Women in Music | A Feminine Art? | Renaissance | Classical

During the Renaissance, European noblewomen were taught to sing and play particular instruments deemed suitable for them, such as the harp, lute and keyboard.

Improvising songs with accompaniment was an important aspect of such music-making but, as in other improvising traditions, few women of this class ever wrote down the music they created, so it has not survived.

There are many reports of talented noble­women of the early sixteenth century, such as Polissena Pecorina (fl. 1534–70) from Venice, who sang and accompanied herself on the lute, and the ill-fated English queen Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–36), who was reputed to compose as well as perform. Courtesans were also frequently praised for their musical talents. One notable example was Tullia d’Arogana (1510–56), who sang and played the lute.

It was difficult for women to work as professional musicians since, unless they entered a convent, they were excluded from participation in church music. The church provided male musicians with both their education and their subsequent career. Nevertheless, professional female musicians did find training and work; usually they performed rather than composed. In late fifteenth-century Naples, for example, special housing was provided for the women musicians employed at the court, one of whom was referred to as ‘Anna Inglese’ (fl. late-fifteenth century). Female musicians at other Italian courts included Laura Ruggeri, who worked for Pope Paul II in the 1530s and 1540s; Virginia Vagnoli, a singer who accompanied herself on the lute and was employed by the court at Urbino c. 1566–70; Maddalena Casulana, who composed and sang professionally in Venice and Milan; and the concerto della dame at Ferrara.

Women as Patrons

Many noble and royal women of the Renaissance were renowned as musical patrons. Isabella d’Este did much to promote the composition of specifically Italian forms, such as the frottola, at her court in Mantua. Margaret of Austria (1480–1530), governor of the Netherlands in the early sixteenth century, was herself a performer and composer, as well as being responsible for two important chanson manuscripts with works by local composers such as Josquin, Isaac and Obrecht. Elizabeth I was another enthusiastic musician who ensured that music flourished during her reign.

Women in Music | Stage & Convent | Early Baroque | Classical


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