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WHERE ARE THE WOMEN? An introduction to female composer Carlotta Ferrari

September 5, 2011

To thumb through the pages of any music history text, you easily could assume that only men composed music in Italy – or most anywhere, for that matter.  Where are the women?  Of course, some of them were onstage singing (though the Catholic church would prohibit women from singing in its choirs well into the twentieth century).  We have also heard of many women because they were married to famous composers…but if you want to find about female composers, you have to look a little harder.

A few years ago, I purchased a book of songs called Italian Art Songs of the Romantic Era.  Inside were some familiar and unfamiliar names—but amongst the rarities, there were the names of women! Immediately I fell in love with the song “Non t’accostare all’urna” which happened to be composed by Carlotta Ferrari.  The editor of the edition was kind enough to provide a little background information, but—being the curious one that I am—I had to know more.

Female composer Carlotta Ferrari (1837 - 1907)

Carlotta Ferrari was born in Lodi in 1837.  The city is located in the region of Lombardy, very close to Milan.  She studied voice at the Milan Conservatory with Giuseppina Strepponi (a name you might know, as she was the second wife of Verdi).  Likely, it is her study of singing which makes her songs so well-written for the voice; her arching lines and well-spun phrases indicate her familiarity with the vocal mechanism.  It should be noted, however, that she was also a pianist, poet, and writer. Eventually she relocated to Bologna and taught piano and singing.  This move from Milan is likely because Ferrari wished to compose opera; in the city of Milan a woman was not encouraged in this pursuit.  Perhaps the infamous demands of La Scala audiences did not appreciate women penning lyric dramas; in the university city of Bologna, we might infer that it was more tolerated.

At the age of 20, she composed, conducted, and in fact raised the funds to stage her opera Ugo in the mid-sized town of Lecco.  It was so well-received that she received commissions for other operas, a cantata, as well as a requiem for the king of Turin in 1868.  If one wanted to read the opera one could look to Ferrari’s own publications.  From 1878- 1882 she published her literary works in four volumes, Versi e prose.  The third volume of this collection contained the libretti to her three operas.

The most extraordinary thing about Ferrari is that her accomplishments were recognized during her lifetime.  A contemporary of Carlotta’s, writer Francesco Dall’Ongaro called her “the Italian Sappho” and composer Gualtiero Sanelli hailed her as “a Bellini in skirts.”[1]  In fact, the French composer Ambroise Thomas much admired her songs.  Another contemporary critic praised her thus: “Ferrari is lively, natural, with a remarkable talent brought to maturity as the result of her serious studies.  These enable her to express beauty in everything she writes.” [2]

On the VOX 3 program Viva Italia, you will be able to hear the song mentioned earlier in this article.  “Non t’accostare all’urna” was included in an album dedicated to Count Renato Borromeo, a Milanese patron of the arts.  It is interesting to note that although Ferrari was well-known for setting her own texts, this text is by the poet Jacopo Vittorelli.  The work adheres to mid-nineteenth  century conventions in many ways —the musical style, the ghostly subject of the text, and the drama.  But the expansive setting of the text, with its wide-ranging tessitura and brad dynamic range, raises this chamber song to operatic heights.  As  a female singer and musician, it is incredibly satisfying to be able to present the work of this extremely talented and versatile woman to our audience.

[1] The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Woman Composers.  Julie Ann Sadie & Rhian Samuel, eds. W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

[2] Italian Art Songs of the Romantic Era. Patricia Adkins Chiti, ed. Alfred Publishing, 1994.

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