Barbara Strozzi

History Hunt: Barbara Strozzi

This week on History Hunt, we’re back four hundred years in history to meet another composer whose popularity is beginning to take off again–even if we don’t know all that much about her.

Barbara Strozzi was born in 1619 in Venice, Italy, a city built upon the water!


Italy, home of Barbara Strozzi.

We’re not completely sure of her birthdate–we only know she was baptised on August 6. She also was called Barbara Valle at this point in her life; she didn’t start using the name “Barbara Strozzi” until later.

Strozzi was adopted, growing up in the family of Isabella Garzoni, who was a servant, and Giulio Strozzi, a poet (who may or may not have been her birth father). She learned from one of the greatest composers in the new genre of opera, Francesco Cavalli and was so successful at her lessons, she had her first (but not last!) music book dedicated to her when she was only sixteen.

Two years later, she became the host of a musical discussion group, the Accademia degli Unisoni, or “Academy of the Like-Minded” (which is also a pun on the musical term unisono). She performed in the group as a singer, answered composition challenges put to her by other group members, judged debates, and organised which topics the members would discuss. This was extremely unusual for a woman of Strozzi’s day, especially a young woman. According to the beliefs of that time, women were not supposed to be leaders, especially not of men! But Strozzi didn’t listen, and even though some sexist people said some very rude things about her, she kept leading the group.

Something else Strozzi did that women of her day weren’t “supposed” to was compose–and she composed a lot! She published her first collection of madrigals (a type of vocal music) when she was twenty-five, and over the next twenty years, posted seven more books of her compositions. Almost all of them survive; only the fourth has been lost. Overall, she composed about 125 pieces–a solid output indeed.

After 1665, when she wrote music for the Duke of Mantua, Strozzi mostly drops out of sight of history. What she did during those years is unknown, but I hope she continued composing and singing for the rest of her life!

Below is an example of one of Strozzi’s compositions, “Amor dormiglione”:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Barbara Strozzi at Encyclopædia Britannica
Barbara Strozzi, “virtuosissima cantatrice”: The Composer’s Voice, by Ellen Rosand
Barbara Strozzi at
Strozzi, Barbara at (Note: References to mature subject matter in the link.)
Barbara Strozzi at


Boomwhacker Bach

When I used to substitute teach for music classes, one of the kids’ favourite instruments (and, to be honest, mine too!) was the boomwhacker. Boomwhackers are a series of colourful plastic tubes of different lengths that are tuned to different notes; they produce sound by striking against the ground or each other. While most of the music the kids made was simple, it turns out that, with a little cooperation and a lot of coordination, significantly more complex performances are very much possible!

Imagine what those practice sessions must have looked like–bouncing, rolling boomwhackers everywhere!

Marian Anderson

History Hunt: Marian Anderson

Sometimes, when it comes to the history we learn, only one part of a person’s life becomes well-known. Usually it’s an extremely important part, but at the same time, knowing only a small piece of the story robs it of its potential power. As a writer, I know that stories are much more moving when the reader sympathises with who they’re reading about. So, today, I’d like to tell the more of the story of one very brave woman.

Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 27, 1897. She was a music-lover right from the start: at first, she wanted to play the violin, but soon decided that singing was her passion. She sang in Union Baptist Church‘s choir when she was only six years old and earned the nickname “Baby Contralto.”

Anderson’s family was able to buy her a piano when she was eight years old (she promptly taught herself how to play it), but long-term voice lessons were out of her family’s reach. Her fellow choir members and members of her church wanted her to have a chance to grow as a musician just as much as her family did, and so they all came together and raised enough money for her to take singing lessons for two years!

When Anderson was 28, she participated in the Lewisohn Stadium competition. She sang against three hundred rivals–and won! Her prize was the opportunity to sing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and after that, she began touring throughout the United States.

Though Anderson was a gentle, sweet person by all accounts, she faced a great deal of racism throughout her career. Segregation–laws separating white and black people, and giving the best of everything to white people–was still in effect throughout the United States. Even when she later became famous, some hotels and restaurants would not let her in. Many white people refused to come to her concerts. Through their prejudice, they missed out on a chance to hear someone truly wonderful.

After a few years of tours, Anderson began receiving scholarships to study in Europe. There, she was much more warmly received. She even sang for King Gustaf V of Sweden and King Christian X of Denmark!

For the next five years, Anderson remained on tour throughout Europe, the United States, and South and Latin America. But, in spite of her huge success, she still faced racism in her home country.

The performance that Anderson is most famous for took place in 1939. Her manager tried to book Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. for her, but was told that there was no available times. When another manager asked to book the hall for another (white) performer, however, they were told there was plenty of time available.* The person in charge of booking Constitution Hall had turned Anderson down because she was African-American.

