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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean
Richard Taruskin

Because the history of European and Euro-American art music is the story of a literate tradition—that is, to a very great extent the story of musical texts and their making—women are seriously but inevitably underrepresented in it. Even this book, despite its strenuously “foregrounded” efforts not to forget the oral side of musical traditions or neglect the effects of performance, will necessarily fail to reflect the full extent of women’s contribution, since no matter what we may assume or conjecture, the historical sources on which the narrative is necessarily based consist overwhelmingly of musical texts.

It is a question that must be dealt with in the open, since the right of women to participate in public and cultural life as the social and economic equals of men has never been a more important or hotly debated a political issue than it became in late twentieth-century America. It is therefore incumbent on the historian—the teller of the tale—to explain the reasons for the glaring absence of female participants in the story that is told, lest it be assumed (as it has been, often) that the reasons lie in the nature of women, or the nature of music, rather than in the nature of the story.

A well-known example of how easy it is to fall prey to such assumptions is the answer Aaron Copland (1900–90), a famous American composer, gave some time ago to what was once a much-asked question: “Why have there been no great women composers?”11 Copland opined that there may be “a mysterious element in the nature of musical creativity that runs counter to the nature of the feminine mind.” His answer, while seemingly dogmatic and misogynistic, was not made in any such spirit and was not singled out at the time for criticism by readers or reviewers of the book in which it appeared. In fact, it comes from a tribute to an important woman musician, Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979), Copland’s early composition teacher, who had once aspired to a composing career of her own. It was an answer typical of its time and reflected a viewpoint that was widely shared by men and women alike.

That, of course, did not make it correct. After decades of cogent feminist critiques of age-old cultural assumptions, it is very easy to spot the fallacies that inform it. Copland was asked a question that reflected a situation that everyone acknowledged, but one that he could not effectively explain. It was, in short, a mystery. And so the explanation had to be a “mysterious element” that women lacked. The mystery was “solved” simply by calling it a mystery. That is what is known in logic as a tautology—a mere repetition of a premise in other words, or (in this case) an arbitrary definition.

How can we do better? First by acknowledging that the “problem” of women’s creativity in the arts, and in music particularly, is one that we do not see directly but through a screen of social and esthetic issues. These involve the value placed on the composer (and, more specifically, on the “great composer”) in our modern musical culture, which follows, as already suggested, from the high value placed by modern musical culture on written texts. Once this is realized, economic and political factors such as access and dissemination suddenly stand revealed.

Before the twentieth century (indeed, the late twentieth century), it was only under exceptional circumstances that women enjoyed access to media of textual preservation and dissemination. It was because she was an abbess, the head of an exclusively female religious institution, that Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) had the means at her disposal to record her inspired religious poetry and the extraordinary melodies to which she sang it. Before they were committed to writing (probably not by Hildegard herself but by a scribe to whom she as a socially privileged person could dictate them), Hildegard’s poems and songs were worked out in memory. In this activity she was hardly alone. Countless other nuns, as well as countless forgotten monks, surely made up liturgical songs. But only those with the power to command the necessary material and human resources got to preserve their works and make them available, so to speak, to the modern historian. The same is true of Beatriz di Dia, the trobairitz or lady troubadour, one of whose songs was among the handful of troubadour poems to survive from the twelfth century with its melody intact. “Music from the Earliest Notation’s to the Sixteenth century”, chapter 4. As a noblewoman, she had privileged access to the means of inscribing and disseminating her work.

It was this power of access, rather than powers of verbal or musical inspiration, that was disproportionately commanded by men, because men commanded the overwhelmingly greater part of the political and (especially) the ecclesiastical power structures in European society. To gain access to the means of inscription and dissemination, a creatively gifted male musician sought institutional connections as an employee of court or church. Such positions were rarely open to women. For a creatively gifted woman to gain such access, she would have had to be the employer, not the employee. And that is why, until the nineteenth century, practically all women composers came, like Hildegard and Beatriz, from the higher echelons of the monastic hierarchy or from the hereditary aristocracy.

More than one reviewer of the exhaustive Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (New York and London, 1994)—an unprecedented biographical compilation covering almost nine hundred musically creative women who managed to contribute materially to the literate tradition—expressed astonishment at the number of titled names the book contained, from Schütz’s contemporary Sophie Elisabeth (1613–76), Duchess of Brunswick, to Amalia Catharina (1640–97), Countess of Erbach, to Wilhelmina (1709–58), Princess of Prussia, to Maria Barbara (1711–58), Queen of Spain, and so on.

