- Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara by Laurie Stras
In her poem 'Woman at the Window', written in response to a painting of the same name by Edgar Degas, Jackie Kay describes the blurred figure of a woman sitting by a window as her story fades from history. Forgotten by all who once knew her, the woman begins to lose her own sense of self—of purpose. Hearing someone playing music in the room next door, she realizes that she has forgotten any dance steps that she once knew; lost, too, is 'the path I meant to follow'. If the window in Kay's poem frames the woman's perspective on the world outside, it also both delineates and obscures the view of onlookers who might try to perceive her clearly—she is 'unseen, invisible'—or to recover her fading past.
Kay's 'Woman at the Window' offers an apt metaphor for women in music history. Too [End Page 546] often, women's participation in musical cultures is obscured by clouded or selective readings of historical documentation, or by a failure to frame historical questions in a way that might encompass women's experiences. If, for example, we start from the assumption that music history is equivalent to compositional history, then we fail to account for alternative modes of 'musicking' (to borrow Christopher Small's term from Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover, NH, 1988)) such as performance, improvisation, listening, patronage, collection of scores or instruments, and conversation about music. If our perspective is limited to published sources (relatively few of which were produced by pre-modern women), or sources that otherwise reflect the views of men, we run the risk of excluding those sources that document first-person perspectives of women. While the problems inherent in these selective methodologies are becoming increasingly apparent today, their application to the practice of scholarship has yet to be realized in most areas of the field.
Laurie Stras's new book, Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara, thus represents a major step forward in the historiography of women in music. Through a fundamental, even revolutionary reframing of her field, and through methodical, masterful readings of historical evidence—some of it already known but long incompletely understood, and much of it newly discovered and presented here for the first time—Stras shows just how fruitful a more inclusive methodology can be. As she explains, her volume offers 'a new history of Ferrarese music in the sixteenth century, one that puts the women at the center rather than on the periphery. It recovers women's agency in music-making, whether it be as performers, composers, or patrons.' 'Consciously and subconsciously', Stras continues, 'I have tried to recover [these women] from the male gaze of both documentation and scholarship' (p. 9). The effect of Stras's work is to show that the window that has framed our perception of musical women in sixteenth-century Ferrara has presented an incomplete, and even distorted picture; as she writes, 'the historical evidence has been filtered through the subjectivities of the chroniclers and critics; and each account is intrinsically shaped by its teller's purpose' (p. 3). Resisting the limitations imposed by the clouded window that frames so many women, like the speaker in Kay's poem, Stras offers a new understanding of the 'musicking' of women in sixteenth-century Ferrara that is at once clearer and dramatically more expansive.
The famous concerto delle dame that flourished at the court of Alfonso II d'Este, the last of his family to rule Ferrara before it was absorbed into the Papal States, figures in many histories of music in the Renaissance. Stras shows, however, that the standard understanding of these women—who they were, what music they sang, and how their practices related to cultures of women's music-making in both court and convent throughout the century—has been woefully incomplete until now. Acknowledging a debt to...