Chapter 10

Chapter 10: Vocal Music for Chamber and Church in the Early Baroque

Composer Biographies

Barbara Strozzi

Born: 1619, Venice, Italy

Died: November 11, 1677, Padua, Italy

Italian composer and performer. Important early composer of the secular cantata, and the first to publish a large number of cantatas.

Tracing the history of women in music is a difficult task. Women's history often diverges from that of male musical culture, and the rules we use to judge the success and failure of female composers often operate quite differently from those we use to judge male composers. But with Barbara Strozzi, we encounter an unusual case: a woman whose training, accomplishments, and opportunities parallel, in many ways, those of her male counterparts.

Strozzi was raised in the household of the influential Venetian poet Giulio Strozzi (presumably her father). She studied with Francesco Cavalli, one of the leading operatic composers of the day, and her father created opportunities for her to demonstrate both her performing and her compositional skills. Her music was published, which was a rarity for women at that time. In fact, she published more cantatas than any of her Italian contemporaries. She was, in short, a professional in a day when few women could (or would wish to) claim that title.

At the same time, Strozzi's success came at a price. As was often the case with talented and public women of her time, many of her detractors suggested that she was a courtesan—the Venetian equivalent of the Japanese geisha. Perhaps this was true; but we need to look at courtesans in a different light. Beyond her sexuality, a courtesan was often valued and patronized for her intellectual abilities—as a writer, a poet, or simply a conversationalist. Because of this, many talented Venetian women led the lives of courtesans in order to be able to pursue their artistic interests. Some, such as the poet Veronica Franco, styled themselves as "honest courtesans" and boldly challenged the social conventions of their times. Like the contemporary male courtier, they saw themselves as having a place in society by virtue of their talents. If there were other elements involved in being a courtesan, it was simply part of the bargain.

No matter what the truth of this is, however, it is Barbara Strozzi's remarkable success and exquisite music that make her such a compelling musical figure.


  • Secular vocal music, including a book of madrigals (1644) and 6 collections of arias and cantatas (1651–64)
  • A sacred solo motet collection (1655)

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Musical Examples

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