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Celebration of Scholarship and Creative Activity 2021

“The Works of Barbara Strozzi”

Elsa Zank

Junior, Vocal Performance and Harp Performance

Abstract

My summer 2020 undergraduate research project focused on the repertoire of the early Baroque composer, Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677). It involved the study and preparation of approximately 30 minutes of musical selections taken from three of Strozzi’s eight published collections. This project required skills taken from university courses in vocal performance, vocal diction, and music history. The works I selected provided unique challenges in terms of vocal technique and musicality. As a lesser known, female composer, Barbara Strozzi’s compositions are a departure from more common collegiate student repertoire. This project also included the translation of all the undertaken musical texts from 17th century Italian to English and the application of proper Italian diction. The final element of this project was researching the historical background of Strozzi’s compositions. In order to accurately infer Strozzi’s musical intentions, I also conducted a study of her own background as well the larger musical practices of the Baroque period. The culmination of this project was the performance of these works in full from memory. Selections and excerpts from this performance have been included as a part of this event.

Project Background

I first encountered vocal composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) in a music history course required for my degree. As someone pursuing an education and eventual career in music, I consider myself to be mostly familiar with at least the names of the big-time composers of Western classical music. But Strozzi was not a name I had ever heard. I was immediately drawn to her for two reasons: her beautiful, emotional musical works for solo voice, and her complex life story. Barbara was the “chosen” daughter of Italian writer Giulio Strozzi, historically believed to be his illegitimate daughter with one of his servants. Her father facilitated her education, even founding the Accademia degli Unisoni, in 1637 in order to give Barbara opportunities to perform her compositions and preside over intellectual discussions. Such academies were common among the educated middle and upper-class in 17th century Italy. However, due to her gender and the nature of her birth, Barbara was ultimately left with limited options in life. She was considered unmarriageable, and women were typically not allowed to pursue careers at the time. This makes Barbara Strozzi’s work as a composer all the more impressive. Genteel women in the 17th century were usually trained in the musical arts and some of them surely composed, but rarely, if ever, were their works published. Strozzi published eight volumes of music in her lifetime, seven of which have survived to this day. She did this while most likely working as a courtesan and raising her four children on her own. This woman faced hardship. The odds were not in her favor. Yet she found ways to flourish. I wanted to know more about her, to understand her perspective on life and music.

For this research project, I chose approximately 30 minutes worth of Strozzi’s music taken from three of her different collections to study and perform. I studied the music and the attached texts both independently and in conjunction with one another. The text study first involved the word-for-word translation of each piece. This provided some challenges as Strozzi’s music used some words and/or spelling that have since been abandoned in modern Italian, which required me to find a 17th century Italian-English dictionary. Once I had finished the word-for-word translations, I was able to transcribe my own poetic translations of the texts which I could then use as a tool for my musical interpretation of these works. I also transcribed the original texts into the International Phonetic Alphabet and used skills taken from previously-taken courses in vocal diction in order to practice consistent and accurate pronunciation of the Italian. The music itself presented its own challenges in terms of rhythms, tonal centers, and musicality. These works hail from the early Baroque era when the modern music notational practices I was familiar with were still being developed. Instead composers and musicians of the era relied on standard performance practices that were considered common musical knowledge at the time, and their own interpretations. My research into the Baroque era and these performance practices showed that these conventions were often undocumented and then largely lost to history, but this does leave room for musical interpretation. Every performance of a piece of music would have been a unique moment in time during the Baroque period, and this held true for my own project as well.

This is some of the most emotional and beautiful music I have ever had the privilege of studying. Strozzi’s pieces often centered around love and desire, their trials and tribulations, joys and jubilations. While these were common themes for early, secular music, they were also feelings Strozzi would have been well-versed in. Many historians agree that Strozzi probably worked as a courtesan in addition to composing, a profession commonly associated with music at the time. And while she never married, her four children are proof that she was no stranger to the tumultuous nature of love and romance. Barbara Strozzi’s story encapsulates the complexity of life and the human experience even four centuries later, and her music captures this. These works are worthy of performance, and Barbara Strozzi deserves to be known. With this research project, I hope to have contributed to bringing this admirable woman and her work into the light so that others can experience and appreciate Barbara Strozzi as I have.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Abby Shreve

    Absolutely stunning Elsa! Thank you for sharing your research and talent with us! 🙂

    Reply
  2. Margaret Grewal

    What a great topic. Strozzi’s story needs to be heard, and you did just that! As a woman myself, I am so proud to see more and more women represented in the field of music and musicology. Congrats!

    Reply
  3. Alison Shaw

    Wonderful performance Elsa!!

    Reply
  4. Julia Chybowski

    Congratulations, Elsa! It is exciting to see how far you have taken your interest in Strozzi!

    Reply
  5. Nathan Krueger

    Wonderful work Elsa! It’s exciting to see this great music performed and shared. Thank you!

    Reply
  6. Molly Hennig

    Thank you for your gorgeous performance and for bringing to light such quality repertoire from an often overlooked composer. I can’t wait to see what more you will research in the future!

    Reply

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