The Woman Within the Portrait:  Ria & Mizzi

The Woman Within the Portrait: Ria & Mizzi

Reflections on Lacy Rose’s cycles Ria (2018) and Hope I (2017)

Lacy Rose’s Ria and Hope I were performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, including full recordings of both works, check out my projects.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt (1914) by Anton Josef Trčka

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter and leader of the Vienna Secession, an artist collective who rebelled against what they viewed as nineteenth-century historicism in favor of an Art Nouveau style. With Klimt, the Art Nouveau style manifested itself in colorful, mosaic-like canvases, often populated by human figures, intertwined with one another in fluid and erotic positions. Although the Viennese establishment was scandalized by his “risqué” paintings and public murals, Klimt financed his career as portrait painter of the Viennese elite.

Within lush home interiors, Klimt’s portrait subjects peer out through the canvas, expressing elements of their personalities and desires through the artist’s “exoticizing” lens. He was particularly interested in women as portrait subjects, claiming, “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.” [1] These “interests” were sometimes romantic or sexual, and he had numerous relationships with the models of his works. It is claimed that, while he remained unmarried, Klimt fathered fourteen children with his partners.

Maria “Ria” Munk (1887-1911)

At 24 years of age, Maria (“Ria”) Munk committed suicide on December 28, 1911, after the poet and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers broke off their engagement. Her mother, Aranka Pulitzer Munk (1862-1941), wished to commission a death-bed portrait of her deceased daughter, a genre that was en vogue in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Since Ria’s sister, Serena Lederer, was a patron of Gustav Klimt, she arranged for the artist to paint her sister’s portrait. Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I), or Ria Munk on her Deathbed, was finished in 1912 and subsequently rejected by Aranka Munk. She found the portrait too realistic and upsetting to view. Aranka decided that Ria should be depicted as youthful and joyful, as she was when living. Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II), or The Dancer, followed, but was also rejected by the family. Their exact reasoning has never been revealed, but after their refusal of the painting, it is most likely that Klimt altered the original to resemble Johanna Jusl, a dancer at the Vienna Hofoper and an artist’s model.

Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I) (1912) by Gustav Klimt
Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) (1916-1918) by Gustav Klimt
Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) (1917, Unfinished) by Gustav Klimt

Ria Munk’s final portrait, Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III), or Woman’s Portrait, was left unfinished due to Klimt’s sudden death in 1917. In Ria Munk III, Ria is presented in profile, smiling, her cheeks slightly flushed, her body enveloped by the colorful patchwork interior behind her.  Bouquets of flowers, akin to her death-bed portrait, still frame her face.

The life of Ria Munk III, however, does not end with Klimt’s passing. Aranka Munk hung her daughter’s portrait at her villa, Bad Aussee, until the Nazis seized her family’s property in 1942. The Munk family was Jewish, and Aranka was deported to Lodz, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, where she was murdered in 1942. That same year, Ria’s sister, Lola, was murdered at Chelmno in Poland.  

Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) was eventually passed to art collector and dealer William Gurlitt, who sold the painting in 1953 to the Lentos Museum in Linz, Austria. The painting remained at the museum until 2009, when the city council of Linz finally voted to return Ria Munk III to its rightful owners, the descendants of the Munk family. [2]

NYC-based composer and singer Lacy Rose (b. 1990) composed her cycle Ria for voice and string quartet to illuminate the personhood of Ria Munk as it evolves from portrait to portrait. In describing the narrative flow of Ria (with text that she herself wrote), Rose writes:

The first movement begins inside the painting, “Ria Munk I,” with Ria asking her bereaved to “close and coin her eyes.” In the second movement, inspired by “Ria Munk II” (also known as “The Dancer”), the woman “who holds the marigolds with swan-soft hands” asks the spectator to ponder her double identity and origin of inspiration. For the third movement, the unfinished figure in Ria Munk III exclaims that she “begins and ends in death.” [3]


Ria Munk II, from Ria by Lacy Rose

Christopher Ciampoli, violin
William Weijia Wang, violin
Flavia Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola
Alexander Cousins, cello

Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann (1879-1975)

Schubert at the Piano (1899) by Gustav Klimt, destroyed by the Nazis in 1945
Hope I (1903) by Gustav Klimt

Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann was an artist’s model and romantic partner of Gustav Klimt. In 1887, at 18 years old, she first met Klimt, then 35 years old, in passing on the street, and their professional and romantic relationship began soon afterwards. Mizzi posed for many of Klimt’s paintings as a model. Since she often appeared as an unnamed representation, Mizzi occupied a less publicly visible role in Klimt’s creative process than his wealthier portrait subjects.

