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‘Breaking the Habit’ praised in the Observer

Stephen Pritchard, The Observer (5 May, 2019)

Music was one of the few areas where women found recognition in male-dominated Renaissance Italy, with female composers and patrons making serious contributions to vocal and instrumental repertoire, as the richly talented vocal ensemble Stile Antico handsomely illustrated in a fascinating concert last week, part of the year-long Venus Unwrapped series at London’s Kings Place.

Elaborate motets from 1593 by Sister Raffaella Aleotti stood alongside those of another nun, Sulpitia Cesis, and pieces that could be attributed to Isabella d’Este, but perhaps the most interesting were by Maddalena Casulana, who in 1568 became the first woman composer to be published. She claimed she wanted “to show to the world the foolish error of men who so greatly believe themselves to be the masters of high intellectual gifts that these gifts cannot, it seems to them, be equally common among women”.

Her words and music proved fertile ground for one of today’s leading composers for voice, Joanna Marsh, who wrote the highlight of the evening, a delightful parody piece, Dialogo and Quodlibet. Two six-part choruses, one male, one female, sang separate texts drawn variously from the letters of Antonfrancesco Doni and his Dialogo della Musica and from Casulana’s forceful declaration on women’s intellectual gifts. The result was a delicious standoff, with the men pompously chuntering on about the shortcomings of compositional technique, oblivious to the women running vocal rings around them.