Yet the astonishment is misplaced, and the fact easily misinterpreted. Noblewomen proportionately outnumber noblemen in the ranks of aristocratic dilettantes precisely because the rank of noble dilettante was virtually the only rank to which a woman composer could aspire. So there is no real mystery about male dominance in music, and no lack of data to account for it. The illusion of gendered disparity in musical endowment (Copland’s “mysterious element”) turns out to be the result of gendered disparity of access to the means of inscription and dissemination, something for which historical evidence could hardly be more abundant.

The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (the “early modern” period) began to witness exceptions to this pattern, as we have observed in the case of Barbara Strozzi. New careers opened up to women as performers with the advent of professionalized court singing, particularly at the music-loving court of Ferrara in northern Italy, which maintained a famous concerto delle donne, a “consort” of virtuoso women singers for whom several important (male) composers wrote flamboyantly ornate madrigals near the end of the sixteenth century. With the advent of public opera in Italy beginning in the 1630s, women performers reached new heights of accomplishment and renown.

And yet their musical accomplishments did not bring women performers enhanced social status; rather the opposite. Women who sang or danced in public still bore a stigma in Christian Europe, where such activities were traditionally associated with prostitutes (or courtesans, as they were known in more elevated social circles). Thus a recent study by the music historian Anthony Newcomb of the concerto delle donne and other professional court singers of the time bears the title “Courtesans, Muses or Musicians?” and confirms the fact that, unless married to a nobleman, a professional woman singer was thought of as “a remarkable renegade to be looked at, applauded, but not included in polite society.”12 Even Barbara Strozzi, in the words of her biographer Ellen Rosand, “may, indeed, have been a courtesan, highly skilled in the art of love as well as music.”13

Strozzi was nevertheless able to function as a professional composer—a creator—as well as a performer, and this was an “early modern” novelty. Many of the women performers at Ferrara and other north Italian courts were known to have composed a significant part of their own repertoires, but with only a single notable exception—Maddalena Casulana, who issued three books of madrigals in Venice between 1568 and 1583—they did not publish their work and are lost as composers to history. Strozzi, by contrast, was considered an important composer in her day, as was her older contemporary Francesca Caccini (1587–ca. 1641), who published a book of monodies in 1618 and had an opera performed at the Medici court in Florence in 1625.

Just to name these two composers, however, is to explain their exceptional status and to realize that they are only exceptions that (as the saying goes) “prove the rule.” Both of them were daughters (in one case natural, the other adopted) of famous fathers who commanded great prestige in musical circles. It was on their fathers’ coattails that the daughters could find an outlet for their talents where other talents, perhaps equally great, could find no outlet. Strozzi, in an effort to mitigate the audacity of her career objectives, paid tribute to the prejudice against women composers even as she overcame it, writing in the preface to her first publication that “as a woman, I publish [it] all too anxiously,” and in her second, dedicated to the Emperor of Austria, that “the lowly mine of a woman’s poor imagination cannot produce metal to forge those richest golden crowns worthy of august rulers.”

Caccini left the service of the Medici on the death of her husband in 1626. Recent research by Suzanne Cusick has shown that she married again a year later, to a wealthy nobleman and musical dilettante, and that she continued to compose music for entertainments at her new home—but anonymously, as befit her new social rank.14 Thus, ironically, access to a private fortune through marriage—a marriage probably contracted precisely because of her musical talents—actually took away from Caccini the outlet she had formerly possessed, by virtue of her father’s fame, to the public profession of music and the dissemination of her works.

Indeed, she now outranked her father socially. After her second husband’s death, she returned to the Medici court, but as a lady-in-waiting rather than as a designated musician. (She did, however, sing in chapel services and also taught music in a convent school—a “gynocentric” environment, as Cusick calls it, and an oral one that is for both reasons hidden from the purview of conventional historiography.) In a final touch of irony, she refused permission to have her daughter sing in a dramatic spectacle such as she had participated in during her own previous stint in service, lest it damage the girl’s prospects for a good marriage. Francesca Caccini recognized, in short, that her own lucky combination of musical and social success had been freakish, and not likely to be repeated in the next generation.

So, to pose once more the question Copland so glibly answered and answer it anew: There have been no “great women composers” because of a virtual catch-22. Without social rank, feminine access to the means of dissemination was impossible for one reason, but with it access could become impossible for another reason. Besides, the problem as we pose it today is compounded by a subtle nuance in the wording of the question. As we will see in greater detail when we investigate the musical results of the romantic movement, the concept of artistic greatness (a far more recent concept than one might assume) is itself a gendered one. Even earlier, the concept of artistic creation was linked with the notion of the biblical Creator, traditionally a patriarchal rather than a matriarchal figure. So the question itself, like many questions that purportedly seek simple “natural” answers, is not innocent of cultural bias.

