The early modern period witnessed a number of important developments. Precedents of all sorts were set, among them access for women to professional performing careers on stage and in the concert hall, as well as to publication. Nothing remotely resembling equality of education or opportunity prevailed, but new social institutions, like the salon and the boarding-school, mediated boundaries between public and private musical expression. The special historical position music occupied within women's separate and unequal education had far-reaching consequences. Amateur musical life for both women and men in this period can hardly be understood without reference to the voluminous literature of gender ideology, ranging from the polemical ‘Querelle des femmes’ (the debate over equality of the sexes and the nature of ‘woman’, inaugurated c1400 by Christine de Pisan and begun in earnest c1500) to the didactic treatises on educating daughters.
The publication record for female composers begins in 1557 with an organ setting of the hymn Conditor alme by the Spanish nun Gracia Baptista in Luis Venegas de Henestrosa's Libro de cifra nueva para tecla, harpa, y vihuela. In 1566 four madrigals by Maddalena Casulana appeared in the collection Il desiderio, the earliest printed vocal music by the first woman to consider herself a professional composer. Outside Italy, other countries followed suit in the next century: Germany in 1651, with hymn melodies by Sophie Elisabeth, Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneberg, one of the earliest documented German female composers after the Middle Ages; England in 1655, with the three songs by Mary Dering included in Henry Lawes's Second Book of Ayres, and Dialogues; and France in 1678, initially with airs by Mme Sicard printed in a Ballard collection, but more substantively in 1687 with a collection of keyboard music by Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. In addition to Jacquet de La Guerre, a celebrated professional performer and composer in diverse genres ranging from harpsichord music to opera, a few other women gained exceptional professional renown as composers. Among others whose music is now enjoying active rediscovery are Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi and the prolific nun-composer Isabella Leonarda.
The most sweeping and radical change in the status of women musicians was the result of their increased participation in professional singing. In the 1580s the success of the ‘concerto delle donne’ – a virtuoso female vocal ensemble at the Ferrara court, whose repertory of madrigals was fed by such composers as Luzzaschi, Marenzio and Monteverdi – propelled into prominence the novel option of exclusive women's voices. The Ferrara ensemble, which initially included Livia d'Arco, Anna Guarini, the famous Laura Peverara and, later, Tarquinia Molza, was emulated at other northern Italian courts. Such ensembles offered greater opportunities for women to be employed at court specifically as musicians.
The recognition of the female voice as a separate musical entity as distinct from other treble options (e.g. boy soprano, or castrato) had enormous consequences for the development of singing in general, as well as for composition, where it shaped the progressive stylistic trajectory of late Renaissance Italian vocal music, first in the madrigal and later in opera. Opera unfolded through the assimilation of ‘woman’ as both subject and agent. As subjects, operatic heroines (whose thematic weight made their names the very titles of operas) embodied female archetypes often popularized in the catalogue tradition of famous or notorious women, familiar from myth (Eurydice, Dido) and antiquity (Poppaea). Over 30 of Boccaccio's 106 subjects in De claris mulieribus were transformed into operatic characters on the 17th-century Venetian stage.
As an agent, the woman singer commanded ‘a rhetorical authority, a previously unknown power to move and seduce audiences’. Access by Italian women to the public stage had originated in the 16th-century commedia dell'arte (where Isabella Andreini was a pioneer). With the onset of commercial public opera in Venice in 1637, the doors opened to greater fame and fortune. Singers such as Vittoria Archilei, Laura Guiddiccioni Lucchesini and Andriana Basile were followed by Anna Renzi, the Venetian soprano whose career created the typology of the prima donna in the burgeoning opera industry of the 1640s. With the dissemination of Italian opera throughout the rest of Europe, new opportunities abounded.
Probably the first English female singer to appear on a professional stage was Catherine Coleman in 1656; by 1662, a royal warrant decreed that women actors rather than boys were to play female roles. Early 18th-century Londoners celebrated Catherine Tofts as one of England's first native prima donnas. Later in the century, Mme Mara (Gertrud Elisabeth Schmeling) was the first international opera star of German birth. Largely excluded from royal appointments at Louis XIV's court, French women gained access to the stage through the Académie Royale de Musique, first as dancers, later as singers. Their subsequent participation as singers in opera in Paris and at Versailles, and as instrumentalists at the Concert Spirituel, has been well documented. Some 18th-century women gained real international fame, among them the singers Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni.
