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Groundbreaking female composer’s lost madrigals to be heard for first time in 400 years | Early music

Sixteenth-century madrigals written by an Italian Renaissance female composer are to be performed for the first time in 400 years after the discovery of missing parts of the original music.

Maddalena Casulana became the first female composer to publish her own music at a time when such creativity was far from encouraged in women. She believed that men were making a “futile error” in assuming that women could not compose as well as they could and she brought out three books of madrigals under her name between 1568 and 1583, although only one of those collections has survived complete.

Now a further 17 madrigals have been added to her small surviving repertoire and 12 of those will be premiered on 8 March as part of BBC Radio 3’s special programming for International Women’s Day.

In what is seen as one of the most important musicological discoveries of recent years, Laurie Stras, professor of music at the universities of Southampton and Huddersfield, has tracked down the lost alto partbook of Casulana’s 1583 book of five-voice madrigals, with such evocative titles as Breeze that Murmurs in the Woods.

Vocal or instrumental polyphonic music was handwritten or printed in the 15th and 16th centuries in partbooks, with each part appearing separately.

Laurie Stras, professor of music at the universities of Southampton and Huddersfield
Musicologist Laurie Stras tracked down the missing parts of Casulana’s works. Photograph: Andrew Mason

Stras said that Casulana’s madrigals could not have been performed without the missing parts: “It would be like performing a string quintet without the second violin. It wouldn’t have made sense. I’ve been able to complete it. The jigsaw puzzle has slotted into place.”

She tracked down missing parts from the printed edition to the Russian State Library in Moscow, piecing together the music through other fragments in the Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences. It was from that Polish archive that the missing parts had disappeared in the second world war. They were presumably looted. They still bear Gdańsk’s catalogue numbers.

Stras said: “The reason that these madrigals are really important is that Casulana was acknowledged by her male contemporaries as a wonderful composer. She would have had to have been. We talk about women today having to be twice as good as men. That’s exactly what it was like then. These five-voice madrigals show us why she was such an extraordinary composer and why her contemporaries thought so highly of her. She is on the cutting-edge of composition in the 16th century. She uses really interesting harmonic effects.

“What we will get from hearing these madrigals is a sense of what’s considered really top-quality composition in her lifetime. She’s as good as any of the masters of her day. The closest comparison is Monteverdi’s teacher, Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, a composer of church music and madrigals.”

Casulana, who was also a lutenist and singer, was only too aware that, as a female composer, her music would be judged inferior to works created by her male counterparts.

Her 1568 book of madrigals bears an extraordinary dedication to her illustrious patron, Isabella de’ Medici Orsini, daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici and an amateur musician.

She wrote: “These first fruits of mine, flawed as they are … show the world the futile error of men, who believe themselves patrons of the high gifts of intellect, which according to them cannot also be held in the same way by women.”

But her male contemporaries recognised her talent. One called her the “muse and siren of our age”. Another described her music, performed at the wedding of Wilhelm V of Bavaria, as “most beautiful”.

Noting that little is known about Casulana, who is thought to have died in 1590, Stras said: “How did she get to be so good? Where did she get that knowledge and that skill, because you’re not just born with being able to write five-voice polyphony. It’s really hard.”

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