Among the first women to succeed in music were those in a 16th-century girl group. But they were reliant on male patronage and barely respectable, says Laurie Stras.
If you type "girl vocalist jokes" or "soprano jokes" into any internet search engine, you will find hundreds of one-liners and gags all based on a small set of assumptions - that a female singer is promiscuous, intellectually challenged and lacking in musical talent. These stereotypes may seem a product of contemporary culture but they have their roots in fears and prejudices that surfaced long before the outcry that greeted the Spice Girls' 1998 Ivor Novello award.
Female musicians - especially singers - have long been regarded with suspicion, scepticism and not a little condescension. The idea that a woman should not or cannot possess musical ability arises very early, extrapolated from classical teachings regarding appropriate behaviour. Since the attraction of a successful female singer is more or less unquantifiable without acknowledging skill or talent, it is often relegated to the animal (relying on sexual allure) or to lowest common denominator appeal (it's pretty, but it isn't art). Nevertheless, women's voices have the power to captivate listeners, and since the end of the 16th century they have been intrinsic to the performance of vocal music, from opera seria to popular song.
This creates a dangerous paradox: the supposedly brain-dead girl singer is important but her position is precarious; one foot wrong and she does not so much fall from grace as plummet, her career foundering on the rocks of age, scandal or misbehaviour. Women who play an instrument, compose or do both are scarcely less vulnerable, for the minute they open their mouths to sing they align themselves with their purportedly vacuous sisters. Is it any wonder, then, that those who have much invested in a female singer exploit her while they can, protecting and projecting whatever reputation for her they believe the public will accept? And although some women have built and sustained careers, many still see themselves as the exception, not the rule.
In the 1570s, the duke of Ferrara, Alfonso II d'Este, began a musical project at his court that had a profound effect on the status of women in the musical profession, elevating them from virtual exclusion to an ambivalent position not dissimilar to the one they hold today: teetering on the brink of respectability, relying on the protection of (male) patrons, at risk from (masculine) jealousy and envy - yet admired, imitated, even paid. Captivated by the recreational singing of noblewomen at his court, the duke developed a fascination for the female voice. He began to assemble a group of female musicians who were performers in a very modern sense, instructed to sing and play for audiences gathered specifically to hear them. Ostensibly the women were employed as ladies-in-waiting to the d'Este princesses and the duchess, but their duties allowed for many hours of private study and group rehearsal. Although it may have begun as an elegant pastime, a display of mutual accomplishment among courtiers, the duke's entertainment eventually became more like a cabaret. The women played for four to six hours a night, sometimes as the centre of attention, sometimes as a backdrop to card games and conversation.
Alfonso's ladies, the concerto di donne of Ferrara, were among the first female musicians to reach the top of their profession, commanding salaries and benefits greater than those of many of their male colleagues. Unlike their forebears, they were recognised as both virtuosi and musical innovators, influencing composers and performers. Their fame spread beyond political boundaries and across generations. At the height of their activities, there were imitation ensembles at every major court in Italy, and they were still being written about in the 1620s, long after the last of them had died. In the end, however, a place in the elite group had a personal cost. Of the six ladies most prominent in the group in the 1570s and 1580s, only two survived the turn of the 17th century with their reputations intact. The others had been touched by scandal, leading variously to ostracism, banishment or - in one case - death at the hands of a jealous husband.
Alfonso's obsession must at times have seemed overwhelming to those called on to satisfy it. In 1571, he ordered two noble sisters, Lucrezia and Isabella Bendidio, to sing at a pageant in honour of his German brothers-in-law. The women had no option but to perform, even though they were in mourning for their mother, who had died just four days before. In 1575, the duke in effect bought 16-year-old Leonora Sanvitale out of a marriage contract to bring her vocal talents to Ferrara, guaranteeing the excessive dowry demanded by the family of his choice of local bridegroom (her own family had already paid her first fiance) and providing them with assurances of her virginity.
