Women Composers of Early Music
By Don Kaplan
If you ask people to name a famous classical music composer they’ll probably say Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart — all men. If you ask people to name a famous woman composer they might say Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn. But were there any accomplished women composers prior to the 19th century? Who were the talented women composers during the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods? And what prevented them from becoming better known today?
The contributions of women composers date back to at least the ninth century. In an article published by Smithsonian magazine, Anna Beer points out:
“…there are many painfully underappreciated female composers who were undoubtedly great. These forgotten women achieved artistic greatness despite the fact that for centuries the idea of genius has remained a male preserve…
“[They succeeded] despite working in cultures which systematically denied almost all women access to advanced education in composition… despite having their art reduced to simplistic formulas about male and female music…and despite subscribing to their society’s beliefs as to what they…could (and could not) compose as a woman….
“Yes, women wrote music, they wrote it well, and they wrote it against the odds.”
Fortunately historians have rediscovered some of the women composers who achieved fame and artistic greatness regardless of the restrictions placed on them. Several of the most notable ones are described below.
The Earliest Composers
Kassia [Kassiani] (c. 810 — c. 867), a Byzantine Greek poet and abbess, is the earliest female composer whose music has survived and whose scores can be interpreted by modern scholars. Sometimes referred to as the first female composer, Kassia’s melodies feature settings that closely reflect the rhythms and structures of the text, and musical motifs that are often used to mirror the words. Over 50 liturgical works have been attributed to Kassia although recent research has shown about half may not have been written by her.
Kassia was famous in Byzantium for her popular hymn known as “The Hymn of Kassiana.” The music is slow, sorrowful and plaintive, is usually sung by an accompanied soloist but is also performed by choirs singing in unison underpinned by a Byzantine vocal bass drone.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a well-known German saint, composer, writer and visionary. Her theology and mysticism made her one of the most influential women in Europe and she is the earliest composer we have any clear biographical details about.
At the age of seven Hildegard’s parents sent her to be enrolled as a novice in the convent of Disibodenberg in the Rhinelands:
“For upper-class women, the convent filled several basic needs. It provided an alternative to marriage by receiving girls whose families were unable to find them husbands. It provided an outlet for nonconformists, women who did not wish to marry because they felt a religious vocation, because marriage was repugnant, or because they saw in the convent a mode of life in which they could perform and perhaps distinguish themselves. The nunnery was a refuge of female intellectuals.”
Hildegard lived at Disibodenberg for about 40 years until she left in 1150 to found the Rupertsberg monastery near Bingen so her nuns could be more independent from the monks. She refused to be defined by the patriarchal hierarchy of the church and, although she followed its strictures, pushed the boundaries established for women.
In addition to writing songs for the nuns to sing at their devotions she wrote numerous poems, letters, books, works on biology and botany, and medicinal and devotional texts. She argued that if humans cared for nature, nature would do the same for them, and claimed the Divine was as female in spirit as male — elements that were both essential for wholeness. Despite being controversial Hildegard regularly corresponded with kings, queens, political leaders and many others, and became a recognized prophet known as “The Sibyl Of The Rhine.”
Hildegard was rediscovered in 1979 around the 800th anniversary of her death when Philip Pickett and the New London Consort gave what were possibly the first English performances of four of her songs. Until then it appears Hildegard’s music was only heard inside her own convent. Today there are several recordings of her music and she is considered by many as a New Age guru and early feminist.
The “Sibyl’s” compositions differed from other liturgical music because her melodies were freer, more wide-ranging and elaborate than those used by her contemporaries. She wrote the oldest surviving morality play, Ordo Virtutum, a drama about the struggle between 17 Virtues and the Devil over the destiny of a female soul. It features melodies for the human soul and Virtues but the Devil who, in later music periods, usually got the best melodies doesn’t get any of the best tunes here: He is reduced to having a speaking role.
During the middle ages, in the world outside church walls, female troubadours (trobairitz) wrote secular music. The most common musical form used by the trobairitz was the canso, a song in stanza form on topics of courtly love. The songs of the trobairitz help us understand how their society influenced attitudes toward women for centuries to follow:
“Female troubadours…wrote lyrics that followed the courtly love tradition of the troubadours in that they involved themes of adulterous love, the elevation of the lady over the man who loves her, and the torturous nature of romantic love, itself….It’s important…to point out that the placement of women on a pedestal in the courtly love tradition did not do much to dispel the misogyny in society or in art, however. Some of the troubadour lyrics are viciously misogynistic.”
