Barbara Strozzi was a distinguished Italian singer and productive Baroque composer of secular vocal music, not to mention also being highly acclaimed for her literary skills as a poet and word-setter, no doubt influenced by her father. She was born in Venice in 1619 as the illegitimate product of an affair between poet and librettist Giulio Strozzi, and his servant, Isabella Garzoni. Despite this, her father recognised Barbara as his daughter, and greatly encouraged her musical talents, even creating an academy to allow her to exhibit her exceptional vocal ability publicly. However, singing was not her only gift, she also had considerable compositional ability too, and so her father arranged for her to study under composer Francesco Cavalli.
She was the subject of much jealous slander from her male contemporaries and was frequently said to have been a courtesan, which is possible, however it seems at least three of her four children were fathered by the same man, Giovanni Vidman. On the whole it seems she led a quiet, if not slightly unusual life, supporting herself by means of her compositions and investments after the death of Giovanni who apparently left neither her nor their children anything in his will.
We don’t hear much of Barbara these days considering that she was said to be the most prolific composer of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the seventeenth century. Her works were unique in this respect, and she mainly wrote for the soprano voice. She published eight collections of cantatas – over 100 works, and her music traveler far beyond Venice, influencing the rest of Italy and reaching across Western Europe to Germany, Austria and England. Her inspiration was composer Claudio Monteverdi who had just revolutionised the musical world with his ‘seconda practica’, laying the foundations for modern music. Indeed, she was also a trailblazer for modern music with her piece ‘Che so può fare’ (What am I to do?) beginning with the first four notes of a descending D Minor scale, a bass line which crops up time and time again in 20th Century blues and jazz music such as ‘Hit the Road Jack’. Considering that this piece is so haunting and operatic, one would not have thought that its influence would still be felt in modern blues and jazz.
Barbara died in Padua in 1677, aged 58, leaving no will, and so her eldest son took over her finances. Her music is regal, lyrical and hauntingly beautiful, and as always well worth listening to. The aforementioned ‘Che so può fare’ is one of my favourites of hers, as are her wonderfully conversational female duets ‘Madrigali, Op.1: Merce di voi’, ‘Canto di bella bocca’, and trio ‘Mordeva un bianco lino’.