Many people were disgusted by such blatant racism–including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt helped put together an open-air concert for Anderson to sing on the steps of the White House in front of 75 000 people and millions of radio listeners. She was the first African-American person to perform at the White House.

Here’s part of a news broadcast of her concert. Please note that the language used to refer to Anderson is outdated and inappropriate these days, but it was considered correct at the time of the broadcast.

After that, Anderson performed in front of more royalty: King George IV and Queen Elizabeth of England! Her popularity continued to grow, she received award after award, toured all over the world, and finally, when she was 57, she became the first African-American person to sing in the Metropolitan Opera. Funnily enough, though, the beginning of her farewell tour before her retirement began at Constitution Hall–the very place that had denied her permission to perform and thereby brought her even greater fame because of it.

Here’s another clip of Marian Anderson singing, this time Jean-Paul-Égide Martini’s “Plaisir d’amour”:

*I found conflicting stories on this incident. The one I’ve quoted is from the official website of Marian Anderson. Black History Magazine says that it was Anderson’s manager who asked a famous white Polish musician to book the hall, only to be told there was plenty of time available. Regardless, the fact remains that Marian Anderson was forbidden to perform at Constitution Hall due to racist rules.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
The Official Site of Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson at
Marian Anderson at The Kennedy Center
Marian Anderson (1897-1993) by Randye Jones at Afrocentric Voices in “Classical” Music
Marian Anderson and the DAR Controversy at Black History Magazine

"Friday" as written by Erik Didriksen

An Old Poetry Form Meets New Music

One of my favourite forms of creativity is when people connect the past with the present by putting a new spin on an old art form. I’ve already talked about Wendy Carlos and her Switched-On Bach album–now here’s something both similar and very different.

Every Thursday, Erik Didriksen posts a new sonnet on his blog on Tumblr (Note: the site is recommended for ages 13+. Some of the poetry may not be suitable for younger audiences). A sonnet is a type of poetry that follows very strict guidelines, created almost eight hundred years ago by Giacomo da Lentini. Many poets over the centuries have written both beautiful and funny sonnets, and it remains a reasonably popular form of poetry even now.

Didriksen’s poetry, however, is a little…different.

"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" as written by Erik Didriksen.

Wait a minute…there’s something funny about this sonnet.

As of this posting, there are 59 sonnets on Didriksen’s blog, transforming songs by artists ranging from One Direction to Black Sabbath. He also has a book coming out in October. I can’t wait to read it!

Suzanne Ciani

History Hunt: Suzanne Ciani

This week, we’re back to another living legend in the field of electronic music. Like Wendy Carlos, Suzanne Ciani was one of the first people to make music with synthetic instruments–but she had some very different ideas about what electronic music should be. What are those ideas? You’ll see!

Suzanne Ciani was born June 4, 1946, to an Italian-American family. She was a music-lover from the very start: when she was five years old, she taught herself to play the piano. One of her favourite composers when she was a kid was J.S. Bach, and she loved the European classical music of the Romantic Era (from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, approximately). Soon after, she started piano lessons to better grow as a musician.

At first, Ciani studied classical music, but when she was getting her first music degree at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, everything changed. She met a professor at another university who was trying to create the sound of a violin using a computer–something that’s simple today, but that in the 1960s seemed almost impossible.

Ciani was inspired, and she decided to change her focus from classical music to the brand new field of electronic music. Unfortunately, when she went to get her Master of Music degree at the University of California in Berkeley, her teachers didn’t understand what she was doing. One day, when she performed a piece she had composed in front of her class, her professor’s response was “What is this noise? What are you doing?” (Source: Dazed) Unsurprisingly, Ciani was very discouraged, but she didn’t give up.

The next big change in her life came when she met instrument designer Don Buchla, who had invented an electronic instrument called the Buchla 200. Right then and there, she knew she needed to have one.

The Buchla 200 was an expensive instrument and Ciani didn’t have the money for it, but that didn’t stop her. She started working in Buchla’s factory for low wages and at difficult times of day. She also started using her genius for electronic music for all kinds of different companies, making sound effects and music for them. Have you heard the sound of the bubbles in a Coca Cola ad? What about the jingle for Energizer? Those are just some of the sounds Ciani created (and you can listen to some of them here on her website).

Even though Ciani had to fight against the prejudice that existed against female composers (and unfortunately still exists), and eve though many people who didn’t understand her music or how she made it, she still found success. In 1974, Ciani moved to New York and lived for a while on the couch of her friend, Philip Glass, also a famous musician. She put together her own company, Ciani/Musica, and became a commercial musician in tremendous demand. Sometimes she would do fifty jobs a week! She also composed the music for the 1981 movie, The Incredible Shrinking Woman.

It wasn’t until 1982 that Ciani finally had time to release a CD of her compositions. That CD was Seven Waves, and while in general people in her home country of America didn’t really understand what she was doing with music, in Japan, the music was a hit.

