On March 22 and 23, the Washington Bach Consort presents a comprehensive program called Women of the Baroque; Canoro pianto et affetti. Led by rising star soprano Paulina Francisco, they perform music written by women in the 17th century. The concert features both secular and sacred music, and Paulina Francisco was kind enough to answer some of my questions ahead of her arrival in Washington DC.  

Paulina Francisco

John Banther: Attributed or not, women have always been composing and performing. But what was it specifically like for women in music in the 17th century? What roles did women perform within music? Was it easier or more accepted writing sacred vs secular works? 

Paulina Francisco: I’ve been studying the lives and music making of early modern women for several years. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that we should resist the urge to generalize about their positions in society and their various levels of access in the music industry. The women on this program are no exception.  

Francesca Caccini was the daughter of a well-recognized composer and pedagogue who was employed by the Medici family in Florence. With the patronage of the Medici well secured, she became a well-regarded composer and pedagogue who served the court and several convents in Florence. She composed both secular and sacred music to suit both her pupils and the various settings for the performance of her music. She is the composer of the first opera composed by a woman, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina, which premiered in 1625.  

Barbara Strozzi was the presumed illegitimate daughter of a well-regarded poet, who was closely connected to the Accademia degli Incogniti intellectual society in Venice. Barbara’s talent for singing and music was recognized from a young age, and though she sought patronage throughout her career, was unable to secure stable employment. She is believed to have been the single most prolific composer to have music printed in Venice in the middle of the 17th century.  

The majority of her works are secular, and were likely performed by Strozzi herself at various academy gatherings. Different yet were the lives of women religious – those who lived as cloistered or lay members of convent communities; Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, Catarina Assandra, and Isabella Leonarda will be featured on this program. Many of these women came from prominent families.  

The convent was not an uncommon place for girls who were musically inclined – the convent assured music education, often from revered pedagogues and prolific composers, as well as access to instruments, and freedom from the concerns of married or household life. Convents with large music programs were often homes to sister and daughters of nobility and prominent families, who in turn generously patronized the convent, ensuring high end music education and music making experiences for the community.  

JB: The concert is inspired by a 4-century old collection of music for solo voice, Canoro pianto di Maria Vergine sopra la faccia di Christo estinto (“The singing cries of the Virgin Mary over the face of the deceased Christ”). What about this collection inspired you? What is the significance of this collection in regard to women of the 17th century? You are also presenting the 2 works we currently know of by Claudia Sessa, dated 1613. What was the purpose of these works? Do we know how they were received at the time? Did they perform a particular function? What was it like for her to write this? It sounds like this was a period that didn’t allow much music to be performed in convents.  

PF: The 1613 collection Canoro pianto di Maria Vergina sopra la facia di Christo estinto inspires and fascinates me for several reasons. First, it is the source for the two surviving works of Milanese nun Claudia Sessa, “Occhi io vissi di voi” and “Vatteme pur Lascivia.” I have seen these pieces published in various modern collections of music by women, but I actually think they are more interesting when understood through the context of the Canoro pianto print. It is one of the collections I’ve found where a woman is identified by name is a multi-composer print. There are also several pieces of uncertain authorship, leading me to the anecdote, “Have you heard anonymous is a woman?”  

Another thing I find fascinating about the Canoro pianto print is its concept cohesion. 23 of the 25 monodies is labeled with a fascial feature, over which Mary weeps; the eyes, nose, ears, cheeks, lips, forehead, hair, beard – much like the concept of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri. The texts are striking and incredibly beautiful. Musically, I am interested in the role of the of the bassline, which provides both a harmonic structure and melodic counterpart to the vocal line. The concept and text of the Canoro pianto collection are Lenten, perfect for a March recital. The cohesion of the collection leads me to believe that the monodies were intended to be performed together, either as a single entity or in various combinations. We will perform six pieces from the collection, including both of Claudia Sessa’s pieces.  

JB: Who else is performing with you? 

PF: I am really excited to be joined by cellist and viola da gamba player Joanna Blendulf, lutenist and artistic director Deborah Fox, and harpsichordist Paula Maust. Together, my collaborator comprise a basso continuo section which is both an accompanying and complementary entity to the vocal lines.  

JB: Tell us about the second half that features secular music by women, is there a connection to what we'll hear in the first half? 

PF: The secular music on this program has been crafted to mirror the pieces from the Canoro pianto collection, but this time in admiration of the eyes, cheeks, lips, and hair of an unrequited lover. This half features the secular works of Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi, who are both featured on the first half, as well as Francesca’s younger sister Settimia Caccini.  

JB: Is there a particular song or part of the music in this concert you look forward to every time? 

PF: One of my favorite things about 17th century is the ornamentation, and learning about each composer’s musical language through decoration. This is especially noticeable in strophic songs or pieces with a repeating bassline – we can see how the composer decorates a melody differently depending on the text. We sometimes see four or five different ornament variations within a single piece.   

JB: Is there anything else specific to the time period you are doing for this concert we might not otherwise know? 

PF: I love thinking of the 17th century as a critical point of transition and experimentation in music history. In this program, I hope audiences will hear both the lingering sounds of 16th century polyphony and the development toward recitative and opera. 

JB: If people want to hear more of this music, where should they look? Is there a work you would recommend the audience to listen to after the performance? 

PF: The catalogues of early modern women in Italy are well populated with solo song for both secular and sacred spaces. My best recommendation is to do a Youtube search of one of the composers from this program and go down a rabbit hole exploring recordings of their music. With the forces we have for this concert, we present small scale works for solo voice and basso continuo. There are also large collections of polyphony for vocal ensembles of 2-8 singers, chamber works for singers and instruments, and large-scale works like Isabella Leonarda’s mass setting or Francesca Caccini’s opera.  

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