Renaissance and Baroque Composers
Social roles throughout the Renaissance continued to center around the idea that women should perform domestic duties and live humble and pious lives. However, the 16th- century also brought about some changes: Young women like composer, lutenist and singer Maddalena [Mezari] Casulana (c. 1544 — c. 1590) were offered the opportunity to pursue academic studies. Using her education and talent Casulana chose to pursue a career in music, singing and teaching in salons and academies where women were more readily accepted.
Casulana is notable because she was the first female composer to publish an entire book of her music. Her Primo libro de madrigali a quattro voci (Venice, 1568) was dedicated to Isabella de’ Medici Orsini, the main musical subject of these madrigals. In her dedication Casulana expressed her admiration for de’ Medici while sharing thoughts on being a woman composer in a field dominated by men: “I know truly most excellent Lady, that these first fruits of mine…in addition to providing some evidence of my devotion to Your Excellency, also…show the world the futile error of men who believe themselves patrons of the high gifts of intellect, which according to them cannot also be held in the same way by women.”
Sulpitia Lodovica Cesis (1577–1619) composed, taught and played the lute at St. Geminiano in Modena, a convent renowned for the high quality of its music. Cesis’ compositions differed from her contemporaries by including indications for instruments such as cornetts, trombones, violones, and archviolones.
Her only known work is Motetti spirituali, a collection of motets for 2–12 voices published in 1619. The 12-voice works are important because they differ from the usual 2–3 voice works that were popular in the 17th century. These motets were dedicated to a nun with a similar name, Anna Maria Cesis. Like in Casulana’s dedication, Sulpitia’s dedication referred to the problems women composers faced. Sulpitia wrote “…with the splendor and nobility of your name these few musical labors may be defended against the meanness of their detractors and also that they might occasionally be performed in the convents of nuns in praise of our common Lord.”
One of the most famous and influential female composers during the Baroque period, Francesca Caccini (1587–1640) was able to sustain a full time professional career. Caccini, daughter of the Renaissance composer Giulio Caccini (an important Italian composer of the early Baroque era) sang and was proficient on the harp, harpsichord, lute, theorbo, and guitar. By the time she was 20 she was a musician at the Medici court where she continued to work throughout her career. By 1626 Caccini was the most prominent woman musician in Europe.
Caccini was responsible for composing La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, the first opera written by a woman. Premiered in Florence in 1625 the opera so inspired the King of Poland that he rushed back to his home country, created his own opera house, and asked Caccini to provide the first works for it.
In addition to composing hundreds of songs she spent time collaborating with other court musicians and performing in private and public. Caccini continued to write and teach later in life but the rest of Francesca’s activity remains a mystery: She left the Medici court in 1641 and was never heard from by the public again.
Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602 — c. 1676 or later) had an unusual amount of music published for a female composer during the 17th century. Similar to Sulpitia Cesis, Cozzolani spent her adult life within the walls of a convent famous for its music making (the monastery at St. Radegonda). In a report from Abbot Filippo Picinelli’s Ateneo dei letterati milanesi (1670), Picinelli found:
“The nuns of Santa Radegonda of Milan are gifted with such rare and exquisite talents in music that they are acknowledged to be the best singers of Italy…who fill hearts with wonder, and enrapture tongues in their praise. Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise….”
Warren Stewart, artistic director of Magnificat Baroque Ensemble (a group that promotes and performs music by women composers) notes that “one of the reasons for the superiority of the music in convents in Milan in the relatively brief period in which Cozzolani was active as a composer can be traced to the devastating plagues of 1630 and 31 that ravaged the male musical institutions and all aspects of society in Milan and throughout northern Italy. By contrast all the nuns in Milan survived the plagues, most likely because they were effectively quarantined… As a result the experienced performers and teachers among the nuns survived to carry on the already well-established musical traditions.”
Cozzalini resisted Church restrictions: she provided guidance during the 1660s when the convent was attacked by Archbishop Alfonso Litta who wanted to limit the nuns’ musical practice and other “irregular” contact with the outside world. Much of her finely crafted music has been lost but enough remains to refer to her as one of the leading composers of mid-century Milan. She published four collections of music between 1640 and 1650, two of which survive complete. The final published volume contains a nativity piece for eight voices with parts for men, demonstrating the beginning of more inclusive spiritual and musical relationships.
Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677) was the adopted daughter and likely illegitimate child of renowned poet Giulio Strozzi. She was said to be the most prolific composer, woman or man, of printed secular vocal music in Venice during the 17th century. Most women composers of the time had to use a male pseudonym in order to get their creative works in print. Barbara put her own name on everything she wrote, making her one of the first female writers of secular music to publish in this way.
Her music is especially striking because of the care she took in creating an unusually close relationship between words and music. Most of the poetry was about love and modeled on the ornate Marinist style that valued wit, erotic imagery, sensuality, extravagant metaphors and fantastic word play.
