Composer Biography: Maddalena Casulana (c1540-c1590)
Also known as Signor Maddalena Casaulana de Mezari or Maddelena Mezari dette Casulana.
Maddalena Casulana was a composer, lutenist, and singer of some repute, and was probably the first woman to declare herself a professional musician and composer.
By 1568, when her piece was conducted at a royal wedding by Orlando di Lasso (c1530-1594), she was already known to be a woman of notable pride and confidence. In the same year, Antonio Molino (c1495-1571), a Venetian merchant, actor, and whimsical writer thought to be one of the founding fathers of the commedia dell’arte movement, dedicated his book of four-part madrigals to Casulana. He said that the work was a product of old age and of studying music with her.
In 1569, the Vicentine poet Giambattista Maganza (c1513-1586) dedicated a canzone to her. In the following year, Maddalena dedicated her second book of madrigals to Dom Antonio Londonio (dates unavailable), a highly placed official in Milan, whose wife, Isabella (dates unavailable), was a noted singer.
She was probably born in Casole d’Elsa near Sienna. Her name implies origin in Casole, but no one knows for sure. Author and astronomer Alessandro Piccolmini (1508-1579) claims her for Sienna, but tells us nothing else about her.
She trained in Casole and then moved to Florence, where her patrons were the first to hear her own compositions. From there, she went on to Venice, where she gave private lessons in singing and composition from around 1568. She was also known to play the lute for private entertainments. She visited Verona, Milan, and Florence, and probably met her husband as she traveled. Nothing is known about her husband. (Isn’t that a switch? Usually nothing is known about the wives!)
In 1568, she published her first collection of madrigals for four voices in Venice. The next two collections were published in 1570 and 1583, and her last was published in 1586. Her works also appeared in anthologies in 1566 and 1567.
As I mentioned at the start, one of her secular Latin pieces was played by Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594) at the marriage of Archduke Wilhelm V of Bavaria in 1568, along with that of another female composer, Caterina Willaert, a relative (but not offspring) of the famous master, Adriano Willaert (c1490-1562). Sadly, the music hasn’t survived, but it was called Nil mage incundum. It was a five-part madrigal.
Her personal writings indicate that in her early 20s, Casulana set out to be a professional musician, and to support herself with her art. Despite this unusual assertion, she was regarded well by the upper echelons of society.
Not much is known about her activities after 1570, but the poet Giambattista Crispolti (dates unavailable) describes a banquet in Perugia where Casulana sang for her supper in 1582. In that same year, publisher Angelo Gardano (1540-1611) dedicated his collection of madrigals to her, begging her to favor him with her own contributions to the neglected genre.
She performed at a meeting of the Acadamia Olimpica in Vincenza in 1583, which, at one time, owned a portrait of her. In her 1583 publication, her name was Madalena Mezari detta Casulana Vicentina, which suggests that she married at some time after 1570 and settled in Vicenza. Perhaps it was her marriage that kept her out of the public eye. It isn’t known whether she had children or not.
Casulana wrote three books of madrigals, the first published musical works ever by a woman. The first collection, printed in 1566, was called Il Primo libro di madrigal.
In total, there are 66 madrigals, of which five previously appeared in anthologies. Another is found only in an anthology (Primo libra de madrigal a Quattro voci, Venice 1568). It was dedicated to Isabella de’ Medici Orsina (1542-1576), a noted patron of the arts and an amateur musician. Casulana made a comment in her dedication to the effect that men don’t hold a monopoly on efforts of intellect.
Her madrigals reveal originality and personal style, but they suffer from being a kind of catalogue of word-painting devices. She doesn’t seem to have had a specific teacher, and some of the stock elements are missing, or are over- or underused. For instance, there are few examples of imitation, and themes are repeated at too close an interval to contrast with the generally homophonic texture. She overuses chromatic alteration and uses such mannerisms as excessive voice crossing (where a low voice ends up higher than a high voice), awkward ranges, strange chord inversions, and too-frequent parallel fifths and octaves.
These weaknesses are eclipsed by original and stunning effects. Textures, sometimes monotonous and cramped, at other times provide effective contrast, such as in passages with dramatic opposition between high and low registers, or passages in the fauxbourdon style (parallel fifths, sixths, or octaves). Her harmonic effects are often striking.
Sometimes, a long melodic line is created where one voice makes a slow and dramatic chromatic rise, culminating at the climax of the piece. Her use of dissonance is also masterful and modern, often sprinkled with dominant seventh chords, approached and resolved in the usual way, at a time when this chord could hardly be found elsewhere, except in the music of such composers as Cipriano Rore (c1515-1565), Adrian Willaert (c1490-1562), or Orlando di Lasso (c1530-1594).
Her texts include some of her own poetry and some by Petrarch (1304-1374), Annibale Caro (1507-1566), Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568), Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530), Serafino Aquilano (1466-1500), Vincenzo Quirino (dates unavailable), Bernardo Tasso (1493-1569) and Giulio Strozzi (dates unavailable, but adoptive—and probably natural—father of Barbara Strozzi).
Composer Philippus de Monte (1521-1603) tried to enlist her help in reviving the three-part madrigal, and referred to her as “the muse and siren of our age.” But then she disappeared.
“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.
“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northwestern University Press, Boston, 1996.
“The History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
“Women & Music, A History,” by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.
“Women Making Music, The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1959,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1997.