One who doesn’t risk never finds joy’ advises the madrigal L’amante timido eccitato (The timid, excited lover). It’s a line that epitomises the life of its composer, Barbara Strozzi.

Who was Barbara Strozzi?

No fewer than eight collections of exquisite vocal works published between 1644 and ’64 prove she was a prolific composer. Her output surpassed celebrated contemporaries Giacomo Carissimi, Antonio Cesti and Salamone Rossi, an achievement that was astonishing simply because Strozzi was a woman.

Not only that, she was a headstrong woman, unafraid to explore eroticism in her music, to challenge convention and to push the boundaries of form and tradition. Her experience as a singer informed her innovations in her writing, using the voice as the ultimate expressive instrument. She forged a unique career outside the usual platforms of the court, church or opera house, but in doing so invited rumour, jealousy and risk.

When was Barbara Strozzi born?

Barbara Strozzi is born in Venice in 1619. Christened Barbara Valle, she was the illegitimate daughter of Isabella Garzoni, a servant in the household of the eminent Venetian poet and intellectual Giulio Strozzi.

It’s likely he was her biological father and in time he wholeheartedly adopted her – eventually making her his heir. Little wonder Barbara would set the text ‘In the fair flower of youth, open your heart to joy’ with such exuberance in her first opus: her formative years were truly an artistic feast.

Who was Giulio Strozzi?

Giulio was one of the earliest librettists of Venetian opera and a collaborator with Monteverdi; the household buzzed with the greatest minds of the age. Giulio hosted regular meetings of the freethinking Accademia degli Incogniti and from the 1630s Strozzi sang at the society’s secretive soirees, enchanting the intelligentsia and inspiring dedications from composers such as Nicolò Fontei.

Giulio ultimately proved himself something of a proto-feminist in his attitude towards Strozzi (and indeed other women), instilling in her an independent spirit, promoting her singing, sending her to study with Venice’s premier composer, Francesco Cavalli, and supporting her early publications.

When did Barbara take his name?

But with opportunity came reputational risk. Giulio had long referred to Strozzi as his ‘elective daughter’, but as she turned 18, he formally permitted her to take his family name – and established the Accademia degli Unisoni specifically for her. In these exclusive meetings she performed and played the mistress of ceremonies, and flourished on a creative platform usually closed to other women.

She encouraged debates such as whether love brought happiness or despair, and it became her trademark to award flowers to the winners of lively discourse. Placing Strozzi in such a position tempted jealousy among the company of male musicians, academics and admirers and herein began the controversy over whether or not she was a courtesan.

Scathing satires of Strozzi emerged. ‘It is a fine thing to distribute the flowers after having already surrendered the fruit’ wrote one, and ‘to claim and to be chaste are very different’ quipped another. Rumours were likely fuelled by the poetry that she set, including Giulio’s own texts for her Op. 1 of lively ensemble madrigals, the increasingly sensuous harmonies of her Op. 2, for example in Morso, e bacio dati in un tempo (‘Bite and Kiss at the same time’), or the heart-wrenching passion of Udite Amanti (‘Listen you Lovers’). Even if the Accademias had brought jeopardy to Strozzi’s reputation, through them Giulio had set her on the path to becoming a professional composer.

What was Barbara Strozzi most famous for?

Female musicians were plentiful in Venice, both in the opera house and the church, but Strozzi stands out for being a published composer. Furthermore, she did not have the more conventional backgrounds of contemporaries such as Francesca Caccini (who hailed from the eminent family of musicians and was renowned at Florence’s Medici court) or the nun Isabella Leonarda (who composed for the convent of Saint Ursula in Novara).

As a woman unconnected with a religious establishment it was surprising that she devoted her fifth published collection of solo works to sacred settings: vivid depictions of the disciples and saints, and passionate petitions to the Virgin Mary.

Besides the 25 ensemble madrigals of her first opus, Strozzi’s remaining collections tend to defy categorisation. Her longer, more complex works including laments (especially in Op. 7) and her Op. 8 Serenata may be termed cantatas, while the shorter ones (most of Op. 6) could be simply labelled arias or ariettas.

In the preface to Op. 2 Strozzi made a rather exaggerated claim that she had invented a new form that contrasted recitatives and aria; essentially, she described the already-established chamber cantata, but she is an important link between her teacher Cavalli and Alessandro Scarlatti in the development of the form.

Above all, Strozzi is certainly notable for focusing entirely on vocal chamber repertoire and in her secular works for almost exclusively addressing a single affect (however earnest, ironic or amusing): unrequited love.