In Klimt’s Schubert at the Piano, a painting commissioned by Greek industrialist Nikolaus Dumba in 1898, we find Mizzi standing at the far left of the canvas, illuminated by candlelight, intently watching Franz Schubert, Klimt’s favorite composer, perform. Zimmermann and Klimt had two sons, Gustav (1889-1976) and Otto, who was born in 1902 and died within the same year. While Klimt lived a modest lifestyle as a freelance artist, he rented Mizzi and their children a small apartment. When their relationship ended, he provided financially for his son, Gustav, until his death. Klimt left Maria Zimmerman a small sum in his will, but he did not legally identify any of his children as heirs. Although she lived to be 96 years old, Mizzi never owned a single painting by Klimt or benefited from the sale of his works posthumously, even though her body and likeness were frequently represented. [4]

Mizzi’s relationship to Hope I (1903), however, is not as direct as the painting may suggest. Indeed, she was not the actual model for this painting, although she was heavily pregnant and gave birth to Otto during the period of its creation. Instead, the model Herma, who is known to history only by her first name, represents Hope with the promise of new life within her.

Mizzi’s “essence,” though, pervades the painting through historical speculation. Originally, Klimt sketched a male figure in the painting, comforting Hope. After Otto’s death, he re-configured the painting’s images, removing its male figure. Instead, Hope stands alone with her baby, still surrounded by a halo of light, but now menaced by skeletons and ghouls behind her. She is either unafraid, or unaware of these deathly forces.

Lacy Rose writes of her impetus to compose the cycle Hope I for voice, string quartet, and piano:

Mizzi represents so many of the women in the paintings whose names and lives are lost to time but whose images are immortalized by the painters, often male painters whose names we still remember. For me, I felt it my duty to help Mizzi reclaim her personhood… This is the story of Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann. [5]


Hope III, from Hope I by Lacy Rose
Eunchan Kim, piano
Christopher Ciampoli, violin
William Weijia Wang, violin
Flavia Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola
Alexander Cousins, cello

As we encountered the three Ria Munks in Ria, in Rose’s Hope I, we now meet several versions of Mizzi, all through the lens of portraiture. In the first movement, an elderly Mizzi reflects on the painting that she once inspired. The second movement derives from the perspective of the woman inside the painting, another version of Mizzi who describes the demons that surround her. The final movement is drawn from Mizzi herself, who pleads with the spectator to truly see her and free her from the painting.


  1. Alexxa Gotthardt, “What You Need to Know about Gustav Klimt.” March 26, 2018.
  2. Allison McNearney, “How Gustav Klimt’s Unfinished ‘Ria Munk III’ Finally Escaped the Nazis.” Daily Beast. Updated April 7, 2018.
  3. Lacy Rose, Liner Notes to Ria. Released by Lacy Rose, 2018.
  4. Georg Markus, „Sensationeller Fund: Klimts Geliebte spricht.“ Kurier. January 1, 2018. Accessed November 21, 2019.
  5. Lacy Rose. Liner Notes to Mizzi. Released by Lacy Rose. 2017.
“one heart and one soul”: The Songs of Clara and Robert Schumann

“one heart and one soul”: The Songs of Clara and Robert Schumann

Reflections on Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann (1841)

German Romantics: Clara was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Clara Schumann (1857)
Photo: Franz Hanfstaengl (1804–1877) 

Clara Schumann, a German Romantic-era pianist, composer, and piano pedagogue, was a celebrated virtuoso. From the age of eleven, she managed a 61-year concert career, touring throughout Europe. Her success as a concert artist secured essential income for her eight children and husband, the renowned composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). She began composing as a child, and her compositions later included solo piano pieces, chamber music, choral works, and Lieder.

