Tribute to forgotten female composers of past centuries

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“I really know, most excellent Lady, that my first fruits, however imperfect, cannot produce the effect I desire, which would, in addition to furnish proof of my devotion to Your Excellency, also show the world the futile error of men who believe themselves patrons of the high gifts of intellect, which according to them cannot be possessed in the same way by women. Because of all this, I did not want to fail to publish them, hoping that in the brilliant name of Your Excellency, they would reach such a light that could kindle another higher talent to succeed more clearly in what, except the mind, I could not show.
of Your Excellency’s humblest servant, Maddalena Casulana
Venice, April 10, 1568

This is how Maddalena Casulana, the first woman to have her compositions published, threw down that gauntlet in her dedication to her patroness Isabella de’ Medici. To succeed, women composing in the Baroque era needed good family connections and a generous patron. Yet even this did not guarantee that their works would be publicly performed or published.

Portrait of Maddalena Casulana, artist unknown.

The silence of our concert halls in 2020 has caused me to reflect on those throughout history whose creativity has been silenced. One of the highlights of Salut! The year of Baroque’s 25th anniversary in 2020 was to be our brand women performances, celebrating the talents of some extraordinary composers who have been silenced not by pandemics or politics, but by social mores.

Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) obtained Louis XIV as her patron at the age of five, after impressing him with her singing and harpsichord playing. With his greatness, his indulgence and his ego, Louis personified the image of the Absolute Monarch. Every aspect of his opulent palace at Versailles, from its architecture and gardens to the arts, was designed to impress aristocrats and foreign dignitaries.

A painting of Elisabeth Jacquet from War by François de Troy (1645-1730).  She wears a black button-front dress, unbuttoned at the neck.  A pink silk sash is draped over her shoulder, and she holds a piece of paper in her left hand and a feather in her right hand.

Portrait of Elisabeth Jacquet of the War by François de Troy (1645-1730). Source Wikimedia Commons.

Louis granted artists virtually unlimited resources to pursue their creative talents, and the greatest beneficiary of the king’s munificence was Jean-Baptiste Lully. The shrewd Italian-born Lully, self-proclaimed arbiter of “French style”, dictated that no new musical style could be written, or new dance steps created, without his permission. It is in this environment that Jacquet de La Guerre lived and worked.

Unfortunately, many of his compositions have not survived. Among his cantatas, harpsichord suites and instrumental sonatas is Jacquet’s greatest work of the war, the five-act opera Cphale and Procris – the first opera written by a woman in France. It is a masterful composition with powerful expressions of grief and despair, and dramatic instrumental interludes.

Written seven years after Lully’s death but still in the Lullian style, Cephalus and Procris was not well received, despite Jacquet de la Guerre’s composer husband’s appeal to critics to support him. Whether because of its convoluted libretto or in reaction to the dictatorial suppression of Lully’s creativity, after only five performances in Paris in 1694 (and one in Strasbourg two years later by the great admirer of Jacquet de la Guerre, Sébastien of Brossard), this amazing music has been heard for nearly 300 years. It was to be his only opera.

Even women who have enjoyed great fame in their lifetime have often slipped into obscurity.

Portrait of the composer Marianna Martines by Anton von Maron (1733–1808).  A woman with white hair and a flowery headdress is seated at a table.  She wears a blue coat with a brown lining.

Portrait of Marianna Martines by Anton von Maron (1733–1808). Source Wikimedia Commons.

Marianna Martines’ (1744-1812) relationship list reads like a Who’s Who of Viennese cultural life. In the Martines family’s only large building, other residents included Joseph Haydn, Nicola Porpora, the poet Metastasio, and a princess dowager from the Esterházy family. The precociously talented young Marianna studied the keyboard with Haydn, singing with Porpora and composition with Johann Adolph Hasse. Later in life, Mozart was a frequent guest at Marianna’s famous salon concerts and composed piano four-hand sonatas to perform with her.

Martines was well educated and spoke four languages. Her reputation spread and she drew praise from all over Europe, with Charles Burney, visiting Vienna in 1772, writing, “Her performance indeed exceeded anything I had been led to expect”. Burney did, however, express reservations about the physical demands that sitting down to compose would have on her: “It’s a shame that her songwriting affects her voice.”

It’s a delightful vignette of 18th century Vienna and all of these names from Martines’ musical circle are very familiar to me, except his own. Music has always been an important part of my life – I have a clear memory of hearing Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony when I was 5 years old – but the exuberant compositions of Marianna Martines remained unknown to me for a long time, rarely appearing in concerts or publications.

450 years later, women are still underrepresented in concert programming. We owe it to such amazing women to interpret their compositions and to take up Maddalena Casulana’s challenge “to show the world the futile error of men who believe themselves patrons of the high gifts of the intellect, who according to them cannot no longer be held in the same way by women.”


Sally Melhuish OAM is artistic director of Salut! Baroque and graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory.

Salvation ! Baroque performs Women of Note in Canberra on February 24 at Albert Hall and in Sydney on February 27 at Verbrugghen Hall. Visit their website for more details.

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