Written by: Braeden Weyhrich
Little is known about the life of Maddalena Casulana, an accomplished vocalist, lutenist, and composer best known for her 66 madrigals. Her second name, Casulana, is thought to be derived from her birthplace, Casole d’Elsa, but this is disputed. As a young woman, she studied in Casole and Florence before moving to Venice around 1568, where she began teaching a studio of voice and composition students. She sought to be known as a professional musician and earned a reputation as such through both her singing and her compositions.
Casulana’s first book of madrigals was written for four voices and published in Venice in 1568. It is the first published book of music written by a European woman, and potentially the first published book of any type written by a woman. Casulana dedicated this First Book of Madrigals for Four Voices to Isabella de’ Medici, “not only to give witness to my devotion to Your Eccellency [sic], but also to show to the world (to the degree that it is granted to me in this profession of music) the foolish error of men who so greatly believe themselves to be the masters of high intellectual gifts that [these gifts] cannot, it seems to them, be equally common among women.”
Casulana’s second book of madrigals, also for four voices, is the only one that remains fully intact. It was published in 1570 and is dedicated to a magistrate of Milan, named Don Antonio Londonio. Her next anthology, a book of five-part madrigals, indicates that she may have gotten married – the author is listed as “Maddalena Mezari detta Casulana Vicentina.” Her last work was published in either 1583 or 1586, and then she disappeared from history. It is estimated that Casulana died around the year 1590, but an exact time or place is not known.
Casulana’s works demonstrate her literary interests well. She chose the texts of poets with unusual styles, like Aquilano, and was extremely apt at using text painting to illustrate their words with music. She is also known for her use of chromatic notes and unexpected harmonies, which was not particularly common in her time. Her melodies and rhythms were not always the most revered, and she was not an exceptional part-writer, but the auditory effects created by her music overpower her deficiencies.
- Bridges, Thomas W. “Casulana [Mezari], Maddalena.” Oxford Music Online. January 20, 2001. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000005155?rskey=y0q8Ti&result=1.
- Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, 9th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.
- Pescerelli, Beatrice. “Maddalena Casulana.” In Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Edited by James R. Briscoe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. https://publish.iupress.indiana.edu/read/45bb7035-178f-48c4-9fc8-d81ae9a14474/section/f99b968a-413f-4dc7-ab02-b40b2440897d#ch5.
- Spiller, Melanie. “Composer Biography: Maddalena Casulana (c1540-c1590).” Coloratura Consulting. October 6, 2014. https://coloraturaconsulting.com/2014/10/06/composer-biography-maddalena-casulana-c1540-c1590/.
- Stewart, James. “Timeline 014: Maddalena Casulana, The First Female Composer to be Printed and Published.” Vermont Public Radio. May 3, 2021. https://www.vpr.org/post/timeline-014-maddalena-casulana-first-female-composer-be-printed-and-published#stream/0.