At the age of thirteen, Clara began to compose one of her most famous works, Piano Concerto in A minor, which she later premiered in Leipzig with composer Felix Mendelssohn as conductor. Due to her touring schedule, the management of her large household, and her own personal hesitancy towards composition, Clara’s output was often sporadic.

In her diaries, Clara expressed intense self-doubt about her compositional abilities, internalizing nineteenth-century socio-cultural prejudices against women as composers. She wrote in 1839, “I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that.” [1] After Robert’s death in 1856, Clara composed only two other pieces and turned her energy to performing, teaching, and caring for her children.

Throughout their marriage, Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann constitutes the only explicit compositional collaboration between the Schumanns. The collection includes nine songs by Robert and three by Clara, listed under the joint opus numbers op. 37/12. Throughout a protracted legal battle with Clara’s father, Friederich Wieck, over her hand in marriage and control of Clara’s finances, Robert continually expressed his desire to compose with his fiancée.

In 1839, he wrote to her that “we shall publish a good deal under both our names; posterity shall regard us as one heart and one soul and not find out what is yours and what is mine.”[2] In 1841, at the publication of the first edition of Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling, Robert purposefully instructed the songs to be published without identifying which “belonged” to each composer, further cementing his desire that the Schumanns were united in all things, including their aesthetic sensibilities. In fact, without prior knowledge, it was nearly impossible for nineteenth-century critics, performers, and audiences to discern who had specifically composed what, since Robert and Clara’s harmonic and motivic choices within Zwölf Gedichte complemented each other seamlessly. 

Clara and Robert Schumann (c. 1850)
Photo: Corbis, via Getty Images
Friederich Rückert; 19th Century Carte de visite after a drawing by B. Semptner

For poetic texts, Robert chose selections from Liebesfrühling, a collection of four hundred poems written by Friederich Rückert (1788-1866) during the courtship of his wife. Not only was Rückert one of Robert’s favorite poets, but the poetry itself was an apt choice for the newly married couple. In Liebesfrühling, Rückert crafted his poetry from two distinct perspectives: the voice of the poet (a male protagonist) and the voice of his Geliebte, or beloved (a female protagonist). After excerpting a set of Rückert poems for the joint project, Robert asked Clara to set five of the texts.

In January of 1841, Robert had composed nine Rückert songs in a flurry of compositional activity. By May of that year, Clara still struggled to compose her selections, writing in their shared diary, “With composition nothing at all is happening — sometimes I’d like to knock myself on my dumb head!” [3] However, weeks later, Clara finished four of her Rückert settings: “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Die gute Nacht.” She gifted the song set to Robert as a birthday gift, who then ordered the songs for publication, ultimately removing Clara’s “Die gute Nacht” from the collection. After offering their shared endeavor to the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, Robert presented Clara with the newly published volumes, divided into two sets of six songs, each concluding with a duet, as her surprise birthday gift.

While Robert and Clara may have originally intended Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann to function as a musical dialogue between two performers, embodying a couple as they explore the many facets of their romantic bond through song, the collection is rarely performed as such. Instead, songs are often excerpted by composer with Clara’s set of three songs performed separately, an interpretive decision that we also followed in I take the long way there.

In examining Clara Schumann’s Op. 12, the collection consists of three songs: “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Warum willst du and’re fragen.” “Er ist gekommen” compares the arrival of the beloved to a stormy deluge, which furiously sweeps into the protagonist’s life, leaving them to wonder, “How could I foresee that his path would merge with mine?” As the storm calms and spring returns, the beloved sets off on their path once more. The protagonist, however, does not fear their absence because “he remains mine on any path.” In “Liebst du um Schönheit,” the protagonist pleads with their beloved to love truly and freely, rejecting the false values of beauty, youth, and wealth. In the final song of Op. 12, “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” the protagonist questions why their beloved believes the “fancies” of strangers over the truth and constancy genuinely expressed through their eyes. The protagonist has a simple request: “Whatever my lips say, see my eyes – I love you!” 

Image: Elizabeth Van Os

In collaboration with NYC-based The Pleiades Project, I take the long way there reconceptualizes the three Lieder of Clara Schumann’s Op. 12 in German Romantics: Clara, which also represents the first film project I have ever co-created. While these songs may have marked the beginning of Clara and Robert’s union, our protagonist navigates Op. 12 as she copes with the end of an important relationship.

