Chamberfest: Singing Strozzi with Suzie LeBlanc

Suzie Leblanc. Photo: Tara McMullen

Four hundred years ago this year, a remarkable women was born in Venice, Italy.

Barbara Strozzi was the illegitimate daughter of a famous poet of the day named Giulio Strozzi. She was adopted by her father and raised in his home which was a sort of salon for the artists in one of the great cities of the day.

Barbara had a gift for singing and for composition and she was encouraged in both by her father. As a result, she became one of the most prolific composers of either gender in the 17th century.

The Viola da Gamba Player is a painting by Bernardo Strozzi. It is believed to be of Barbara Strozzi.

Much of her music that we have today is made up of secular songs from madrigals to arias for solo voice, duets and more. Her music was published in eight volumes at her direction.

Strozzi’s story caught the eye, the ear and the voice of the Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc 30 years ago.

She found the books collected in libraries in various locations and has gathered photocopies of the original books in her home. She has been singing Strozzi’s music ever since. All that has led to a concert in which LeBlanc will perform Strozzi’s music during the Chamberfest on July 26.

“I have been singing her music for many years. The concert came together after a conversation with Roman Borys, the artistic director of Chamberfest. I mentioned her anniversary and said that somebody should do some Strozzi in the festival and he said, ‘Why don’t you’.

“It came like that. It seemed to me that you would want to celebrate someone on their 400th anniversary.”

She hopes it will encourage artists to do more and more of her work.

“I am always interested in composers who are extraordinary from the 17th century and she is definitely one of them.

“Women’s music is kind of the flavour of the world right now, so why not jump in and do it as well. It’s extraordinary music and a perfect year to celebrate her.”

LeBlanc has an abiding interest in the Baroque period.

“I had a gut reaction to that music which has been there since I head it for the very first time. It never left me. I find it extremely seductive. I find it sensual and I find it intellectually interesting and musically interesting.

“I did get interested in other styles of music of course, but the 17th century and earlier music of the 16th century has kept my attention for about 25 years.

“It’s architecturally interesting, if you look at the music vertically or horizontally, incredible things happen in both directions.”

It’s not just the music for LeBlanc. The words are equally important.

“There was extraordinary poetry being written then.” And composers would use it in songs and madrigals.

“They weren’t trying to make something new; they were trying to recreate what the Greeks had done which was to move everybody’s emotions with text and music united.”

LeBlanc says that’s how the opera was born.

“The union of text and music appeals to me in all music. I have found a huge amount of that in that period. But you find it again with Schubert and others.”

Strozzi lived a remarkable musical life, LeBlanc believes.

“She was extremely lucky. She grew up in a house where all the great minds of the time in Venice were visiting.

“She was encouraged to study music, literature and the arts. Her father created an academy in the family home and she was the hostess of the academy and entertained people with her compositions.

“That’s just amazing. I think the only other women to compose music and be published were the nuns or those born into a noble household. Strozzi’s father was not noble. He was famous as a poet.”

Strozzi managed to publish all of her music during her lifetime. LeBlanc is sure none of Strozzi’s music would have survived if that hadn’t happened.

Strozzi was also aware of possible patrons. She dedicated her first book to Vittoria della Rovere, one of the greatest patrons of the arts in Florence. Della Rovere was especially supportive of women artists.

Strozzi also used her father’s poetry as the lyrics for her secular music in this first book.

“She is giving herself every possibility so that her book would be taken seriously. It’s also very daring because it is a book of madrigals.

In that time only composers who had proven themselves with other kinds of compositions would tackle a madrigal. LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc is singing the first half of a concert of Baroque music. She’ll be on stage with a harpsichordist and a theorbo player. Strozzi played this lute-like instrument with a five foot long neck. The long strings deliver very low bass notes, Leblanc says.

She will perform three major secular pieces showing different facets of her work. Each is about eight minutes long. One piece describes sorrow with a musical depiction of what tears sound like.

Strozzi did publish one book of sacred music that is rarely performed today. LeBlanc will sing one of these songs, a motet called O Maria O quam pulcra es. The book is dedicated to another important female patron Anne of Austria, the Hapsburg princess who married Louis XIII and mother of Louis XIV.

The second half of the evening is all Handel with the featured performance being the secular cantata Apollo and Daphne by Handel. It’s being performed by Les Boreades de Montreal.

Leblanc feels a strong connection to Strozzi because she was a woman finding her way in a time when that wasn’t easy.

“I feel that even more when I am discovering a woman composer from a convent somewhere that I am helping to have rediscovered. In this concert the pleasure might be having people discover Strozzi’s sacred music because that hasn’t been done much.

“I really like being able to bring out of my bag of tricks a piece no one has heard. That’s my thing.”

LeBlanc also relishes the fact that Strozzi was a singer as well as a composer.

“There is the performer in her. The music is brilliantly written for singers. She obviously knew what she was doing, so it is a delight to sing.”

LeBlanc has begun to crusade a bit more for women composers this year.

“I did direct the Studio of Ancient Music in a concert of all female composers from convents in Italy.

“I really enjoyed that. It too was as good as music composed by men at the same time. They were trained just as much as the men. There were full orchestras in the convents and they had everything at their disposal.

“Many of the nuns came from noble families and had been taught music from an early age.”

She says she intends to make room “in my life to be an advocate for this music which I find extraordinary.

“I wouldn’t do it because the music is by women, I’ll do it because the music is good. My dream is that one day it’s almost unnoticeable that there is a woman composer on the program. It has to happen that way that we make a big deal about the fact that it’s women’s music but eventually it should just be about performing good music.

Strozzi has a unique voice as a composer, LeBlanc said, adding that if she hears five bars of Strozzi on the radio I know it’s her.

“That’s special. It’s also the case with the music that came from the convents.”

“Strozzi found her own voice, she really did. I’m still hoping we might find an opera by her. She was living in a city where opera was happening. You never know.”

LeBlanc hopes that one day it will almost unnoticeable that there is a woman composer on the program because it has become routine.

But she knows that will take time so, “for awhile, it has to happen that we make a big deal about the fact that it’s music by a woman, but eventually it should just be good music.”

Chamberfest presents Baroque Treasures
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: July 26 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.