Five Forgotten Women Composers of the Baroque Era

From left to right (clockwise): Leonora Duarte (CCOC 4.0 International); Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (public domain); Barbara Strozzi (public domain)

Going by the representation in the current repertoire, you would be forgiven for mistakenly believing that there were, in fact, no female composers in the Baroque era, spanning around 1600 to 1750.

While it is certainly true that European society at this time did not encourage women to be anything more than wives and mothers, there were a surprising number who nevertheless managed to carve out remarkable careers as composers and musicians of their time.

Wealthy patrons and connections helped many compose, and some even publish, at a time when there were no opportunities for women.

Wealth did not help, however, when their work was forgotten, sometimes for centuries, after their death. Just as the work of Joseph of Bologna and other black composers was neglected by programmers until very recently, much of the music written by women has been lost over time.

Francesca Caccini (1587-1640)

Francesca Caccini, daughter of Renaissance composer Giulio Caccini, was influential in her time, but little of her work survives today. She composed in a style that was innovative for her time and helped bring music from the Renaissance to the early Baroque period. She is widely recognized as the first female composer to produce a complete opera, the comedy-ballet titled The release of Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. It was performed for visiting royalty in 1625. She is recorded as having written over 15 stage works, and “La Cecchina” as she was known, was also an accomplished singer, lutenist, teacher and poet. She worked for the Medici family in Florence and at one point became the highest paid musician at the Grand Duke’s court.

Leonora Duarte (about 1610-1678)

In 1641, the English writer and chronicler John Evelyn visited the Duarte family home in Antwerp. He wrote, “In the evening I was invited to the home of Signor Duerts, a Portuguese by nation…and his three daughters, entertained us with rare music, both vocal and instrumental…” Leonora’s voice, in particular was noticed. The Duarte family was made up of Portuguese Jews who had converted to Catholicism to avoid persecution, and Leonora’s father was a diamond dealer and amateur musician. The family home became a center for musicians and artists in the city. Leonora composed music for family performances for visiting dignitaries such as William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. Of all his works, a series of Sinfonia have survived.

Beard Strozzi (1619-1677)

In the mid-1600s, Barbara Strozzi was said to be the most prolific composer of secular vocal music printed in Venice. Along with a single work of sacred chants, secular material forms his oeuvre, much of which is written for a soprano voice. Barbara was a highly regarded singer herself and came from a creative family. Her adoptive father was the poet Giulio Strozzi and she was regularly exposed to artists, writers and musicians. Her fellow Venetian composer Nicolò Fontei nicknamed her the virtuossima singer (this most virtuoso singer). She was born illegitimate and did not marry. After her father’s death, she became a professional composer and wrote eight volumes of works. One of his quirks was to often include a verbal pun on his own name in his cantatas and arias.

Isabelle Leonarde (1620-1704)

Isabella Leonarda entered a convent at 16 and never left, devoting her life to composition as well as teaching. She was one of the few female composers to write instrumental and vocal music. His Sonatas, op. 16 became the first known publication of instrumental sonatas by a woman in 1693. Isabella became an abbess and one of the most prolific composers of the time. She is credited with over 200 compositions and was a music teacher at the Collegio di Sant’Orsola, a convent in Novara, where she also became Mother Superior. She had a prominent public profile in her time and was listed in a directory of Novara personalities.

Elisabeth Jacquet of the War (1665-1729)

Born into a multi-generational family of harpsichord makers and organists, Élisabeth (or Lisbeth) Jacquet was a stage veteran from the age of five at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. In 1684, she married the famous organizer Marin de la Guerre and became a musician, teacher and composer in Paris. Elisabeth composed harpsichord suites and was the first French woman to compose a large-scale opera. She believed that the words were as important as the music. In 1715, in the preface to a book by her French cantatas, she writes, “I am convinced that vocal music which does not express what one sings will not be favored by … those whose taste and understanding go hand in hand”. In her time, she was considered second only to the court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.

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Latest posts by Anya Wassenberg (see everything)
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