Venice: the city of female musicians

Venice is the city of music par excellence. It sees the gondoliers humming as you pass under the Academia bridge and it has seen the birth of opera as well as great Italian composers such as Donizetti, Vivaldi and more recently Stravinsky.

While Le Grand Palais Immersive invites you this fall to rediscover this city of a thousand canals in an immersive exhibition “Venice, Revealed”, this episode of the musical series wants you to hear another story, brilliant and absolutely unique, of music in Venice, that of its female musicians. Because it is to women that we owe the reputation of the city and its musical dynamism: famous women (the great singers like Callas or Malibran) but also other less well-known women, those of the ospedali, even though they have signed masterpieces of European classical music.

Sacred Women at the Biennial

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“Feeling her way”, this is the title of the work that won the golden lion this year at the biennial of contemporary art in Venice, an exhibition and competition which opposes in the giardinir della serenissima and since 1895, Western countries. The British pavilion was entrusted to the artist Sonia Boyce, a strong figure in black British art who left her mark on the United Kingdom in the 1970s. She won the golden lion for her singular work which highlights a little-known history of the music “feeling her way”. It introduces audiences to five black singers and musicians from the British scene, filmed together and separately exploring their voices in the legendary Abbey Road studio. Voices that blend harmoniously with each other or, on the contrary, that compete. They build a cacophony that speaks well of their difficulties to exist and to be heard. This is the lot of women in the long history of music, but not in Venice, this self-governed city-state, republic, where the first professional composer in the history of Western music was born.

The first female composer on the loose

Barbara Strozzi is the first known professional composer. A strange figure which speaks well of the freedom of a certain part of the Venetians. Since Barbara Strozzi was born to a servant mother and a very famous poet father in Venice, author of opera librettos, she studied music with the greatest opera masters like Cavalli. Her father will even create the Accademia Degli Unisoni (1637-1638), a salon for intellectuals and musicians, partly to give his daughter the opportunity to sing during academic debates. A first-class singer, served by her beauty and her intelligence, she will respond all her life to challenges launched by the academy.
Tour de force in 1644, at a time when few musicians had their works printed, because of the cost it represented, she published her first book of madrigals on texts by her father, like many of her works. This collection is dedicated to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. In his preface, Strozzi speaks of this work as “a first work which I, as a woman, anxiously bring to light”. She composed many vocal works for patrons, such as the Doge of Venice Nicolò Sagredo… She always died free and probably quite rich. This is not the case for the other female musicians whom Venice trained en masse in the centuries that followed and who will undoubtedly be among the best female musicians in Europe. These women had nothing going for them. They were orphans, foundlings, but they will be celebrated and are undoubtedly at the origin of the first conservatories, they are the musicians of ospedali.

The musicians of ospedali

Anna Bon di Venezia is one of the rare ospedali musicians to be known for her compositional work. If instrumentalists were forbidden to play outside their institution, and figlie del coro to make a career on opera stages, they were also theoretically forbidden to compose, this activity being reserved for the Maestro del coro. In practice, the regulations were looser; and as far as composition is concerned, it should be noted that a certain number of these musicians also had tasks as copyists. However, copying scores implies a very close proximity to the works, a closeness that is all the stronger because it is the surest way to have access to all the parts of a score – because the soloists, while playing, do not see only their part, not that of others – and thus to understand the way in which the voices are tied together. We can note the trace of several female composers known essentially by their first name, such as Agata.

One of the most famous ospedali musicians is Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen. She is not one of the orphans or illegitimate children collected from the Mendicanti. She entered it at the age of 7, after passing an audition before a jury of 37 people, including the governors (Venetian notables), and the master musicians of the Ospedale. Which proves that she was already at that age sufficiently advanced to impress the jurors. At 21, authorized to leave the hospice, she married the violinist Ludovico Sirmen, and both went on tour as instrumentalists. From there, the musician began to have a lot of success: as a virtuoso violinist, certainly, but, interestingly, perhaps more as a composer. The archives of music critics of the time teach us this; the Mercure de France, for example, praised one of her violin concertos in 1768, and the words of the Avant-Coureur highlight Maddalena’s talent over that of her husband Ludovico: Madame and Monsieur Siremen had played a violin concerto of their own composition. Madame Siremen, a pupil of the famous Tartini, has the most distinguished talent. His violin is the lyre of Orpheus in the hands of a grace”.

Musical references and archives

  • Giuseppe Verdi, “Sempre Libera” excerpt from La Traviata, performed by Ileana Cotrubas
  • Sonia Boyce,Feeling her way”, work from the British Pavilion of the Biennale of Contemporary Art awarded the Golden Lion in 2022
  • Barbara Strozzi, L’Amore Segreto opus 2, interpreted by Renata Dubinskaite
  • Archive: The musicologist Caroline Giron-Panel on the ospedali, broadcast “Under the covers“, France Music, 2016
  • Antonio Vivaldi, Gloria in excelsis Deo RV 588 by the Cries of Paris
  • Anna Bon di Venezia, Divertimento for 2 flutes and basso continuo in A Maj op 3 n°6: 1. Allegretto
  • Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen, Concerto in C major opus 3 number 4 for violin and orchestra: Largo, performed bySavaria Baroque Orchestra
  • Antonio Vivaldi, Violin Concerto in B minor RV 387 II: Largo performed by Federico Guglielmo and the L’Arte dell’Arco orchestrafrom the album “6 Violin Concertos for Anna Maria”
  • Vincenzo Bellini, The sleepwalker “Ah non credea mirarti” interpreted by Angela Gheorgiu
  • Archive : Maria Callas recalls her debut in the role of Elvira at La Fenice in 1949 in the film ” Callas in her own words »
  • Vincenzo Bellini, “Vien diletto à in ciel la luna“ excerpt from the opera I Puritani performed by Maria Callas

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Venice: the city of female musicians

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