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Composer Focus: Barbara Strozzi

Happy 400th birthday year to Barbara Strozzi! For our June blog, Līva Blūma reflects on the life and work of this fascinating composer. Here her music in our June playlist or live at our concert on 14th June.

Barbara Strozzi was a 17th-century Venetian composer and singer; a unique artist of her time, Strozzi found possibilities to thrive in a musical world dominated by men. During her lifetime she managed to publish over 125 works, a singular achievement for a female composer in her time and place. Writing pieces for mostly voice and accompaniment, Strozzi also displayed her talent as a philosophical poet. Her corpus contains mostly secular works, with her only sacred compositions being Op.5., Sacri Musicali Affecti. Strozzi, as one of the greatest female composers of the baroque era, was also a pioneer in pursuing a composing career outside of the monastic or courtly contexts. Her music has been noted as an important link between such influential composers such as Caccini and Scarlatti. She also developed the genre of the chamber cantata. Although Strozzi never wrote operas, her cantatas could easily qualify as ‘operas in miniature’. Their skilful writing and intensity of their drama compare favourably with contemporary operas. 17th-century Venice was a thriving city, with lots to offer in terms of musical and artistic entertainment. Born as an illegitimate child to Giulio Strozzi, she was referred to as Giulio’s “elective daughter”, though the most appropriate term for today would be “adopted”. Giulio’s lofty status and support played large roles in the early career of Barbara. He was a popular poet and librettist and an important intellectual figure of his time. His collaborators included composers Francesco Cavalli and Claudio Monteverdi, the two giants of Italian baroque music. His network of powerful friends and contacts helped Barbara to thrive in the upper circles of Venice society and gain valuable performance experience at a young age. At first, Barbara proved herself as a talented singer, performing in different sorts of social occasions, organised by her father. During these performances , she had received comments on her singing, such as her singing manner being “bold and graceful” and her voice angelic. But it was not too long until she proved herself as a highly talented composer. Her first composition was published in 1644, when she was 25 years old. Her “Primo Libro de’ Madrigali” is full of youthful energy and wit, using the texts of her father, Giulio. Listen to Amor, amor, a composition that alternates between contemplative homophonic sections and vivid , fluid vocal lines, that flow together in a complex yet beautiful texture. Her second publication, “Cantate, arietti e duett” op2. II, came after a seven-year publishing hiatus. During this time, Barbara had become a mother of four children (all born out of wedlock), fuelling the speculations of her being a courtesan. Op.2. also contains one of her most famous works L'eraclito amoroso , a solo cantata, employing some of Strozzi’s most rendering lyrics. Here are the some of supremely affective verses: I find charm only in weeping, I nourish myself by my tears, Grief is my delight And my moans are my joy. Every anguish pleases me, Every sadness is my delight, My sobs heal me, And my sighs console me. Every tear soothes me, All my mourning lasts for ever, So much does each ill afflict me That it kills and buries me. One of Strozzi’s most recorded pieces is Op.7. L'agrime mei (My tears). A legend claims that Strozzi wrote this piece after having a debate over the expression of emotions, a debate that probed whether physical tears or their representation in song are a better aphrodisiac. After listening to this piece, one must undoubtedly admit that Strozzi is a master of lament writing. Che Si Puo Fare, an exceedingly popular Strozzi work, comes from her last publication, Op.8. It is yet another example of her absolute mastery in writing. These vocal lines have certainly not lost their expression over time. Again, using her own self-authored text, Strozzi reveals herself to be a skilful poet, highly capable of intense expression and reflection on love and life’s despair. Here are the opening verses of “Che Si Puo Fare”: What can I do? The stars have no pity and work against me; If heaven will give me no gesture Of peace for my pain, What can I do? What can I say? The heavens are raining disasters on me; If Love will not grant me a moment of breath, to relieve all my suffering, What can I say? Strozzi deservedly has a legacy as one of the most important female composers of the baroque era. 2019 is her 400th anniversary year, and we are celebrating by performing modern reimaginings of her songs alongside a new work by Līva Blūma based around “Che Si Puo Fare”. on 14th June at St James’ Church, Sussex Garden for our celebration of Strozzi and all things Venetian.

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