Enter the architecturally minimalist home of Professor Shula Reinharz, and, except for some sadness in her eyes, you would never suspect that she had just lost both parents. Before hearing the news of her loss, he had committed to hosting a concert for the recently formed Women And Music Mix (WAMMIX) initiated at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, which she had founded. Undaunted, she turned her house of mourning into a dedication for her father, Max Rothschild, a rabbi and a music enthusiast. WAMMIX is dedicated to the study of the contributions of women to the field of music as composers, performers, teachers, scholars, and sponsors, to bring their work to wider public through lectures, concerts, conferences, publication and recordings that highlight and explore issues of women and gender.
At one end of the open space encompassing the open sweep of the kitchen, dining room, living room and view of Brookline’s sky tops, the group called La Donna Musicale was performing the works of four women composers. La Donna Musicale, a member of WAMMIX, is a non-profit organization dedicated to the research and historical performance of Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Contemporary music by women composers. The group presented three concerts in its inaugural year, using scores discovered through the research of its director, Laury Gutiérrez. Sponsored by Indiana University, the performances took place in Bloomington, Indiana during Women’s History Month. The enthusiastic reception of those events prompted additional research and performances. Professional musicians and music producers in Bloomington and Boston encouraged the participation of the ensemble as a concurrent event during the 1993 Boston Early Music Festival. Its success attracted more performers to the group and led to the establishment of a Boston-based ensemble.
Internationally known Soprano, Camila Parias, a Colombia native, sang the first excerpt from the 1713 idyllic love song from LaMusette, ou les Bergers de Suresne by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, a child prodigy, who came under the patronage of Louis XIV. She received praise unusual for a woman composer of the time by a leading 17th century music theorist. The English translation of this piece of pastoral entertainment is, “May Love bind you, with his sweetest knots.” The Parias soprano was indeed sweet and strong.
The next piece by Jacquet de la Guerre was her Trio Sonata in G minor, which begins with a movement like a French overture, followed by several other lively movements with the Director Laury Gutiérrez on the viola da gamba, (a stringed instrument, the bass of the viol family, with approximately the range of the cello) as soloist as well as the accomplished violinists, Laura Gulley and Guan-Ting Lia.
According to Gutiérrez, this piece resembles “French dance types and at times featuring the viola da gamba as soloist. Overall, it comes across as a multi-sectional Italian sonata with French influence—a delightful example of Les goûts réunis (mixed French and Italian styles).”
The mood turned somber with Psalm L: “Miserere mei,” an excerpt from the Seven Psalms of David by Antonia Bembo. The seven psalms were identified by sixth century monk Cassiodorus as written in penance by King David for sending his lover Bathsheba’s husband to his death on the battlefield. Gutiérrez’s program notes detail how radical Bembo was for her time, because she
“expresses the nuances of the text as if she herself were asking for forgiveness, and perhaps as an echo of how she felt at having left Venice and moved with her family to France. Bembo’s language is unique to her: her expressive use of dissonance follows no rule but the text; she does not shy away from parallel fourths and fifths (forbidden in that period) or from awkward or angular writing for the instruments or voices. The use of dotted against undotted rhythms gives an unsettled impression, and the complex and subtle changes of meter closely follow the composer’s understanding of the meaning and dramatic content of the text.”
As host, Professor Reinharz emphasized the difficult task of research here by describing how cryptic the musical notation of the time was:
“the only thing known is the relationship of one note to the other, not the length of time it was held, nor any clue about the rhythm or key.”
Therefore Gutierrez’s task of orchestrating the unearthed manuscripts with modern symbols was quite daunting. Gutiérrez has called Bembo a mysterious composer, who “never received any such recognition;[in fact] we have only one difficult-to-read manuscript of her music today.”
Next, the ensemble with talented harpsichordist Ruth McKay performed an excerpt from the unconventional Sonata Prima by the well-born Isabella Leonarda, with solos for each instrument. Leonarda entered the Ursuline monastery in Novara at 16 in 1636. She rose to positions of responsibility and for the next 60 years was able to compose, publish, and teach numerous compositions. Among her most notable historic achievements were her sonatas. She was unsurpassed and unusual for her time among the other Italian nun composers.
According to musician Amelia Le Claire, Visiting Scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center,
“Leonarda was a prolific composer – over 200 works – and not well trained, and yet produced some of the most remarkable, if somewhat raw, music for both violin and voices. Her works are characteristically odd, but certainly not lacking in either passion or intensity, and some of it of surpassing beauty. She is the only female composer of her era (early baroque) who left behind instrumental music as well as vocal/choral music.”
For a lively change of pace, the program concluded with La Vendetta by Barbara Strozzi, possibly the illegitimate daughter of Giulo Strozzi with his long time servant Isabella. Strozzi’s father sponsored her performing talent as a Baroque singer, and thought her gifted enough to allow her to study with a leading composer of the time. It’s also possible that Strozzi was a courtesan, with four children by two different men. She was an extremely prolific secular composer for her time in Venice. Parias seemed to have a lively and expressive time singing this piece, which begins (in translation) with “Revenge is a sweet thing, /one ill turn deserves another, /and getting there is such great delight!” Of course it rhymes much better in the Italian:
- “La vendetta e un dolche affetto,
- il dispetto vuol dispetto,
- il rifarsi e un gran diletto!”
The excerpts, by composers ranging from a nun to a courtesan, were only a tease to wet one’s appetite for the Feb. 14 concert by La Donna Musicale. To hear samples click here: https://soundcloud.com/ladonna-1/sets/italian-music-all-around-love
Dr. Reinharz often states that the mission of the Women’s Studies Research Center is where art, research, and activism converge. The project to unearth and modernize old manuscripts by women composers is an example of all three.
For more information about La Donna Musicale see: http://www.ladmupcomingevents.org/