Women in Music | Stage & Convent | Early Baroque | Classical
The rise of opera in the early Baroque period provided increased musical opportunities for women, especially as singers, but also as composers. One of the earliest female opera singers was Vittoria, who worked for the Medici court in Florence.
Her career was overshadowed by that of another Medici employee, the composer and singer Francesca Caccini, who by the 1620s was the highest-paid musician at the Medici court. Caccini wrote the music for many court entertainments. Unfortunately only one has survived: her opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (1625), the first Italian opera to be performed outside its native country.
Operatic productions in France did not use castratos and thus provided more opportunities for female singers, who also performed in the choruses that were so popular on the French operatic stage. The dramatic soprano Marthe Le Rochois (c. 1658–1728) appeared as première actrice in the original productions of Lully’s tragédies lyriques. The English soprano Katharine Tofts (c. 1685–1756), working in London, was one of the earliest female singers to attract the intense media attention that was to become associated with the operatic prima donna. An unusual example of a noblewoman working as an opera singer is Faustina Bordoni (1700–81) from Venice, whose international career included singing for Handel in London in the 1720s and thereafter for her husband, the German composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699–1783), in Dresden and Venice.
While working on the stage was not regarded as a reputable female occupation, retiring to a convent remained an option that allowed women to devote themselves to music while retaining their respectability. The sixteenth-century decrees of the Council of Trent, banning nuns from performing polyphonic music, were often ignored and many Italian convents continued to be renowned for their music. Several nuns, such as Caterina Assandra (fl. 1609–18) and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602–c. 1676), both from convents in or near Milan, wrote a wide range of liturgical and sacred vocal music which was known outside Italy. Isabella Leonarda (1620–1704), a nun at the Collegio di Santa Orsola in Novara, published a remarkable series of 20 volumes of music, containing over 200 liturgical and sacred works. These include the earliest surviving set of instrumental pieces to be published by a woman, her op. 16 sonatas, which appeared in 1693.
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