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In a recent interview, the American-Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste described how, just as she was completing her novel about women’s participation in the Ethiopian-Italian war of the 1930s, she found out that her own great-grandmother had fought in that war:

“(She) was really one of those that should never have been remembered by history because of the place she was born. And she did this thing that was extraordinary.“

It makes me think about the fact that the stories of women (are) told in the spaces of women. They’re told in the kitchens, in the bedrooms, in the places where women gather to talk amongst themselves. And they never make it into the classroom. They don’t make it into textbooks or into libraries.” ¹

It seems to me that this nicely sums up the difficulty of understanding what women have or have not done throughout history. Their stories are told in the blank spaces of history but do not make for tidy dates and landmarks, as they get on with life and persist in doing all manner of things. When we study Baroque Italy and take the time to look into these blank spaces, we discover a rich body of musical creation by women throughout the period. We know that Antonio Vivaldi taught music to girls, but we know little about his students, and only a few of their names are known today. The technical level of the music that he wrote while teaching at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice shows that some of these girls were fine musicians; writings of the time confirm that the orchestra of Vivaldi’s most talented students attracted international acclaim. The fact that the Catholic church felt periodically compelled to issue edicts limiting or even banning music making and composition by women in convents suggests that, despite the church’s efforts, nuns continued to compose and perform. Some women, many of them from families of musicians, pursued careers as performers and composers at Italian courts. Though their works were published and shared, and they were well-respected in their time, these women were later overlooked in music history courses because they did not t into the model of an evolutionary timeline of descent from one iconic composer to another.

¹ Ideas, “Moment of Encounter: Maaza Mengiste,” aired May 20, 2021 on CBC Radio.

© Madeleine Owen

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Ensemble La Cigale
Myriam Leblanc
Isabella Leonarda
Vittoria Aleotti
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