To compose opera and get it produced, greater obstacles had to be surmounted, but a few women gradually began to succeed in this ambitious genre, as well as in the related genres of oratorio and opéra comique. The historical record in Italy is somewhat paradoxical. While Venetian women wrote about 50 opera librettos between 1700 and 1750 (over half the total for Italian female authors as a whole – see Hufton, T1996), few women after Francesca Caccini composed opera seria (Antonia Bembo's opera Ercole amante, written for Louis XIV in 1707, remains unperformed). Between 1670 and 1724, four Italian women composed oratorios and other dramatic works performed at the Imperial Chapel in Vienna. No music has survived for Le sacre visioni di Santa Teresa by the Austrian nun Maria Anna de Raschenau, but there are extant oratorios by Catterina Grazianini, Maria Grimani and Camilla de Rossi (notably Rossi's Il sacrifizio di Abramo, 1708). In France, Jacquet de la Guerre, Mlle Duval, Henriette de Beaumesnil and de Vismes composed operas for the Académie Royale de Musique, in 1691, 1736, 1784 and 1800 respectively. The long span between these works suggests how hard it was to get opera produced. Even so, occasional references to other obscure figures suggest a still relatively unexplored breadth of participation by women. In the Netherlands, the great 18th-century epistolaire Isabelle de Charrière (or Belle van Zuylen) wrote several operas: fragments of her L'Olimpiade are extant. Also worthy of mention is her compatriot, the aria composer Josina Boetzelaer. In France, women achieved greater visibility writing opéra comique. Henrietta de Beaumesnil had six works produced in Paris between about 1781 and 1792, and Julie Candeille became famous for her Cathérine, ou La belle fermière (1792), which received 113 performances during the Revolution. Candeille justified her career in 1795 by claiming traditional feminine virtues: ‘No insensitive pride, no arrogant pretension, has ever guided me in the service of the arts. … Submissiveness and necessity led me to the theatre; a propensity for such work and a love of it emboldened me to write. These two resources, united, are my sole means of survival’ (Sadie, I1986).
Opera and oratorio were ‘companionate’ musical genres, that is, they allowed for equal participation from both sexes. It was to take many more decades for other ‘mixed’ parallels to emerge. Johann Hiller founded a singing school open to women in 1771 in Leipzig, to oppose the exclusion of women from choral singing, especially in church. His most famous pupil was the lied composer Corona Schröter. A parallel endeavour in Berlin was the Singakademie, founded by C.F.C. Fasch in 1792. That year, perhaps for the first time in Germany, a mixed chorus of adult voices presented a public choral concert.
In Catholic countries, and in Italy in particular, convents saw sophisticated music-making throughout the 17th century. Over half the women whose works were published in Italy between 1566 and 1700 were nuns. In the post-Tridentine period, before the 18th-century decline of the Italian convents, their records include thousands of organists, singers and composers. Despite the Council of Trent's ban on polyphony in convents, its installation of ‘clausura’ or total cloistering, as well as continued ecclesiastical decrees attempting to control musical expression, at least 26 Italian cities had musically important convents. Some even enjoyed international reputations. In their writings, Bottrigari and Artusi immortalized the orchestral concerts at S Vito in Ferrara, where Raffaella Aleotti, a member of the convent, composed the earliest printed collection of sacred music by a woman. Other musically renowned convents include S Geminiano in Modena; many in Milan, but especially S Radegonda (where Chiara Margarita Cozzolani published music); in Bologna, S Lorenzo (where Monteverdi's motets were sung) and S Cristina della Fondazza (home of the composer Lucrezia Vizzana); and S Orsola in Novara (home of the prolific Isabella Leonarda).
Notable French counterparts include the abbey at Feuillants (where the famous singer Anne de la Barre appeared in 1656); the Abbaye Royale des Religieuses de Longchamp, Port-Royal, Assomption, and the religious but uncloistered community Petite Union Chrétienne des Dames de Saint Chaumont, where Antonia Bembo composed motets and psalm settings.