Sanvitale's future in-laws may well have felt justified in doubting the girl's virtue. As well as a prodigious musical talent - one admirer said her singing and playing would enflame the heart of the Apollo of Belvedere - she also had a reputation as a wit and a poet. These attributes might seem desirable for a Renaissance noblewoman, but it was all a matter of degree. Certainly, girls above a certain social status were taught to read and to sing, but if demonstrations of virtuosity were considered in poor taste for a nobleman, for a woman they were practically obscene. Although women could excel at rhetoric, in music and in conversation, the display of such skills was usually associated with up-market courtesans, who would cater for their clients' desire for intellectual stimulation as well as for their more basic needs.
Alfonso's women negotiated the boundary between decency and indecency. Tarquinia Molza, undoubtedly the most accomplished of the group - as a musician, composer, philosopher and poet - was a 41-year-old widow when she reached Ferrara in 1583. She refused to dye her hair, wear make-up or dress fashionably, always wary of the effect such concessions to vanity might have on her reputation. Respected and trusted by the duke, she was nonetheless banished from the court in 1589, accused of having an affair with a common musician. The accusation, which came from an envious male colleague, was never proven, but it was enough to tip the balance and render her unsuitable as a companion for the duchess.
When Sanvitale arrived at court, Lucrezia Bendidio began to fall from favour, eclipsed by the younger woman's beauty and ability. Bendidio had been the mistress of the cardinal d'Este, but the affair ended as her position at court waned. Once she lost the attention of the duke, she was viewed with distaste, eventually denounced openly by her son-in-law as a " vacca pubblica ", a "public cow". She died in obscurity, ostracised from the society that had honoured her.
Most tragic was Anna Guarini, Bendidio's niece and daughter of the poet Giambattista Guarini. Brought to the ensemble in 1580 at the age of 17, the arrangement of her marriage was delayed for years - presumably to allow her to concentrate on her music, although Sanvitale's inconvenient pregnancies and eventual death in childbirth must have made Alfonso doubly cautious about marrying off "his" women too soon. But because Guarini's reputation would have suffered had she continued without a husband, she was given to the Ferrarese count Alfonso Trotti in 1585. In 1596, her husband accused her of adultery. The duke allowed Trotti to drive the suspected lover from Ferrara, but ordered him not to harm Guarini. When the duke died the following year, Guarini lost her protector. Within months she was assassinated.
Although the ladies of Alfonso's ensemble were no more or less free to determine their lives than most other women of their class, their activities added to the uncertainty of their futures. But they were free to develop as artists and musicians, which - if you assume that they enjoyed their work - must have been an obvious perk. To fill the hours they were required to play, they would have had to know, sight read, compose or improvise a huge amount of music, and we can be certain they had skills in ornamentation and improvisation that would have rivalled the best of today's jazz musicians. Glimpses of the way they performed come to us in fragments, mostly in documents, virtually nothing in musical notation.
Parallels with contemporary musicians are hard to draw: imagine Yma Sumac's range and agility, Ella Fitzgerald's improvisation, Edith Piaf's interpretative genius, Vanessa Mae's sex-selling virtuosity, Joni Mitchell's consummate musicianship, Madonna's ability to cross genres - all qualities supposedly possessed by the Ferrarese women. Their skill in simultaneous vocal ornamentation might be approximated by Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston giving their best on the same song at the same time.
Reconstructing the ensemble's sound presents unusual challenges. Although there are printed editions of the music they sang, in terms of recreating performances they are probably about as useful as a sheet-music reduction of Laurie Anderson's "Oh Superman". Their performing techniques involved free instrumental adaptation and vocal extemporisation. For the modern classical musician, educated to believe the score is absolute and never lies, these can be difficult obstacles to conquer.
With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the ensemble Musica Secreta has spent the past two years investigating the women's repertoire, experimenting with improvisation, treating the scores as blueprints rather than monuments, trying to extract something of the vitality of the women's craft. By considering their music and their history together, we may better understand the impact they had, why they inspired such praise, but also such fear.
Even with their undoubted expertise, the ladies were the butt of perhaps the first recorded girl singer joke - despite their clearly evident musicianship, the musical dilettante the duke of Mantua sniffed: "Ladies? Big deal. I'd rather be an ass than a lady."
Laurie Stras is lecturer in performance studies at Southampton University and co-director of Musica Secreta, which will give a concert at St Bartholomew's in the City on April 20.
The first of two CDs will be available via www.linnrecords.com on April 22.