So what do we do? One way of restoring women to the history of music, informally known as “mainstreaming,” is to give the works of women composers disproportionate representation so as to offer a constant reminder that (pace Copland) men have no monopoly on compositional talent. The choice of Strozzi’s cantata as a specimen for analysis in this book, rather than one by the more famous and prolific Carissimi (or Luigi Rossi, another Roman specialist in the genre), is an example of mainstreaming. Its immediate purpose, however, was more to provide an opening for the present discussion than to even the score between men and women in the history of composition. There is simply no way of evening that score; and while mainstreaming may constructively counteract the unfounded assumption that women are lacking in innate capacity to compose, it, too, distorts the historical record. Nor does concealing the fact of any group’s historical exclusion serve to advance its current prospects for equality.

Another way of restoring women to music history is to change the nature of the story, giving less emphasis to composition and more to performance, patronage, and other areas in which the contributions of women have been more commensurate with those of men. The present account, with its constant reminders that the literate repertory is not the sole subject of music history and its constant attention to the social contexts in which music has been made, shows the influence of this trend. And yet to the extent that it remains the aim and obligation of a text like this not only to narrate the story of past musical activities and deeds but also to provide an introduction to the material products—the textual remains—of those activities, the literate repertory must, despite all caveats, retain its privilege and remain the primary focus of the story.

Whatever the quantity of women’s contributions to that repertory and whatever the extent of its representation in a book like this, another question remains to be asked about it. Is its quality, or essence, distinct in any observable way from that of men? Is there something peculiar about the musical expression of women (and, it follows, of men) that is the direct result of the composer’s gender? Do men or women, as composers, possess a particular group identity, the way they do as participants in the act of sexual reproduction? And if so, is that identity truly a biological given and a determinant of their behavior, as it is in reproduction, or is it the result of habit and socialization (that is, behavior one learns from other people)?

These questions—which can be applied not only to matters of gender but to a broad range of differences among human groups including race, nationality, religion, erotic preference, and as many others as we can describe—have become increasingly common in recent years, and increasingly fraught, as different human groups (especially minority groups) have demanded, and been accorded, increasing respect in many modern societies. Answers to them have been extremely various, and they have been subject to heated, often acrimonious debate as befits the important political and economic issues that are at stake behind them, even when asked in the relatively serene context of the arts and their history.

An inclination toward affirmative answers to questions about the reality of group identity as a determinant of individual behavior is generally called the essentialist position, while the tendency to answer such questions in the negative marks one as a social constructionist or constructivist. These extreme positions are rarely espoused in pure form except by political activists. And even political activists sometimes recognize that the political implications of these positions are seldom unambiguous. Asserting an essentialist notion of women’s writing, as certain literary critics have done (especially in France, so that “women’s writing” is often called écriture feminine even by English or American writers), has been a useful tactic in calling attention to the existence of such literature and gaining a readership for it. And yet women writers have often resisted the notion, thinking it a predefinition of their work, hence more a limitation on them than a liberation. There has been a certain amount of musicological criticism along such lines (an example is Cusick’s work on Francesca Caccini, whom she has termed a “proto-feminist”).

But there is little consensus on the matter, and it will be noticed that the present discussion of Strozzi’s style as evinced by her cantata has sought a neutral or agnostic (some might call it an evasive) stance. On the one hand, it is evident that Strozzi follows practically all of the same expressive conventions previously observed in the work of men like Monteverdi and Schütz. On the other, her work does possess distinguishing characteristics that, some might argue, involuntarily reflect her group identity. Questions of essentialism vs. constructionism, in any event, cannot be approached on the basis of a single example, and a broader empirical survey lies beyond the scope of a book like this. As in all such controversies, the burden of proof lies with those who assert the critical relevance of the issue.


(11) Aaron Copland, “The Teacher: Nadia Boulanger,” in Copland on Music (New York: Norton, 1963), p. 85.

(12) Anthony Newcomb, “Courtesans, Muses, or Musicians? Professional Women Musicians in Sixteenth-Century Italy,” in Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150–1950, eds. J. Bowers and J. Tick (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 103.

(13) Ellen Rosand, “Barbara Strozzi, Virtuosissima cantatrice: The Composer’s Voice,” JAMS XXXI (1978): 252.

(14) See Suzanne G. Cusick, “Thinking from Women’s Lives: Francesca Caccini after 1627,” Musical Quarterly LXXVII (1993): 484–507.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Jul. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02011.xml