Bonnie Gordon in New York Times

The composer Barbara Strozzi, who turns 400 this year, is still celebrated for vocal music of desire and passion.

She Quickened the Pulse of 17th-Century Music

By Bonnie Gordon, McIntire Department of Music Associate Professor

Like many celebrated musicians, Barbara Strozzi has a Facebook page with thousands of followers. Though in this, her 400th birthday year, she’s hardly a household name like Beethoven or Mozart, the page is active with announcements of concerts, album releases and articles.

Named “la virtuosissima cantatrice” — the most dazzling singer — by a contemporary, Strozzi published eight volumes of music between 1644 and 1677, more than any composer of any gender in 17th-century Venice. Her adoptive father, the powerful poet Giulio Strozzi, nourished her career as a singer, composer, thinker and producer — a career that was wildly successful by any standard. In fact, she’s more famous today than celebrated male contemporaries like Luigi Rossi, Giacomo Carissimi and Antonio Cesti.

Strozzi is better known than these male counterparts for a reason. Music of the 17th century is hard to perform if it’s not in a well prepared modern edition; in the original manuscripts and prints, the words don’t line up with the notes, the ornaments aren’t written out, and it’s just hard to read. Strozzi has been lucky enough to have excellent scholars devoted to her — Ellen Rosand led the way with a transformative conference paper in 1976 — who made a point of making her music more accessible than that of many others, and telling her story.

But this wasn’t just a fluke. Strozzi was studied, and has succeeded, because her music is drop-dead gorgeous — sounds that make you fall in love and feel the pleasure and pain of life in your bones. Think Aretha Franklin at President Obama’s inauguration, Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue.” If your musical tastes lean toward Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, vocal jazz, singer-songwriters, or the blues, you’ll probably like Barbara Strozzi. She wrote tunes for voice and instrumental accompaniment that display a gift for embodying words in sound: Words about desire reverberate with unresolved tension, words about anger feel like a quickened pulse.

Strozzi most likely sang a lot of the music she wrote. “It is emphatically singer’s music,” Professor Rosand has written. She and the musicologist Beth Glixon describe it as “neither excessively virtuosic nor especially demanding as far as range or tessitura is concerned.”

Her music sounds a love affair with the female voice, sometimes quite literally: Her inaugural publication, from 1644, has a soprano and tenor duet called “Canto di Bella Bocca” (“Song of the Lovely Mouth”). The words describe a voice: “How sweet to hear a lovely mouth delightfully sing verses of love. Pretty, charming voice, with rapid divisions it entices you, encircles you, even touches you.”

The music’s fast runs require a nimble throat; it feels a little bit like making a giggle to make that sound. The two voices in the duet grind against one another, throat to throat and tongue to tongue, letting the listener in on the erotic pleasure of vocal intimacy.

The texts Strozzi chose to set mostly explore desire and passion, with words that might seem quaint to us. But in 17th-century Venice, song was powerful magic. “L’amante segreto,” from her 1651 collection, is a tiny drama about someone who would rather die than have his secret love revealed. Strozzi uses the voice to create four different moods, capturing in print what was then the common practice of improvising over an instrumental accompaniment.

The tune repeats the phrase “Voglio morire” (“I want to die”). The “little death” was a well-known Renaissance code word for orgasm, and the music leaves no doubt as to what the singer wants. Even Strozzi’s sole sacred work, the “Sacri Musicali Affetti,” published in 1655, sounds the way Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” sculpture (installed in Rome in 1652) looks: like maybe you shouldn’t do that in a place of worship. Her “Salve Regina” sounds the erotic codes of an opera scene; particularly poignant is the chromatic walk down the scale at the words “in hac lacrimarum valle” (“in the valley of tears”).

Born to Isabella Griega, believed to have been her father’s servant, Strozzi was christened Barbara Valle in 1619. She died in 1677, leaving behind four children and no husband. Like the other successful female composers of the 17th century, she owed her musical career to her father and to the unique beauty of her voice. In Venice, Giulio Strozzi was a mover and shaker, famous for his plays, poetry and opera librettos. He hired Francesco Cavalli, perhaps the most prominent composer of the time, to teach his daughter, and by the time she was 16, Giulio was hosting house concerts to show her off.