In coming to terms with the conclusion of this chapter in her life, our protagonist’s imagination travels to vibrant fantasy worlds. She engages with a series of invented historical personas, combining her contemporary self with illusory traces of past women’s lives. In becoming the heroine of her own story, our protagonist achieves a sense of closure, reapproaching her present circumstances with curiosity and a cautious hope for future possibilities.



  1. Nancy Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 216.
  2. Rufus Hallmark, “The Rückert Lieder of Robert and Clara Schumann,” 19th-Century Music 14, no. 1 (Summer, 1990): 4,   
  3. Hallmark, “The Rückert Lieder,” 7.
«… und, wo ist Fanny?»

«… und, wo ist Fanny?»

Reflections on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 (1846)

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 was programmed on The little ghost for The Cantanti Project’s Project 4. For more information about this program, check out my projects.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)

In February of 1847, Fanny Mendelssohn wrote in her diary,

I cannot deny that the joy in publishing my music has elevated my positive mood . . . it is truly stimulating to experience this type of success first at an age by which it has usually ended for women, if indeed they ever experience it. [1]

Fanny’s allusion to “this type of success” centered on the long-awaited publication of her compositions under her own name, a project which she had undertaken for the first time in her life in 1846.

At the age of forty-one, the publication of Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 and Vier Lieder for piano, Op. 2 marked her public arrival as a recognized composer. Before 1846, the only musical works of Fanny’s that had been made public were several Lieder, published under her brother’s name in his own collections of songs.

Portrait of Fanny Hensel (1842) by Mortiz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882); The Jewish Museum, New York

She was far from a stranger, however, to the field of musical composition, an expertise that she had passionately honed since the age of thirteen. Born into an eminent German family, Fanny received a robust education, both musical and academic, alongside her brother, who would later become the famed composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). From an early age, Fanny was acknowledged to be a virtuoso pianist and talented composer. However, her father, Abraham Ernst Mendelssohn Bartholdy, deemed it inappropriate and “unfeminine” for Fanny to pursue a professional career in music.

In 1821, her marriage to court painter Wilhelm Hensel solidified Fanny’s primary occupation as a homemaker, wife, and mother. Despite these familial and societal expectations, she maintained a profound connection to music throughout her life, albeit in the private sphere. Fanny composed more than 450 works, advised Felix on his compositions, and hosted Sonntagsmusiken, or musical salons, on Sundays in her Berlin home. Fanny’s music often premiered at these events, which were frequented by the European cultural and musical elite of the day.

Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched in 1829 by her husband Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861)
With Fanny at the Mendelssohn Haus, Leipzig (2019)
Photo: Caroline Miller
“…and where is Fanny?” from the Fanny Mendelssohn Exhibit at Mendelssohn Haus, Leipzig
Photo: Caroline Miller

Fanny cherished an intimate, life-long friendship with Felix, who privately relied upon his sister’s opinions to develop his own compositions, while he maintained stubborn reservations about her entering the public sphere as a composer. Fanny often questioned her own abilities, internalizing the prejudices that were used to demean and diminish her ambition. In writing to a friend about her piece Faust in 1843, she wrote,

Please excuse and censure all the amateurish female snags within; a dilettante is a dreadful creature, a female author even more so, but when the two are joined into one person, of course the most dreadful being of all results. At least so far I have abstained from the printer’s ink; if someone suffers, it is my friends, and why is one in this world if not to be suffered by one’s friends? [2]

To experience Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 in this context, one sees that its publication was truly a personal triumph for Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who did not “abstain from the printer’s ink” as she had been advised to do all her life. Although she passed away suddenly from a stroke in 1847 after having published her work for only a year prior, she remains an influential and prolific artist of her era, overcoming the pain of self-doubt and the debilitating consequences of nineteenth-century gender stereotypes.


Morgenständchen, from Sechs Lieder, Op. 1
Joseph Yungen, piano


In den Wipfeln frische Lüfte,

Fern melod’scher Quellen Fall

Durch die Einsamkeit der Klüfte,

Waldeslaut und Vogelschall.