Strozzi persisted in a strategy of dedicating many of her published collections to illustrious women. ‘As a woman, I publish all too anxiously,’ she wrote to the Duchess of Tuscany in the preface of Op. 1, appealing to her as a protector against the ‘lightning bolts of slander’ prepared for the collection by jealous male peers. By Op. 5 she addressed Anna of Austria in a far more confident tone: ‘I am no more held back by feminine weakness than any allowance made for my sex’. And in her final three prefaces she makes no mention of her gender, suggesting she overcame any insecurity. But while such appeals to women occasionally resulted in lavish gifts, they didn’t attract increasingly necessary financial patronage.

By her Op. 7 she changed tack and dedicated her collection of anguished soprano solos to Nicolò Sagredo, procurator of San Marco, future Doge of Venice. It’s possible he supported her for a while and certainly owned, if not commissioned, the iconic portrait by Bernado Strozzi (unrelated, we think) which is often referred to as the ‘viola da gamba player’.

If the flower and jewel bedecked figure, surrounded by manuscripts and instruments and scandalously revealing one bare breast is Strozzi, this potentially risqué portrait is as confident, allegorical and multi-layered as her music.

The provocativeness could be seen as the self-assertion of a woman well aware of her talents, and equally aware of the instability of her position. Strozzi could be channelling Flora, the goddess of flowers, or Cecilia, the patron saint of music (the jewels the rewards from her dedicatees), and her bare breast is as likely a reference to Roman Charity, feeding the hungry, as it is a sign of wantonness. But her marital status did nothing to help matters.

Was Barbara Strozzi married?

It would seem that she maintained a relationship with a married man, Giovanni Paolo Vidman. He was Giulio’s friend and fathered at least three of her children, but could he have been the subject of her Op. 7 Lagrime Mie, the one she adored but fate denied?

If her heart was as tormented as her laments, it would seem that she didn’t rely on Vidman; rather Barbara loaned him a huge sum of money. It was repaid on his death in 1648 by way of a secret codicil attached to his will. However, this was not a one-off transaction. Barbara’s business acumen extended to some four loans, pleas for tax relief, and the management of multiple homes that she rented either for herself or on behalf of her family.

When did Strozzi die?

The image of her as an organised business woman, capable of managing financial risk and navigating the law, makes even more baffling the situation at her death in 1677, aged just 58

Records show her burial in Padua Church of Eremitani, leaving little in the way of fortune and no will. Of all the missing details of her life, this is perhaps the most tantalising.

Did Barbara Strozzi find joy?

Barbara Strozzi may have courted risk in reputation, business and career choice, but did she find joy? The setting of ‘What can one do if the rebel stars have no pity?’ in her final Op. 8 epitomised the exquisite pain captured in her writing to the very end, but there are clues to the joy she found in the process. L’Astratto (The Abstract) is like an opera in miniature, a magnificently droll scene that parodies snippets of recitative, aria, arioso, dance – as a poet shepherd flicks though his songbook searching for the best way to express his feelings.

‘I want to sing,’ it begins, ‘maybe in singing I can find relief from my torment; music has the power to overcome suffering.’ Through it you can almost hear echos of Strozzi’s own voice and certainly admire her virtuosity, but you can also sense her wit, performing presence and the joy of her art.

What was Barbara Strozzi's composing style?

A penchant for laments From the soul-searching descending four-note scales of Udite Amanti (Op. 2), Lagrime mie (Op. 7) and Che si può fare (Op. 8) to Su’l Rodano Severo (Op. 3), in which King Louis XIII mourns the recent death of the Marquis de Cinq-Mars, Strozzi showed her mastery of melancholy and that she had a finger on the political pulse.

The Seconda Prattica An advocate of the tradition taught by Cavalli, she sashays between measured and unmeasured passages, and different metres. She’s not shy to use the stile concitato and other dramatic effects, but her lyrical style is freer than her teacher’s.

Cantatas for solo soprano Nearly three-quarters of Strozzi’s works are for solo soprano and she proves herself a ‘singer’s composer’. Striking features of her style include the contrasts between recitative and aria sections and particularly in melismatic writing – freed from text she explores spicy chromaticism, syncopated rhythms, large leaps and sudden interruptions which give way to sustained lines.

Detailed notation Strozzi insisted on freedom of expression and in her notation tried to capture the flexibility of a performance. Among her numerous detailed instructions are ornaments, dynamics and tempo markings. She saw her music through the printing process personally.

Main illustration © Matt Herring