There are infinite theories as to what marks the beginning of music and its history as we know it. The one truth we do know is that music has played an influential part on the wheel of life. Before we can even hum a tune, we are exposed to sound and vibrations, but who paved the way for female composers and musicians?
Who left a mark in music history before we could even complain about our rights and patriarchy?
John Hillenbrand, fiddler and the founder of The Goliards, is here to answer these questions and more. The Goliards is a Savannah-based ancient music ensemble, that specializes in well-researched performances of early Renaissance and Medieval music on historic and replica instruments. They are performing and celebrating “The Unconventional Women of The Middle Ages and Renaissance” with two shows in Savannah this weekend.
“We picked ten different women who are extraordinary. They are all fascinating in my mind," Hillenbrand said. "The earliest composer we are celebrating would be Hildegard of Bingen. She was a German Benedictine abbess, a writer and composer. She is one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony which is music that has only one melodic line. She is as well the most recorded in modern history in monophonic music. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she is one of the few known composers to have written both the music and the words.”
The 10 unconventional women to be celebrated by The Goliards at St, Paul’s Episcopal Church are: St. Birgitta of Sweden, Maddalena Casulana, Beatriz De Dia, St. Jon of Arc, Elizabeth I of England, Christine de Pisan, Isabella I of Spain, Eleanor Aquitane, Lucrezia Borgia and St. Hildegard of Bingen.
The work of Maddalena Casulana, the first female composer to have her music printed and published in the history of western music will be featured. The use of era-appropriate instruments during their performances helps create an authentic sound, free of modern nuisances. The Goliards rely heavily on the very first human instrument discovered — the vocal chords. “Our newest addition, which was two years ago, is that of our soprano, Sheila Berg. She had one of the shortest auditions I think anybody’s ever had," Hillenbrand said.
"Once she began to sing a few notes out of her mouth, I knew she had to be a part of our ensemble. She will be performing some of Maddalena Casulana’s work. The melodic lines of her work are singable and carefully attentive to the text, and Sheila does an amazing job.”
During the Goliards performance, the group will also use instruments such as the gamba, the vielle and the harpsichord to name a few. “It is quite hard to find musicians nowadays that find a use to so many of these instruments now most long gone," Hillenbrand added. "But the sound of a gamba, which is clear with little vibrato, is unparalleled and ideal for accompanying solo voices. The harpsichord is so formal and precise. There is a difference between a struck string instrument and a plucked one."
Maddalena Casulana wrote the following line in the dedication to Isabella de' Medici in her first book of madrigals, it clearly shows her feelings about being a female composer at a time when such a profession was rare: "[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."