Scheuer Träume Speilgenossen

Steigen all beim Morgenschein,

Auf des Weinlaubs schwanken Sprossen

Dir zum Fenster aus und ein.

Und wir nah’n noch halb in Träumen

Und wir tun in Klängen kund

Was da draußen in den Bäumen

Singt der weite Frühlingsgrund.

Regt der Tag erst laug die Schwingen

Sind wir Alle wieder weit

Aber tief im Herzen klingen

Lange nach noch Lust und Leid.

Text by Josef Karl Benedikt von Eichendorff (1788-1857)

Morning Serenade

Fresh breezes in the treetops

A distant, melodious spring’s descent

Through the solitude of the ravine

Forest sounds and birdcalls.

Timid dream’s playmates

All rise with the morning light,

From the grapevine’s swaying buds

In and out, to you at your window.

And we draw near, still half dreaming

And we make known in sound

That which outside in the trees

The wide spring valley sings.

Once the day loudly moves its wings

We are again far removed

But deep in our hearts resound

Pleasure and pain long afterwards.

Translation by Bard Suverkrop; additions by Noelle McMurtry


  1. Larry R. Todd, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 334.
  2. Todd, Fanny Hensel, 294.

The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

Reflections on Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Semelé (1715)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Semelé was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, check out my projects.

The Myth of Semele

Although various versions of the myth of Semele exist, they follow a similar narrative trajectory: Semele was a Theban princess. One day, she encountered the god Jupiter, who instantly fell in love with her. Since Semele is characterized as the object of Jupiter’s desire, her initial feelings are rarely elucidated. When Jupiter’s wife, Juno, learned of their relationship, she schemed to punish Semele. Juno disguised herself as Semele’s nurse, Beroë. Believing her nurse to be a friend and confidant, Semele confessed that Jupiter, the ruler of the Olympian gods, was her lover. Beroë questioned Jupiter’s honesty – was he truly immortal and so powerful? With these seeds of doubt planted in Semele’s mind, she asked Jupiter for a favor. Swearing on the River Styx, he promised to grant any request that Semele asked of him. Semele demanded that Jupiter reveal himself in his immortal glory to prove that he was truly a god. Jupiter pleaded with her to take back her request, but Semele insisted. Bound to his oath, Jupiter revealed himself as immense clouds, thunder, and lightning. Semele, a mortal, could not endure the heat’s intensity, and she was tragically immolated by Jupiter’s bolts.

Although the anonymous author of the libretto set by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) ends Semele’s tale here, her mythological narrative continues. At the exact moment of Semele’s lethal request, she is also pregnant. As flames engulf her, Jupiter saves their unborn child, “sewing” the fetus into his thigh. After Semele’s death and descent into the underworld, the baby is born, and he becomes Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and fertility. Later, Dionysus rescues his mother from Hades, and Semele becomes immortal as Thyone, the goddess who resides over Dionysus’ court on Mount Olympus.

The anonymous librettist of de La Guerre’s Semelé, however, freezes Semele’s “portrait” at the precise moment of her death, followed by an air, or aria, with a pointed moralistic tone. The librettist writes, “When Love enchains us…let us not mix with his fire/ The desire of vainglory… It is in a tender bond/ That one finds the greatest happiness;/ Glamour, supreme grandeur/ Should count for nothing.” [1] Despite her manipulation by Juno and the inexplicable fact that Jupiter, the greatest god in all the universe, cannot transcend an oath of his own making, we are led to believe that Semele is at fault for her own demise. Semelé’s narrator claims that her mortal vanity, evident in her desire to prove that she was loved by an all-powerful god, is truly her undoing. If Semele had been privately satisfied with the love of Jupiter and unquestioning in her faithfulness, she may have survived.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy (1645–1730), late 17th/early 18th Century
Engraving by Juan Dolivar of the 1685 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Roland, tragédie en musique at Versailles National Art Library, Paris

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the tendency to conclude with a “moral” lesson was common in French cantatas. Airs often reflected upon past events or shed light on the specific emotion of a character within the drama. Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre published Semelé, dedicated to the Elector of Bavaria, in 1715, as part of her collection of secular cantatas. Semelé is an extension of the seventeenth-century Italian “‘cantata,’” meaning “‘sung,’” a genre that designated a piece of music written for voice(s) and accompanying instruments (basse continue). By de La Guerre’s time, cantatas were often comprised of several movements, alternating between recitative passages and arias, marked by tempo and key changes. Cantatas were performed at Versailles and other royal residences, as well as in salon concerts at the homes of French nobles. De La Guerre navigated the complex power dynamic between nobility and the artist class throughout her lifetime. Educated in Louis XIV’s court as a child, de La Guerre learned to sing, compose, and play the organ and harpsichord.