Other important composers during the Baroque period include Isabella Leonarda who also composed a significant body of vocal music, and Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, the first French composer of sonatas.
Isabella Leonarda (1620–1704) entered a convent at age 16 and remained there for the rest of her life. She was not well known as a singer or instrumentalist, but was one of the most prolific convent composers of the Baroque era. Her Sonate da chiesa, Op.16 published in 1693 was the first published instrumental sonata by a woman.
Unlike many of her female contemporaries, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665–1729) composed music in a wide variety of forms and was able to improvise on the harpsichord. Her accomplishments were given special praise by the French scholar Evrard Titon du Tillet in his Parnasse françois (1732), a collection of biographical vignettes concerning eminent poets and musicians in France. In it he described Élizabeth’s ability to improvise preludes and fantasies, adding “One might say that never has a person of her sex had such great talent for the composition of music…”
Her first published work was the Premier livre de pièces de clavecin (1687), one of the few collections of harpsichord pieces printed in France during the 17th century. The work consists entirely of dance pieces grouped by key, with each group preceded by an “unmeasured prelude” that doesn’t adhere to a strict pulse and comes close to improvisation.
Throughout the 1690s she composed a ballet, had her opera Céphale et Procris — the first opera written by a French woman — premiered, and wrote a set of trio sonatas that are among the earliest French examples of the sonata. In 1707 a new set of harpsichord pieces, Pièces de clavecin qui peuvent se jouer sur le violin was published followed by six Sonates pour le violon et pour le clavecin. These works are early examples of the new genre of accompanied harpsichord works where the instrument has an obbligato role with the violin.
Most of the music written by early music women composers is missing, wasn’t published, or was only sung or played in a convent. Whether cloistered from the outside world or restricted by societal attitudes, enough music exists today for us to appreciate the importance of these composers and the beauty of their music.
For Further Exploration
Caccini, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina, ensembles Allabastrina and La Pifarescha, dir. Elena Sartori, GLOSSA (GCD 923902, 2016)
Caccini, O Viva Rosa, Shannon Mercer, ANALEKTA (AN 29966, 2010)
Cesis, Motetti spirituali 1619, Cappella Artemisia, TACTUS (TC 572801, 2009)
Cozzolani. Vespro della Beata Vergine, Magnificat, Warren Stewart, dir., MUSICA OMNIA (MO 0103, 2001)
Cozzolani, Messa Paschale, Magnificat, Warren Stewart, dir., MUSICA OMNIA (MO 0209, 2002)
Hildegard von Bingen, A Feather on the Breath of God, Emma Kirkby, Gothic Voices, HYPERION (CDA 66039, 1981)
Hildegard von Bingen, Canticles of Ecstasy, Sequentia, DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI (BMG 05472–77320–2, 1994)
Kassia, Byzantine Hymns of the First Woman Composer, VocaMe, CHRISTOPHORUS (CHR 77308, 2009)
Strozzi, Arias & Cantatas, La Risonanza, GLOSSA CABINET (GLS 81503, 2014)
Strozzi, Passioni,Vizi & Virtu, Consort Baroque Laurentia, STRADIVARIUS (SVS 33948, 2013)
Strozzi, La Virtuosissima Cantatrice. Musica Secreta, SAYDISC (SAY 061, 2006)
Trobairitz: Poems of Women Troubadours, Sean Dagher, La Nef, Shannon Mércer, dir. ANALEKTA (AN 29846, 2013)
Anna Beer, “These Women Composers Should Be Household Names Like Bach or Mozart,” Smithsonianmag.com (March 17, 2016).
Joshua J. Mark, “Hildegard of Bingen,” Ancient History Encyclopedia (May 30, 2019).
 Danièle Cybulskie, “The Troubadours, Part II: Ladies in Love,” Medievelists.net (2020, no other date given).
 “Maddalena Casulana,” in A Modern Reveal: Songs and Stories of women composers (amodernreveal.com, 2019).
“Sulpitia Cesis,” A Modern Reveal.
 Robert Kendrick, “Chiara Margarita Cozzolani: Celestial Siren,” adapted from notes for the Cozzolani Project (2009).
 Rebecca Cyprus, “Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (January, 2020).
Don Kaplan is the author of several books including See With Your Ears: The Creative Music Book. He has contributed to Early Music America, San Francisco Classical Voice, Strings magazine, Copper magazine (music and audio), Music Educators Journal, Learning and Teacher magazines, The Monthly, The New York Times and other publications. He has taught at a number of colleges including the Bank Street College of Education, New York University and New School for Social Research, and been a visiting artist at several Bay area and New York City schools.
This article originally appeared in Copper magazine.
All illustrations courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.