A few days ago, the “legendary” Neapolitan pianist Maria Tipo, at whose school generations of great pianists were trained, blew out 92 candles on her ideal birthday cake. A friend of Ferruccio Busoni and “maestra” of pianists who became famous, such as Alessandra Ammara (a specialist in Chopin and, together with her husband Roberto Prosseda, in Mendelssohn-Bartholdy), Andrea Lucchesini and Nelson Goerner. The great German conductor Karl Böhm (considered by some to be the best of the twentieth century, together with Carlos Kleiber) maintained that few knew how to play Mozart like her thanks to that nuance of Latin color that the pianist gave to the music of the great Salzburg native, making it, at least in part, almost pre-romantic. As with many other expressions of the human soul, music has been, with rare exceptions, a territory of male dominion. However, a rich essay by French journalist and musicologist Aliette de Laleu, entitled “Mozart was a Woman” (Odoya Editore) has appeared recently in bookstores, aims to restore women to the rightful place they had in the past, and which they increasingly have today, in the world of seven notes (and five semitones…). Why Mozart? Because the author of so much music that marked the definitive decline of the Baroque and the beginning of the short period of classicism (along with Haydn and, obviously, Beethoven) had an older sister named Maria Anna Valpurga Ignatia, a true “musical prodigy” who composed excellent music, rarely performed in public and is largely lost to history. With this beautiful book, as its Italian editor observes,
Aliette de Laleu strives to repair centuries of invisibility by restoring women’s place in music history.
The author starts from the distant past by remembering how Sappho’s poems were set to music and sung thanks also, or above all, to the contributions of her wealthy family from Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos. Cassia of Constantinople should also be remembered. At first a candidate to marry Emperor Theophilus, she then ended up as abbess in a convent where she was able to compose hymns of sacred music, some of which have come down to us. The text of one of these hymns reads:
I hate the rich man who complains as if he were poor/ I hate he who speaks before reflecting/ I hate he who teaches without knowing anything/ I hate silence when it is time to speak.
This verse is “incredibly topical”, notes de Laleu. From these pages by the French musicologist, names emerge that have been lost in the obscurity of those “dark ages”, such as that of Hildegard of Bingen. She too, like Cassia, dedicated herself to religious music, composing hymns that were sung by her sisters to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Not much remains of Hildegard’s music, so it is problematic to hypothesize that her hymns were an evolution of the previous Gregorian chants, which were more widespread in France and Italy and performed only by male choirs.
As has been mentioned, a large part of the compositions by the musicians of antiquity and the Middle Ages have been lost, and we have to go back to the eighteenth century and the following one to find famous female names not faded by the passage of time. In the golden period of Venetian music, Barbara Strozzi, a composer and soprano, came to attention. Between 1644 and 1667 she published eight volumes of vocal scores for a total, recalls de Laleu, “of approximately one hundred and twenty-five pieces, mostly secular music”. Here, therefore, is a first sign of the affirmation of women in the world of music, of the “freed” woman, no longer tied to sacred music as a sine qua non, who could be, if not appreciated, at least tolerated by the male and religious world. Among Strozzi’s arias that have come down to us, one of the best known, even today, is ‘What can be done’, which the author of the book calls a “poignant lament”, and which reads in part as follows:
What can be done? / The rebellious stars have no mercy / if the sky gives no effect / of peace to my suffering, / what can be done / what can be said?
It must be said that not only was composition all but forbidden, but so too was the use of some instruments that were considered typically male, such as brass or percussion. Women were exclusively allowed to participate in an “ensemble” playing the harp or, rarely, the violin. The “arpeggios”, the note-by-note “continuous” pizzicato of the oldest instrument in the world, was considered in keeping with the fragile beauty of an idealized woman. These limits persisted, but with some openness, even in the nineteenth century, when women, mostly wives or sisters of famous musicians, were allowed to play for limited audiences. This was the case of Fanny, Mendelssohn’s sister, a pianist and composer to whom her father wrote, however: “limit yourself to playing the piano… leave the composition to your brother Felix.” The most famous “case” was that of the great pianist Clara Wieck, the wife of Robert Schumann, who composed a dense and romantic concerto for piano and orchestra which we listened to last year at the Renzo Piano Auditorium in Rome at a performance by another woman, the pianist Beatrice Rana. The revenge of the women.
However, it is good to remember that, as late as 1840, the music critic Albert Clerc wrote:
A woman who appropriates instruments specifically reserved for men and who, for example, plays the violin, flute or double bass, usually has a masculine appearance and a hint of a moustache.
Following classical music closely and passionately as we do, we can assure the reader that the female violinists we have listened to (from the German Anne Sophie Mutter to the Georgian Lisa Batiashvili, from the Venetian Cecilia Crisafulli to the Ukrainian Anastasija Petryshak) have impressed us with their elegant execution and with the charm of the music they performed, with which they have always captured the attention and admiration of a cultured audience.
Cover image: Maria Anna Mozart in a portrait by Pietro Lorenzoni, 1763
Translation by Paul Rosenberg
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