At 15 years old, she was placed in the retinue of Madame de Montespan, a patron of the arts and mistress of the king, who socialized with leading intellectual and cultural figures of the day, such as Racine and Quinault. [2] In 1684, de La Guerre left the service of the court due to her marriage to organist Marin de La Guerre. She continued to compose, perform, and publish as a freelance musician, seeking financial support through noble patronage.

Throughout her career, de La Guerre published under her own name in a variety of genres, including sacred vocal music, instrumental works, ballet, and opera, or tragédie en musique. She is credited with composing the first opera written by a woman in France, Céphale et Procris. [3]

Portraits of Semele

I have chosen three images to depict Semele, creating a portrait-timeline that culminates in this tragic and deeply unjust moment in her story. The first is the work of Jan-Erasmus Quellinus (1634-1715), a Flemish painter from a family of famous artists, who specialized in history and portrait painting. Jupiter, Semele, und Juno depicts Jupiter’s pursuit of Semele, as Juno peers from the clouds above. Cupids, nestled in the left-hand corner of the work, point to the couple, as if to reveal their relationship. Jupiter’s body language is ominous and overpowering, while Semele appears to run from him. Our second image was painted by Pietro della Vecchia (1603-1678), a Venetian painter, who painted in a variety of genres, such as altar pieces and portraits. Jupiter and Semele depicts the violent instant when Jupiter reveals to Semele the extent of his immortal powers. Semele’s face is frozen in fear and pain while Jupiter’s lightning bolts rise above her. The image is disturbing, especially due to Jupiter’s imposing form, which aggressively looms over Semele’s reclined body.

Our last image is Semele by John Duncan (1866-1945), a Scottish painter and illustrator, best known as a proponent of the Celtic Revival in Scottish art. It depicts the titular figure in death, consumed by flames. It is important to note, however, that in this portrait, Semele is finally depicted as an individual. In my research, I often found it common to find images of Semele in relation to Jupiter: in a state of sexual rapture beside him, being pursued by him, or being killed by him. Rarely did I find Semele depicted as a person, an individual, alone. Duncan’s image is powerful in that Semele does not appear to be in pain, but rather illuminated. The flames do not harm her body but seem to expand her presence. Although Duncan’s portrait still represents her demise, I find Semele’s stare unsettling, as if to assert: I will not be consumed.


Semelé by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre
Paula Maust, harpsichord
Christian Paquette, Baroque flute
Theodore Welke, theorbo

i.     Simphonie
ii.    Recitatif – Jupiter avoit fait un indiscret serment
iii.   Air – Ne peut-on vivre en tes liens
iv.   Prélude Bruit
v.    Recitatif – Mais, quel bruit étonnant se répand
vi.   Simphonie
vii.  Air – Quel triomphe, quelle victoire
viii. Bruit
ix.   Recitatif – Ah ! quel embrasement tout à coup m’épouvante
x.    Dernier Air – Lorsque l’Amour nous enchaisne


  1. Mary Cyr, “Introduction.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. New York: Broude Trust, 2005, 13-15.
  2. Rebecca Cypess, Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2019. Accessed on November 24, 2019.
  3. Cyr, “Texts and Translations.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, 39.
Barbara Strozzi: Portrait as Gossip, Rumor, and Innuendo

Barbara Strozzi: Portrait as Gossip, Rumor, and Innuendo

Reflections on Barbara Strozzi’s È giungerà pur mai (1664)

Barbara Strozzi’s È giungerà pur mai was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information on this program, check out my projects.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)

What occurs when a person’s legacy is heavily informed by a portrait? What if a portrait became the singular image to validate their existence? And what if their existence, or certain details of it, were defined by the fact that their breast was partly exposed?

