Women, studies show, work harder than men. Even when they and their male spouses or partners have equally demanding jobs, women shoulder more of the housework and childcare duties.
As a rewarding pair of online programs from the Cleveland-based early music organization Les Délices demonstrates, female composers of the 17th and 18th centuries wouldn’t have been surprised by today’s gender gaps. They lived — and resourcefully sought ways to thrive — under similar and surely far more daunting conditions.
While the names and compositions of those intrepid musicians may be largely unfamiliar to 21st-century concertgoers, that’s another injustice to be added to the ledger. Credit Les Délices and its quietly impassioned director, oboist Debra Nagy, for marking Women’s History Month by presenting these two concerts-cum-conversation that entertain and inform.
While their male counterparts often had the doors opened for them, women composers had to find their own paths into performance opportunities, publication, and hard-won recognition. Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, whose gripping and graceful cantata Judith highlights Les Délices’ “Women of Genius” program, secured the patronage of Louis XIV. Isabella Leonarda, represented on “Women in Music” by a buoyantly beautiful devotional aria, was “essentially a nun,” as Nagy puts it, who used the musical resources of the convent (choir, instruments, time) to her advantage.
If a movement from Maddalena Laura Sirmen’s C-Major Trio comes off as somewhat charmless Baroque busywork, her story is a thoroughly modern one. While on a celebrated performing tour with her husband, Sirmen gave birth to a child. It was he, not she, who returned to Ravenna with the infant. Apparently both members of this liberated couple moved on to other partners.
The discoveries keep coming. Francesca Caccini (1587–1641), we learn, was apparently the first woman to write an opera. A siren’s aria from her La liberazione di Ruggiero, sung with seductive stophic urgency by the excellent and engaging soprano Michele Kennedy, whets the appetite for more.
Like many women of her era, Julie Pinel had her name reduced to initials in early publications. Royal privilege freed her to unmask her identity, whereupon she promptly released two books of pieces for voice and chamber ensemble. Several colorful examples here, on the “Genius” bill, confirm her gift for creating beguiling atmospheres and effects. Soprano Clara Rottsolk’s murmurous lines escort the listener to “somber places” and “shadowy forests” which “hide the excess of our pleasures.” Nagy’s caressing oboe line enhances the mood. Rottsolk and viola de gamba player Rebecca Reed embark on their own musical embrace, where every ornament seems to shimmer with an essential gleam.
“Women of Genius” (available to stream through March 29) is the more satisfying of the two programs. That’s due in large part to the performance setting, with all the musicians gathered, masked, in a handsome room with views of bare trees outside and a fan-shaped transom above one door. “Women in Music,” which is part of the company’s ongoing Salonera series (see the website for upcoming programs), is a Zoom enterprise, with the musicians in remote locations.
There’s another difference between the programs — the proportion of talk to music. The balance is prudent in “Genius,” with brief, pointed remarks deftly inserted between the numbers. In “Women in Music” the Zoom imperative to lean into the windows to listen and talk takes over. Maybe it’s a natural resistance to the very unnatural business of people playing music together when they’re actually far apart. The pandemic has gotten us (somewhat) accustomed to this concession to the times. And it must be said that musicians and skilled technical engineers have gotten pretty good at linking up the parts. All the same, it’s no substitute for watching and hearing musicians watching and hearing each other in the same space, even if we’re viewing that space on a screen.
It’s the music that matters, finally, and both these programs deserve our thanks for making some very happy introductions. A three-movement suite from Mademoiselle Duval’s Les Genies ou Les Caractères de l’Amour offers a handsomely chromatic Ritournelle, an airy Passacaille, and an utterly charming Tambourins, with its sly staggered entrances, dance-like interlude, and a furious rush to the finish in an escalating reprise. It’s a small-scale work, but as the show’s label has it, this is “Genius.”
So are the beguiling parallel and then subtly diverging lines violist de gamba Reed and violinist Julie Andrijeski send aloft in de la Guerre’s account of the Biblical Judith. That comes early on in this 20-minute cantata, the most extensive and substantial work on offer. There’s vivid scene painting, the murder of Holofornes starkly registered by the solo violin, a triumphal aria trumpeting Israel’s salvation, more military flourishes, and then a pensive ending.
Is it too much to project a woman’s hint of skepticism about all the blood and fireworks? Perhaps. But Les Délices can’t help but getting one listening and thinking in fresh ways.