Caelormum in her Motetti con le litanie della Beata Vergine Op. 10 (published in Milan, 1684). Her volume of Sonatas, Op. 16 (1693), is the first known publication of instrumental sonatas by a woman.
Cotta’s 1701 article on Leonarda reprints a sonnet written in her honor by Amadeo Saminaiti Lucchese. The poem compares Leonarda’s musical brilliance with the military might of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.
Leopold in war and Leonarda in peace
Are wondrous: he like Mars, she like Apollo …
…One to reign, the other to nurture calm in the heart;
One with song, the other with resounding thunder:
He triumphs with arms, she with kindnesses.
Élisabeth Jacquet (1665-1729) was descended from several generations of French harpsichord builders, harpsichordists and organists. Jacquet herself began her career as a singer and harpsichordist at the age of five, in the court of Louis XIV. In 1684 she married organist Marin de la Guerre became a celebrated teacher, organist and harpsichordist in Paris.
Jacquet de la Guerre composed harpsichord suites suited to her own virtuosic, fluid playing. She was also the first French woman to compose opera. She was passionate about using music to express text, as she wrote in the preface to her third book of Cantatas françoises (c.1715),
“I am convinced that vocal music that does not express what one sings [i.e., the text] will not be favored by … those whose taste and understanding go hand in hand.”
Three years after Jacquet de la Guerre’s death, Titon du Tillet wrote about her in his tribute to prominent artists from the reign of Louis XIC, Le parnasse François (1732). Du Tillet ranked her with the greatest musicians of France, second only to the Sun-King’s court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. The work contains a medallion portrait of Jacquet de la Guerre, inscribed,
“I contended for the prize with the greatest musicians.”
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Briscoe, James R., ed. New Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Bruckner, Matilda, Laurie Shepard and Sarah White. Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
Porter, Cecelia Hopkins. Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Rech, Adelheid. “Music in the time of Vermeer: The Duarte Family – the “Antwerp Parnassus.” EssentialVermeer.com.
Sadie, Julie Anne and Rhian Samuel. The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.