Baroque cantatas covered a broad range of love themes, but none was more powerful or dramatic than the story of the abandoned woman. Originating in antiquity, these stories centered around celebrated women both mortal and divine. Take the story of Medea, who is left for another woman by her husband Jason. When composer Antonio Caldara set the story he put a twist on it. Medea actually gets to confront Jason at the beginning of the cantata by jogging his memory of everything she did for him to get the Golden Fleece. Seeing that her words are futile, she gives up and calls for revenge from the underworld.
Georg Phillip Telemann was in his 80’s when he set the story of Ino, where we find that the goddess Hera has made Ino’s husband Athamas insane. He then tries to kill both of their children but Ino manages to rescue one of them and jumps into the sea. She and her son are saved from drowning by the Tritons and Neptune, who transform the two into gods. Telemann begins his solo cantata with Ino and son at the cliffs edge just as she’s about to jump.
Of the many famous stories about abandoned women, Ariadne’s fate seems to be one of the most popular having been set by composers from the beginning of the baroque through the 18th century. The story of Ariadne sounds familiar—she helps her husband overcome great difficulty only be left once his interest strays. French baroque composer Philippe Courbois begins his cantata on the island of Naxos sometime after she’s been left. Just as despair begins to overwhelm her, Bacchus comes to the rescue, and, finally, a happy ending.
One of the best places to find stories of deserted women is not necessarily in antiquity.
During the English Restoration, all Londoners had to do was go to the theater. There one could hear madsongs sung by female characters which would find their way into the spoken drama during a scene. The voices of these mad and anonymous women were a far cry from the celebrated ones of epic tales, but no less tragic.
Our recent release of the week features Stile Antico, a young vocal ensemble from England, in their debut album entitled Music for Compline, which focuses on the music of John Sheppard, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis.
Here’s a video of soprano Emma Kirkby singing “Dido’s Lament”:
The music heard on this episode was performed by Véronique Gens, Gerard Lesne and Il Seminario Musicale, Les Witches, Concentus Musicus Wien, Nancy Argenta, Nigel North, Richard Boothby, Paul Nicholson, Catherine Bott, David Roblou, Barcarole, and Stile Antico.