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Virtuosissima Cantatrice: The Art of Barbara Strozzi


Program Notes

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1676) was an unusual figure for her time. Born in Venice to a household servant, she was adopted by the famous poet and nobleman Giulio Strozzi and treated as his own daughter, although speculations whether she might actually have been his illegitimate child have never been confirmed. He saw to it that she received training as a musician, studying composition with Cavalli and others. Although as a woman in 17th-century Italy she could not have a public career, her talents as a singer became widely known, and her father set up a private society to display her gifts to other wealthy connoisseurs of art: the Accademia degli Unisoni. These evening gatherings were opportunities for musicians and poets to share their works and engage in cultural discussions with other artists. Strozzi quickly became the focal point of this circle, surrounded by gentlemen delighted by her singing and her own compositions.

Due partly to her father's assistance, Strozzi was able to publish eight books of her compositions during her lifetime, a rare opportunity even among her more famous male contemporaries. These publications reveal a searching intelligence and a restless creativity not hampered by the demands of public taste; her compositions are distinguished by a tendency to distort the boundaries of form to suit her dramatic purpose. The vast majority of her output, entirely vocal music, are solo songs or cantatas (a form once attributed to her invention), and are clearly intended to be performed by Barbara herself, accompanied by her own lute playing. However, scattered through her publications are works for two or more singers.

Nicolò Fontei (d. ca. 1674) is primarily known today for some church music and for his connection to Barbara Strozzi through the Accademia degli Unisoni. During his time in Venice, he became a regular member of the singer's circle, and composed three books of music set to her father's poems, entitled Bizzarie poetiche poste in musica, or "Poetic Oddities set to Music." The music from the second book (published in 1636), from which all our selections come, was expressly written for Strozzi to sing, and she is referred to in his dedication as Giulio's virtuosissima cantatrice, "most talented singer." The majority of the pieces in Book II are solo songs, with a small collection of duets and ensembles at the end. Fontei's music, while referring continually to Strozzi's obvious technical skill, provides an interesting foil to her compositions. His pieces are lovely paragons of form, with a melodic gift that delights the ear. In response to Giulio Strozzi's dry, witty, and often jejune texts of love, Fontei provides clever turns of harmony and rhythmic variety.