A unique institution in Venice was the ‘ospedale’ (a state-run shelter for chronically ill, poor and homeless children), which provided the first formally organized music education for women outside the convent. Four women's ospedali became famous musical centres: the Incurabili, Pietà, Derelitti and Mendicanti. Unencumbered by Vatican rules, they trained choruses of young girls and offered private lessons on instruments and in singing. By 1630 some were offering instruction to non-resident girls, and accepted as boarders female students, figlie di spezi, who paid for tuition. Between 1585 and 1855 the ospedali employed about 300 male professional musicians (among them Legrenzi, Vivaldi, Galuppi and Hasse) and over 70 maestri di cappella, who also held prestigious posts at establishments with high cultural visibility (Burney's accounts of them are particularly notable). These composers produced a specialized repertory of psalms, motets, liturgical dramas and oratorios (often about female saints and biblical heroines) for women's voices, which still remains largely unintegrated into our understanding of church music of the period. From the ranks of around 850 figlie di coro came some notable musicians, including Anna Maria della Pietà, the renowned leader of the orchestra at the Pietà, for whom Vivaldi wrote 28 concertos, the opera singers Nancy Storace and Faustina Bordoni; and the composers Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen and Antonia Bembo. Even so, artistic freedom did not prevail at the ospedali, which decreed marriage or the convent for its graduating wards and limited autonomy in music by curtailing composition. A letter from Lavinia della Pietà written some time before 1800 offers a rare glimpse into the mentality of a rebel (Berdes, I1996):
You must understand that I could not do otherwise [than compose in secret]. … They would not take me seriously, they would never let me compose. The music of others is like words addressed to me; I must answer and hear the sound of my own voice. And the more I hear that voice, the more I realize that the songs and sounds which are mine are different. Woe betide me should they find out.
At courts, noblewomen across Europe were musically active as performers, composers and patrons. In the 17th century, both Catherine de Medici and Anne of Austria sponsored their own women musicians. In the 18th century, Anna Amalia, Princess of Prussia, and Anna Amalia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar both composed music; the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa extended patronage to Gertrud Mara and Maria Theresia von Paradis; Marie Antoinette brought the prodigy Lucile Grétry to court; and Maria Antonia Walpurgis, Electress of Saxony, and Wilhelmina, Princess of Prussia, both composed opera. Such regal examples reinforced music as a paradigm of courtly accomplishment, which spread beyond the upper classes to the new urban élites. As material life improved and literacy increased, more families aspired to the social mobility that educated daughters represented.
In a period that differentiated sharply between the humanistic, Latin-centred university education available to men and the informal, unsystematic education offered to women, music loomed much larger in the training of women, because they had few opportunities to learn much else. In Italy it made them employable at court. An especially detailed treatise by Anibal Guasco, Ragionamento a D. Lavinia sua figliuola della manera del governarsi ella in corte; andamo per Dama (1586), describes a sophisticated training in singing and in playing several instruments, as well as counterpoint. Few amateurs could match the standards of the Italian female courtier described here, but they tried. An ideal day in the life of a lady could, according to Pierre Erondelle (The French Garden: for English Ladyses and Gentlewomen to walk in, or a Sommer Dayes Labour, London, 1601), run like this (Austern, I1989):
Lady … At what houres do your Maisters come? Charlotte [the eldest daughter]. Our dauncing Maister commeth about nine a clocke: our singing Maister, and he that teacheth us to play the virginalles, at tenne; he that teacheth us on the Lute and the Violl de Gambo, at foure a clocke in the after noone: and our French Maister commeth commonly betweene seaven and eight a clocke in the morning.
The education of daughters kept musicians employed. Henry Lawes survived the demise of the court of Charles I because, as Hawkins wrote, he ‘betook himself to the teaching of ladies to sing’. In Vienna, Haydn received free board in exchange for teaching the harpsichord to Marianne von Martínez, who became a distinguished composer, leaving the largest extant body of music by a Viennese woman in this period. The demand to train daughters on appropriate instruments, such as the harp, lute and keyboard, implicates gender in many ways. The very names for early keyboard instruments – ‘virginalls’ in English and ‘Jungfernklavier’ in German - suggest the pervasive stereotyping of that instrument. In 1612-13, the humanistic title of the first British collection of keyboard music, Parthenia, emphasized ‘virginal’ contexts even further. Similarly, the lute was feminized to the extent that Thomas Mace (Musick's Monument, 1676) felt it necessary to refute the stereotype of the lute as a ‘weak, feeble, soft instrument’, in short, a ‘woman's instrument’. Was it not difficult to master? If so, then ‘it cannot so properly be called a woman's instrument, in regard they are the weaker vessels, and therefore not so fit to set upon and attempt the mastery of things of such difficulty’.
The long tradition of music within female education buttressed training in new institutions such as the boarding-school and the salon, which were overlapping worlds for urban élites. The first boarding-school in London opened in 1617; by the 1660s this prestigious school in Hackney was known as the ‘ladies university of the female arts’ and had educated Mary Dering. John Blow's Venus and Adonis, as well as Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, were written for and first performed by girls at similar establishments. Parallel activity prevailed in other countries as well.