Ciani had (and still has) strong ideas about what electronic music should be. She believed that connecting electronic music to historic genres, the way Wendy Carlos did with her album Switched-On Bach, wasn’t the right way for this new kind of music. She believed it needed to grow into something new.

After a while, Ciani became frustrated with the direction she saw electronic music going and, after twenty years, returned to playing and composing classical music for piano. She hasn’t completely given up electronic music, though: her most recent album, Lixiviation, was a compilation of sixteen years of her electronic music work, and, as of 2012, she’s been considering returning to the Buchla after her long hiatus.

Below are two examples of Ciani’s work–one piece she did on her own, and one that’s a very interesting collaboration…!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
Suzanne Ciani: Biography and Resumé
Suzanne Ciania: America’s First Female Synth Hero at Dazed
Interview: Suzanne Ciani On…Her Buchla Beginnings, Talking Dishwashers and Why No One Got Electronic Music in the ’70s at Self-Titled (Note: Mentions of national prejudice and sexism)
Suzanne Ciani at

(Space) Rock Music!

Last year, the European Space Agency made history with its Rosetta mission when Rosetta‘s lander touched down on a comet nucleus. Space fans (like me!) celebrated in lots of different ways, and one of the most unique celebrations came from the band Disparition.

What did they do? They took a recording the lander made of the vibrations in the comet’s magnetic field (which was sped up approximately ten thousand times so we could hear it!), slowed it down by 500%…and then created a duet with the comet!

Would it be too terrible of a joke if I said that the resulting music was out of this world?

Chiquinha Gonzaga

History Hunt: Chiquinha Gonzaga

Sometimes History Hunting isn’t just about finding forgotten composers in your own music traditions: it can also involve hunting down the great musicians of other countries whose music isn’t well known in your own. This kind of History Hunting comes with its own challenges. Maybe there’s a lot of information out there about your chosen composer, but little of it in a language you speak.

That’s exactly what happened with me this week. I decided to learn more about a composer outside of North America and Europe, because if I limit myself, there are countless brilliant musicians I’ll never hear about. And so this week’s History Hunt is all about Chiquinha Gonzaga.

Chiquinha Gonzaga was born Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga on October 17, 1847 in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. (“Chiquinha” is a Portuguese nickname for “Francisca.”)


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, birthplace of Chiquinha Gonzaga

Although there was a great deal of prejudice against women in Brazil at that time, Gonzaga received a very good education. What she loved best about what she learned was playing the piano. When she was only 16 and she married the husband chosen for her, making music was her favourite thing to do–even though her husband didn’t approve. When he bought a ship and insisted that Gonzaga accompany him on his trips for the government, he thought that would be the end of her music. Instead of giving up, though, Gonzaga sneaked a guitar on board and learned to play it!

Finally, her husband got fed up and told Gonzaga that she had to pick between her music and him. Gonzaga chose music, packed up, and left!

Even though her family was furious, Gonzaga made a lot of friends in the music community. She started attending musical events that were traditionally male-only, met Joaquim Callado, who would go on to become a famous flute player, and became the first woman to play in his band, “O Choro do Calado.”

Gonzaga published her first composition, “Atraente,” when she was 30, and met with terrific success. The next year, one of her polkas sold 2000 copies. It may not sound like much, but for that time, it was an incredible amount–twenty times what was usual for a composer!

Unfortunately, while Gonzaga’s popularity as a composer was growing, she still faced sexism. After seeing the revue (a bit like musical theatre) “O Rio De Janeiro em 1877,” Gonzaga thought she would try something similar. Her first revue, “Festa de São João,” wasn’t published for four years. When she wrote the music for another, the producer cancelled the whole thing because “everyone knew” women couldn’t write good music!

At 38, Gonzaga decided that being a terrific musician and a great composer wasn’t enough–she wanted to be a renowned conductor as well! Even though women weren’t supposed to conduct according to the rules of society at the time, that didn’t stop her. She conducted the brand-new work, A Corte na Roça, to great success, and from then on, she was unstoppable. She was hugely popular in Brazil and toured all over Europe, from Scotland to Italy.

Not only a great composer, conductor, and artist, Gonzaga was active politically and passionate about ending slavery in Brazil. She gave speeches and even sold her music door-to-door in order to be able to free a fellow musician. She was truly a remarkable woman.

Here’s an arrangement of “Atraente,” one of Gonzaga’s most well-known pieces:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
Chiquinha Gonzaga at
Chiquinha Gonzaga at
15 mulheres que mudaram o Brasil at MdeMulher (Portuguese). (Note: References to mature content are made in the link.)
Pop Culture Latin America!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle by Lisa Shaw and Stephanie Dennison
Chinquinha at
Image Source: