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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 5 (1999) No. 1

Barbara Strozzi, Cantate, ariete a una, due, e tre voci, opus 3. Edited by Gail Archer. Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, 83. Madison: A-R Editions, 1997. [xxi, 67 pp. ISBN 0-89579-388-1. $28.50.]

Reviewed by John Walter Hill*

1. The Composer

2. The Edition


1. The Composer

1.1 Anyone who recognizes the name of Barbara Strozzi today will associate her with Ellen Rosand, whose fundamental research and penetrating critical analysis is presented in a 1978 article in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, an article in Women Making Music, ed. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), a facsimile edition of selected works in volume 5 of The Italian Cantata in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Carolyn Gianturco (New York: Garland, 1986), and the entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. From Rosand's publications we know that Barbara Strozzi lived in Venice from her birth in 1619 to sometime after 1664, that she was the adopted and probably illegitimate daughter of the noble poet and academic intellectual Giulio Strozzi, and that her eight printed volumes (1644–64) make her the most extensively published composer of Italian chamber cantatas in the history of the genre. The expensive publication of her works and the special academy organized by her adoptive father for her performance of them make Barbara Strozzi's story unique in the history of seventeenth-century patronage. The fact that they were composed by a woman is already an unusual, although not unique, aspect of these works. Their intrinsic artistic interest is at least as important.

1.2 Barbara Strozzi's Opus 3 (1654) consists of eleven works. Of the six for solo voice and continuo, two are three-part strophic-variation settings of serious canzonetta texts. These are perhaps the last settings of Italian poetry to use strophic variations as a formal procedure. In these three settings, each parte is made up of an arioso segment with the broken circle mensuration followed by a flowing aria in triple proportion. The same kind of alternation is extended further in number 3—the lament in versi sciolti on the fate of Henri di Cinq-Mars, who plotted against Cardinal Richelieu—and in the three strophic canzonette. The three duets are composed in the same way, but they have neither repeated strophes nor variations. The tenth and eleventh numbers are each for three singers and continuo, the tenth in the form of a pastoral dialogue. The inclusion of strophic canzonette and a dialogue are retrospective features, as is Strozzi's total avoidance of that type of dry recitative which by this time was beginning to predominate in the cantatas of Antonio Cesti.

1.3 In place of dry recitative, Barbara Strozzi deploys her particular variety of madrigalian arioso, to use a somewhat old-fashioned term. In it she freely mixes now very rapid, now very slow, but never quite monotone declamation with ornamental melismas, often of extreme difficulty, which sometimes function as an extended anacrusis to dramatize and further emphasize the crucial accented syllable set to the note of arrival following the melisma—a technique found in Roman monody forty years earlier. In a few cases, the melismas also serve to prolong expressive harmony, such as a diminished-seventh chord. In these arioso segments can be found most of the remarkable expressive and rhetorical treatments of the texts of which Ellen Rosand writes so eloquently. The aria segments are less unconventional, reflecting much of the style that had by mid-century become common in Venetian operas, e.g., by Strozzi's teacher, Francesco Cavalli.

2. The Edition

2.1 Five of these works have already been published in a facsimile anthology edited by Ellen Rosand, cited above. "This edition is offered in the hope that these pieces will be performed. . . ." writes Gail Archer in her Introduction (p. ix). This is, presumably, the reason why she modernizes the orthography of the texts—which otherwise would have no justification. But why, then, does she not provide a realization of the basso continuo, as has been done in earlier volumes of Italian monody in this series, e.g., the two books by Giulio Caccini? We know that Barbara Strozzi sang these songs to the accompaniment of her own lute. And lute realization of a continuo line in this period normally was based upon a limited vocabulary of chordal voicings. This is practically what Strozzi herself provides in her written-out realization of the Ritornello in Il lamento ("Sul Rodano severo"). Archer's arbitrary reduction of note values and imposition of incorrect time signatures are a more serious impediment to correct performance. The note values are halved in triple-proportion segments of numbers 1, 3, 7, 8, 9, and 10, but not in numbers 2, 4, 5, 6, and 11, which likewise contain the proportion sign "3." In all triple-proportion segments, both reduced and not reduced, she imposes the meter 6/2. Her transcription of triple proportion, therefore, results in two errors. (1) The "6/2" segments with note values reduced will normally be interpreted, incorrectly, as calling for a dotted semibreve (dotted whole note) in the time of the minim (half note) of the preceding or following segment in "common time" (broken-circle mensuration sign), exactly as in the "6/2" segments in which the original note values have been retained. If the base tactus tempo were half note = 60, then the dotted whole notes in these "6/2" segments with reduced note values would likewise go at 60 per minute, and the music would be beat in two and would be performed as compound meter. The original notation of this class of triple-proportion segment, however, clearly calls for three semibreves in the time of a semibreve under the broken circle, or whole note = 90 in our hypothetical tempo of half note = 60. These notes would, therefore, go at half the speed indicated by Archer and would be beat and performed in simple triple meter at 90 beats per minute. (2) The use of 6/2 meter for both types of triple-proportion segment results in a compound-meter performance for both, which, following modern norms, would alternate primary and secondary accents in each measure. But seventeenth-century triple proportion does not imply such an interpretation. And, in fact, such an interpretation frequently results in the placement of the primary syllable accent on the secondary metrical accent in Archer's transcriptions. Text underlay is unusually precise, for this period, in the original print, and I have not found any errors in Archer's transcriptions in this respect. In fact, there are numerous instances where the original print uses a slur mark to alert the performer to text underlay that would not occur to one by default. I would have thought that preserving the original slur marks would have given modern performers additional confidence in the text underlay of this edition, but Archer eliminates them.

2.2 The brief introduction is marred by errors and reveals unfamiliarity with recent scholarship. Archer says that Strozzi's Opus 3 contains eleven cantatas, whereas the title page refers to cantate and ariet[t]e. At least the strophic songs should, therefore, be considered to be ariette and not cantate. Archer's remarks on the history of the cantata are remarkably uninformed, as might be expected given that her only citation to support these remarks is to a 1955 American Ph.D. dissertation, whereas nearly all the useful writing on the early history of the genre has been published during the past forty years. She claims, incorrectly, that poetry of Petrarch, Guarini, Tasso, and Ariosto was not originally intended for musical setting. She misinterprets a remark in one of Rosand's articles to mean that Strozzi composed more "works" than any other seventeenth-century composer, whereas surely Biagio Marini's twenty-two published opuses and Maurizio Cazzati's fifty-five contain more "works" than the 100 comprised by Barbara Strozzi's eight opuses. Other similar instances could be mentioned.

2.3 The printed collections of Barbara Strozzi contain some of the most compelling Italian vocal chamber works of the mid-seventeenth century. Although they would be extremely difficult to perform with the vocal techniques in use today, they would be very rewarding to hear and to study. Unfortunately, Gail Archer's edition presents only minor help, but major hindrance, with respect to those goals.


*John Walter Hill (jwhill@illinois.edu) is Professor of Musicology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His book Roman Monody, Cantata, and Opera from the Circles around Cardinal Montalto [reviewed in this Journal, vol. 5.1 (1999)] was published by the Oxford University Press in 1997 He is currently at work on Baroque Music under contract from W. W. Norton.

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