In France, where convent schools were the norm for upper-class girls, collections of pieces were specifically written ‘for the use of young ladies brought up in houses of religion’. Such a repertory acquired particular distinction at the Maison Royale St-Louis de Saint-Cyr, founded by Mme de Maintenon. The tragedies Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691), which she commissioned from Racine, featured choral music and spiritual songs by the school composer Jean-Baptiste Moreau. Such was their success that Mme de Maintenon, who was fond of maxims such as ‘Learn to obey, for you will obey forever’, forbade further performances. Nevertheless, these two tragedies became staples of the girls’ school repertory. At the end of the next century, an equally distinguished director, Mme Campan, staged Moreau's Esther at her famous school in St Germain (founded 1793).
Although advances in education benefited men more than women, the trend towards the broad marketing of culture proved powerful. With expanding female literacy came many magazines edited for and by women, first in England, then in France (and only at the end of the 18th century in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands). Along with coverage of prominent female musicians and musical education, both the words and the music of popular songs were routinely included in, for example, the Journal des dames (1759–78), the Lady's Magazine or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex (1770–1832) and the New Lady's Magazine (1786–95). The existence of the specialized Journal de musique pour les dames points again to the importance of amateur music-making, often at a sophisticated artistic level, among privileged women.
All across Europe, the salon (an urban gathering in the public space of a private home outside the court) offered female musicians a dynamic new venue. In 16th- and 17th-century Venice, the ‘ridotti’ helped the careers of Casulana and Strozzi. In Lyons at the same period, the organist Clémentine de Bourges was befriended by the distinguished poet Louise Labé, who wrote of her salon sisters, ‘they take their pen and lute in hand; they write and sing about their passions’. In the 18th century, musical salons gained prominence as well. Stéphanie-Félicité, Countess of Genlis, a famous harpist and educator, left among her annual salon chronicles an account in 1767 of Marie Emmanuelle Bayon Louis, who brought the fortepiano into vogue in France. Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy, whom Burney called ‘one of the greatest lady players on the harpsichord in Europe’, ran her own salon in the 1770s and performed her own compositions there. The careers of Mme de Genlis and Mme Brillon during the ancien régime were on a level with the best professional musicians in Paris. If ‘the 18th-century salon transformed a noble leisure form of social gathering into a serious working space’, then musicians like Jacquet de La Guerre, Martínez, Candeille, Maria Aghate Szymanowska, Elisabetta de Gambarini and Hélène de Montgeroult turned it into a venue for subscription concerts, teaching and for selling their compositions. At a time when women were largely excluded from orchestras, the salon was a gateway to diverse musical occupations and professional recognition.
Attitudes towards women's education and the role of music within it made allies of writers with otherwise opposing politics. Both the conservative royalist Bishop Fénélon and the anticlerical Rousseau sounded the same notes: modesty, reserve, subordination. Fénélon avowed that ‘more extensive study might be allowed the musically talented girl’, because ‘if she have a voice and a genius for the beauties of music, do not hope to keep her always in ignorance of them: the prohibition will but increase the passion; you had better give an orderly course to this torrent, then undertake to stop it’. Rousseau's enormously influential views on women's education gave Fénélon's virtues a new place within the context of the Republican family.
Even some proto-feminist writers cast a sceptical eye on music as a subject traditionally associated with female vanity and the old order. To be feminist can mean to desire to transcend the socially constructed ‘feminine’. In 1637 the famous Dutch scholar Elizabeth Schurmann assigned music to the ‘place of pretty Ornaments and ingenious Recreations’ (Whether the Study of Letters is Fitting to a Christian Woman, 1659). Some 18th-century women were less defensive. Mary Wollstonecraft (Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787) neutralized the rhetoric surrounding music by noting how it could ‘afford the most rational and delicate pleasure’. If a daughter possessed it, ‘do not suffer it to lie dormant’. More advanced views were put forth by the English historian Catharine Macaulay-Graham: ‘Confine not the education of your daughters to what is regarded as the ornamental parts of it, nor deny the graces to your sons. … Let your children be brought up together; let their sports and studies be the same’. She accused Rousseau of being the ‘most conspicuous’ and ‘strenuous’ asserter of ‘a sexual difference in character’ (Letters on Education, 1787).
This, in fact, was one source of Rousseau's enduring influence on 19th-century thought. In Germany, the Romantic writer Friedrich Schlegel was one of the few who resisted and championed women's rights. Following in Rousseau's footsteps were two prominent educationists, Johann Campe and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Espousing ‘pure masculinity’ as active sexuality, and femininity as passive receptivity, Humboldt set in place views about sexual difference that A.B. Marx and, later, Vincent d'Indy were to apply metaphorically to theories of sonata form.
Women in music, §II: Western classical traditions in Europe and the USA