9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


Sapho and the Lyre: Women as Composers, Patrons, and Performers in Louis XIV’s France

Claire Fontijn

It is well known that Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre distinguished herself as a composer in Louis XIV’s France, yet comparatively little information is available regarding the many other women who were musically active in the period, such as Françoise-Charlotte de Menetou, Anne Fonteaux de Cercamanen, Antonia Bembo, Mademoiselle Laurent, or Madeleine de Scudéry. The latter’s nom galant, Sapho, invoked the poet of Greek antiquity whose lyre (lute) accompanied her; the instrument further symbolized one of the Apollonian attributes of the Sun King. I have examined the activity of female composers and performers across social classes during Louis’s opulent reign, from those who wrote popular urban airs in song anthologies published by the Ballard—a house at times run by women—to musicians entertaining at court. I have assembled biographies of some twenty women composers in the period, as well as of a dozen performers. At the highest echelons, figures like Henriette Duchess of Orleans and Marie-Adélaïde Duchess of Burgundy—themselves capable performers—acted as powerful patrons to women musicians. At the other end of the social order, I have found evidence to support my thesis that gifted girls could exploit the perceived gender neutrality of childhood to further their careers. By adopting an approach that considers both musicological content and social context, I offer a perspective from which we can interpret Louis XIV’s reign as having established an unusually conducive environment for women’s music making.

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Last updated on 28 March 2000 by Yo Tomita