Music Preview: Venus Unwrapped, Kings Place, King’s Cross

Laura Mvula and Black Voices

Laura Mvula and Black Voices - Credit: Archant

Kings Place is staging a year of concerts dedicated to often forgotten female musical talent

Laura Mvula and Black Voices

Laura Mvula and Black Voices - Credit: Archant

Why was there so much musical talent in the convents of Vivaldi’s time? Why should the most famous composer of eleventh-century Europe have been a woman, Hildegard of Bingen? Because the convent was always a safe space where women were able to pursue an art which in the outside world was effectively almost forbidden to them.

As the musicologist Laurie Stras observes, nuns have often spent more time singing than in any other activity, including sleeping: in the convent there was never any bar to their perfection of their art, whether as performers or composers.

Ever since the third-century CE Talmudic scholar Samuel of Nehardea claimed that the sound of a female voice was a sexual enticement, some Jewish communities have interpreted his words as being a prohibition on hearing women sing.

That habit died hard in Europe, and it’s still rampant today in much of the Muslim world: no female singer in Iran, for example, is allowed to sing for a male audience.

Laura Mvula and Black Voices

Laura Mvula and Black Voices - Credit: Archant

Anger at this perennial injustice is what powers Anna Beer’s fascinating book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, which chronicles the lives of a roster of female composers, some of whom went under, others of whom triumphed despite the odds.

Clara Schumann’s pianistic fame didn’t allow her to be taken seriously as a composer: ‘A women must not desire to compose – nor has one been able to do it, and why should I expect to?’ she wrote sadly.

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Fanny Mendelssohn’s compositions were often assumed to have been written by her brother Felix.

But the most remarkable figure in this cavalcade of (often frustrated) talent was Barbara Strozzi, whose work will dominate the opening concert of the Venus Unwrapped festival which starts at King’s Place on January 10, and which will highlight female composers in many forms over the next year.

Laura Mvula and Black Voices

Laura Mvula and Black Voices - Credit: Archant

Strozzi was born out of wedlock in Venice in 1619, and exhibited such gifts as a singer that her father created an academy in which she could shine as a performer. Charming and intelligent, she swiftly established herself both as a virtuoso and as a hostess, and was apparently quite happy to pose for a portrait with one breast in full view. She bore four children to a married lover, but at the same time she was composing: eight collections of vocal and instrumental music, which she made a point of publishing since she had no other means of financial support.

The most prolific composer of her day, she was a friend of Monteverdi with whose works (also to be performed in the King’s Place concert) her own compare very decently.

‘Great’ is an overused word, but Strozzi was by any standards a major composer, as Christian Curnyn, who will conduct the concert starring Mary Bevan as soloist, eagerly confirms.

“I think her unconventional upbringing was a spur, as was her illegitimacy,” he says. “Her style looks both forwards and backwards. Two of her madrigals we are performing could easily have been written by Monteverdi. If they are not quite at his level, they are still pretty amazing. Most of her music was written for the soprano voice, and “Lagrime mie”, which we are doing in the concert, is her masterpiece. It feels like an outpouring: most of her contemporaries wrote music which had vertical harmonies, but her music is governed by a horizontal melodic line which is always pressing on ahead, always aiming for its climactic end.”

Hatis Noit

Hatis Noit - Credit: Archant

May Bevan is a superb recitalist, so this concert, in which she will be supported by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, should be an outstanding event.

Virginia Woolf once observed that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. But much more is required for a woman to compose. As Anna Beer puts it: “The female composer needs to be working in a community that not only values her art, but enables it to be heard beyond the traditional spaces for women’s music, such as the nunnery and the home. Clara Schumann needed “Venus Unwrapped” – and in fact we all do. Because there was, and is, a rich and complex body of music written by women just waiting to be explored and enjoyed – and even more importantly, a rich and complex body of music by women just waiting to be composed and performed.”

Venus Unwrapped season starts on Thursday, January 10 at King’s Place, King’s Cross at 7.30pm. Details at

Barbara Strozzi

Barbara Strozzi - Credit: Archant