What Did Women Sing? A Chronology concerning Female Choristers

Laura Stanfield Prichard


The voices of women have been suppressed, avoided, and even banned throughout the history of choral music, but new archival research reveals the power of their musical presence in the seventeenth nineteenth centuries.
Some cultural centers such as Ferrara and Venice were renowned for their female musicians, but womens voices were heard throughout Baroque Europe. Northern German and French church music programs and opera companies usually included womens voices. Composers such as Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Handel, and Mozart traveled widely and composed for women, castrati, and male falsettists. Early operas and oratorios often replaced male singers with women in revivals of successful works.
As Paris, Amsterdam, and London became renowned as centers of music publishing, diverse ensembles arose to satisfy a more sophisticated level of taste. Convents, cloisters, and schools employed women as musicians, and both men and women participated in colonial singing schools. During the revolutionary period, attitudes and assumptions about gender roles shifted dramatically, and performance practice revealed the politics of the times.
North American and European singing societies and clubs commissioned many of the great masterworks of the Classical and early Romantic periods. Choral conductors who are concerned with issues of authenticity and appropriation in choral scoring should be aware of the original makeup of these commissioning and premiering ensembles. Building on the groundbreaking research of musicologist Neal Zaslaw, who has verified the makeup of every orchestra Mozart conducted, this paper will present an annotated catalog of over 100 choral masterworks, detailing exactly when and how womens voices were included in specific choral performance. An appendix of firsts will be included (first female cantor, first female conductor, first female ensembles of various types).

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