Wednesday, October 03, 2018

In praise of Barbara Strozzi

Tomorrow evening I'm doing a pre-concert talk with Franck-Emmanuel Comte, conductor of the French baroque ensemble Le Concert d'Hostel-Dieu who are performing at the Institut Français in South Kensington. Above, you can hear an extract from the concert: Heather Newhouse sings Barbara Stozzi's L'Eraclito amoroso. Within just a few bars, the centuries collapse: every woman has been through this experience; each one of us can identify with every note. (Incidentally, in this video interpretation there is also a very wonderful cat.)

Like her compatriot Monteverdi, and her teacher, Cavalli, one gains the impression that there is nothing Strozzi will stop at in her music to bring out the ultimate degree of emotional expression. The unusual thing is that here is a woman writing music about a woman's raw, impassioned, devastating experience, in the 17th century. Monteverdi and others wrote of women's lost loves, and very effectively (try this), but there's an edge to Strozzi's lament which seems to rise from the depths of the soul - and unlike Monteverdi's Ninfa, she's unobserved by men calling her 'Miserella'.

Strozzi was termed "the most prolific composer - man or woman - of printed secular music in Venice" of her day. A poet as well as a composer, and a mother of four, she remained unmarried; she was the mistress of a patron of the arts who was the father of three of the children. Jealous contemporaries said she was a courtesan and the one famous portrait of her shows her with one breast exposed. The reality seems to have been that she was a phenomenally gifted artist who had been encouraged and well educated in music by her father, the librettist Giulio Strozzi. She was supposedly adopted, but most likely the illegitimate daughter of Strozzi and a family servant. An 'outsider', therefore, in terms of social position and artistic inclination, she forged a remarkable and individual path as a musician, with enormous tenacity.

Tomorrow's concert explores not only Strozzi, but also the French composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Strozzi's similarly prolific compatriot Antonia Bembo, also a pupil of Cavalli. Heather Newhouse sings, the cellist is Benoît Morel and Franck-Emmanuel Comte is at the harpsichord. Our talk is at 6.30pm and the concert at 7.30pm. More details and booking here.