Composer Focus: Antonia Bembo
Happy September! We've been taking a bit of a break over the summer, but our Composer Focus feature is back. This month we look at Antonia Bembo, one of the composers we featured in our Venetian concert back in July.
Antonia Bembo (c. 1640-c.1720) was born in Venice and had a notable career as a singer and composer in France. She was a student of Francesco Cavalli (who also taught Barbara Strozzi), and wrote in every major genre of the time. Her most notable surviving achievement is the Produzioni armoniche: six volumes of songs mostly dedicated to Louis XIV.
Bembo’s life in Venice was dominated by two male figures - her father and her husband. Her father Giacomo Padoani was a doctor in Padua and Venice. He recognised his daughter’s talents, particularly as a singer, and attempted to use her skill as leverage to get himself a position at the Mantuan court. Bembo’s difficult relationship with her father is exemplified by his repeated threats to disinherit her for disobedience.
Her relationship with her husband, the Venetian nobleman Lorenzo Bembo, was even more turbulent and is almost certainly responsible for her relocation to Paris in order to escape from him. Among his many misdemeanours and examples of poor treatment of his family was his decision to leave for five years of military service shortly after their third child was born without making any financial provision for the family. Antonia attempted to divorce him, citing his infidelity and a number of crimes against members of their household. Although the court case was unsuccessful, he spent the final thirteen years of his life in prison after attempting to solve his financial difficulties by embezzling public funds.
It is little surprise that Bembo would seek a way to escape her marriage, and at some time before 1676 she moved to Paris. Here she likely worked as a music teacher, before developing her career as a composer. She sang for Louis XIV, and impressed him enough to be granted a pension and housing at the Petite Union Chrétienne des Dames de Saint Chaimont, a religious institution. This finally gave her the peace and freedom which she needed to compose.
As Bembo herself was a soprano, most of her music is composed for high voice and continuo. There is biographical information (much of which can be confirmed through other sources) in the Produzioni armoniche, and it is in tempting to see a direct link between the trials of her life and her beautiful, intensely mournful music. We will be performing an arrangement for two cellos of her lament Habbis pietà di me at our lunchtime recital at St Brides on 22nd October.