The Renaissance was a time of re-birth as science and the arts changed the face of culture. However, some old ideas persisted in the midst of this change; especially beliefs about the roles and intellectual capacity of the genders. Even though the Renaissance saw many female heads of state, it was still held as common knowledge that women were inferior to men, physically, mentally and artistically. As a result, we have very few examples of female composers during this period of music history. There is an exception though, the work of Maddalena Casulana.
Perhaps you have never heard that name before, but the Italian composer Maddalena Casulana has the distinction of being the first female composer to have her music printed and published. In fact, it’s possible that Maddalena’s First Book of Madrigals (printed in Venice in 1568) is the first book by a woman to ever be published.
We know very little about Maddalena’s life. It’s highly possible that her second title Casulana refers to her birthplace though scholars disagree. The little we do know about her comes from the introductions and dedications she wrote in her three volumes of madrigals.
“I want to show the world, as much as I can in this profession of music, the vain error of men that they alone possess the gifts of intellect and artistry, and that such gifts are never given to women.”
Apparently, Maddalena made an impression in Europe in the late 1560’s both as a singer and a composer. She earned the patronage of Isabella de’ Medici, a noble woman with a notoriously free-spirit. Maddalena dedicated the majority of her 66 madrigals to her. In 1568, her work Nothing is More Enjoyable was sung at a banquet in Munich for the wedding of Wilhelm IV of Bavaria conducted by Orlando di Lasso. Unfortunately, this work and much of Maddalena’s history has been lost to time.
For the decade between 1570 and 1580 there is no mention of Maddalena at all. It’s highly possible that she married during this time, but we are uncertain of her husband’s name and where they were living. She reappears in 1582 performing at a wedding in Perugia. Her last book of madrigals was printed in 1583 and the last work attributed to her at all is dated 1586. We can only estimate that she died somewhere around 1590.
It would be decades before another female composer would have her works published and performed.