Venice was a hotbed of academies: learned societies that trafficked in information, conversation, and printed material. When Barbara was 18, Giulio founded a musical arm of the Accademia degli Incogniti called the Accademia degli Unisoni as a platform for his daughter’s talents; she served as M.C., singer and debater. In 1638, she read both sides of a debate written by Giovanni Francesco Loredano and Matteo Dandolo about whether tears or song are more powerful weapons in love. Not surprisingly, song won. “La Signora Barbara” had the last word: “I do not question your decision, gentlemen, in favor of song, for well I know that I would not have received the honor of your presence at our last session had I invited you to see me cry and not to hear me sing.”

She was funny.

Twenty years later, in her “Diporti di Euterpe” (“The Pleasures of Euterpe”), she set Pietro Dolfino’s text “Lagrime mie,” which starts like this: “Tears of mine, why do you hold back? Why don’t you wash away the pain which takes my breath and crushes my heart?” With the right singer, this song feels like crying. The arresting opening sounds a high note with a long falling melisma on the syllable “la” and a very sparse bass line. Voice and accompaniment clash on words like “torment.” Sung passages are interrupted by vocal sighs; they take the singer’s breath away.

This was an era of self-performance — of ephemeral, unrecorded shows and of rapid-fire fights in print; think Twitter, TikTok, and Snapchat. And then, as now, powerful women upset powerful men. Praising Strozzi’s voice, Nicolò Fontei wrote, “If I could transfer to the written page the boldness and seductive charm with which this great singer performs, one would need the qualities of Ulysses to resist the temptations of such a siren.”

The one surviving painting of her highlights the temptress. Bernardo Strozzi (no relation) depicted her as St. Cecilia, with a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction and eyes pointed directly at the viewer, breaking codes that required women to avoid making eye contact with men. When she was 18, a rival of her father had already made a not-very-veiled allusion to her plucked chastity: “It is a fine thing to distribute the flowers after having yielded the fruit.”

Strozzi used the dedications of her texts as weapons in this battle. In her first publication she called herself a new Sappho, but clearly knew her virtue would come under fire: “I must reverently consecrate the first work which as a woman I publish all too anxiously, so that under an oak of gold it may rest secure against the lightning bolts of slander prepared for it.” By her fifth book she had taken on a proto-feminist tone, embracing her own compositional voice: “Since I am no more held back by feminine weakness than by any allowance made for my sex, I fly on lightest leaves, in devotion, to bow before you.”

There were some arenas into which even a brilliant woman like Strozzi couldn’t venture. Though 17th-century Venice was the launchpad for public opera, she stayed completely removed from that audience. The decline of court culture and the moral conservatism of the Counter-Reformation were not good for women, and neither did anything to dispel the Aristotelian idea that women might not have souls or the biblical association of women with sin. But Strozzi shared a world with some outspoken feminists who made themselves heard. In 1612, Artemisia Gentileschi reported the teacher who raped her. He was exiled, and she went on to become a famous painter. Lucrezia Marinella, Moderata Fonte and Angela Tarabotti all wrote against a patriarchal culture, calling out the fact that powerful men depended on the subjugation of women for their worth.

In classical music, it can sometimes feel hard to fully feel the relevance of a composer who has been dead for centuries. But when it comes to Barbara Strozzi and her anniversary year, there are some striking reverberations in the present, as women’s voices have made their impact, despite the inevitable nasty backlash. Strozzi and her work make clear what we’ve long known: Women knew power and pleasure before the sexual revolution, and they cried it out with clarity and beauty.

Bonnie Gordon is an associate professor of music at the University of Virginia and the author of “Monteverdi’s Unruly Women.”

A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 22, 2019, Section AR, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: She Quickened The Heartbeat Of Venice.

Published in the New York Times on 12/20/19

Full article at


UVA Department of Music
112 Old Cabell Hall
P.O. Box 400176 Charlottesville, VA 22904-4176