The World of Women in Classical Music

The World of Women in Classical Music

The World of Women in Classical Music

The World of Women in Classical Music

Excerpt

Since Eve piped a tune on a hollow reed, women have been performing music. From earliest recorded history women have been writing music. Between the two disciplines it is logical to assume that women also conducted music and wrote historical references about it.

All through the ages, creative women have made valuable contributions to the esoteric world of music. As civilizations, cultures and social mores changed, much information on these ladies became buried during—there is no other way to phrase it—centuries of male domination. As women re-establish more equal roles in modern society, much research is being done in the sphere of feminine musicology with most enlightening results.

Discoveries of important women in music range from as far back as Mesopotamia and the PrincessPriestess Enheduanna (c 2500 BC)—believed to be the first woman to leave written records—to the egalitarian societies of ancient Egypt and Greece, especially Sparta and Lesbos where the great lyric poet Sappho penned immortal odes around the turn of the 6th century, to the cloisters of the Dark and Middle Ages when the visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), wrote literature, poetry, history, music and texts on medieval medicine. The 1990s witnessed a remarkable surge of recognition and popularity of this original "Superwoman," resulting in the flowering of von Bingen societies, books, theses, dissertations, CDs of her chants, and worldwide celebrations of the nine hundredth year of her birth, 1998.

In the next major societal era, the emergence of the renaissance, with its doctrine of freedom of expression, ironically marked the beginning of the decline of women's voices, figuratively and literally. Craftsmens' Guilds now barred women. (In 1321, there had been eight women in the thirty-seven member Paris Musicians' Guild). The Catholic Church, via the 1563 Council of Trent, forbade women to sing religious polyphonic music. While this edict was directed at nuns, there is ample evidence that many convents continued clandestine chorusing.

Despite these barriers, several names managed to make their mark in musical history during this period. Even the ill-fated Anne Boleyn (c 1507–36) composed a hymn in the Tower of London before losing her head. In Italy, then composed of city-states, the Duke of Ferrara established the first concerto delle donne (women's musical ensemble) in 1580, the success of which had the courts of Mantua, Florence and Venice vying with each other to also hire the finest female singers and musicians. Prominent women of the time were Maddalena Casulana (cl540–90) and Francesca Caccini (1587–1640), whose work crossed the bridge into the Baroque Period. Caccini was followed by Barbara Strozzi (1619–64), Antonia Bembo (1643–1715), and Elisabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1666–1729), the latter important enough to have France's Louis XIV strike a medal in her honor after her death.

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