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was a Venetian singer, composer, and lutenist. Presumed to be the illegitimate child of Giulio Strozzi, a poet and member of the Accademia degli Incogniti, an exclusive society of all-male Venetian intellectuals, Barbara was well-educated and excelled in music, studying composition with composer Francesco Cavalli.

Her father supported and publicly promoted her work. In 1637, he founded the Accademia degli Unisoni, a society dedicated to music at the Strozzi home. At the Accademia’s meetings, Barbara would often premiere and perform her newest compositions. From 1644 to 1664, she published eight volumes of music. Notably, Barbara published under her own name, which was highly unusual for a woman of her day.

Most of her compositions, such as È giungerà pur mai (1664), were written for treble voice(s) with continuo and occasional obbligato instruments. Barbara was particularly adept at illustrating the emotional drama of her texts, often highlighting specific words with highly dissonant harmonies and unexpected harmonic progressions.

Music making company, attributed to Niccolò Frangipane (active 1563–1597) Palais Dorotheum, Vienna
Female Musician with Viola da Gamba (1635-1639) by Bernardo Strozzi

In È giungerà pur mai, Barbara sets text by Giuseppe Artale, who employs a playful rhetorical device. Is the object of the narrator’s affections… Barbara herself? The miserable narrator of Artale’s poem, rejected in love, claims “Troppo Barbara e crudele,” translated as “Too barbarous and cruel” or “Too cruel is Barbara.” Later, the narrator states, “Anco Barbara t’adoro,” translated as “Even barbarous, I adore you,” or “Yet I adore you, Barbara.” These double meanings are further highlighted by the fact that Strozzi may have performed this piece herself, ensuring that this “‘Barbarous-Barbara” allusion was not lost on her audience.

Why, though, does Bernando Strozzi’s portrait, Female Musician with Viola da Gamba (1635-1639), which is believed to be a likeness of Barbara Strozzi, matter? It has inevitably shaped the public perception of her life, often overshadowing aspects of her work. Due to Barbara’s public role as a scholar, composer, and musician, satires were circulated by male contemporaries, labelling Barbara as a courtesan, with criticism such as, “It is a fine thing to distribute the flowers after having already surrendered the fruit.” [1] Strozzi’s status as an unmarried woman with four children, potentially from a relationship with Giovanni Paolo Vidman, further strengthened the “Strozzi as courtesan” rumors. These rumors began circulating in 1630’s Venice and remain pervasive to this day. Although there is no explicit historical evidence to prove these claims, musicologists have attempted to validate (or invalidate) their accuracy. 

Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, Germany (2019)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

Female Musician with Viola da Gamba (1635-1639) depicts a young woman with flowers in her hair, a musical score resting next to her elbow, and a viola da gamba and bow in hand. She seems to be on the verge of making music and stares unabashedly at the viewer. One of her breasts is removed from the bodice of her dress. While depictions of exposed breasts have symbolized “woman as courtesan” in Western European art history, representations of women’s breasts have also contained a myriad of cultural meanings, including fertility and abundance. It seems that Barbara’s semi-nudity, paired with malicious gossip of her day, provided sufficient “proof” of her status as courtesan to carry into musicological explorations of her life and work throughout the centuries. A newer, less sexualized interpretation by Candace Magner, however, suggests that Barbara embodies Flora, the Roman goddess of nature, flowers, spring, and fertility. [2] 

In 2019, as I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, I came upon this portrait, unaware that it was part of the Dresden collection. I instantly recognized Barbara Strozzi, not due to the viola da gamba and her musical score, but due to her exposed breast. I realized that this narrative about her sexuality, based on rumor, gossip and innuendo, had entered my consciousness. The weight of being pursued through time by a semi-exposed breast, of having one’s personal narrative defined by a single detail is a larger reflection of the historic judgments placed on women and their bodies as creative agents.


È giungerà pur mai, Op. 8
Cameron Welke, theorbo
December 2019, Peabody Institute


  1. Candace A Magner, “A Short History of Barbara Strozzi.” In È giungerà pur mai. Cor Donato Editions, 2015.
  2. Magner, “A Short History.”