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Five Centuries of Women Singers.

* Five Centuries of Women Singers, by Isabelle Emerson. Praeger Press c/o Greenwood Press (88 Post Rd. W., Westport, CT 06881), 2005. 331 pp.

Five Centuries of Women Singers traces the careers of 20 classical, female vocalists, from madrigal singers to opera divas to art song performers. Each account describes the singer's vocal qualities (usually with excerpts of reviews by contemporaries) and career accomplishments, provides biographical information and assesses her legacy.

Selecting 20 singers to represent five centuries of singing is a daunting task. Isabelle Emerson chose professional singers who excelled in a particular area, often overcoming hurdles and advancing their art. She also spotlighted women whose careers reflected the musical/cultural/social life of various countries. In this scholarly but very readable and interesting book, we learn about Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) the singer, composer, businesswoman and associate of the Venetian elite, whose talents were so similar to those of courtesans, that her true profession is debatable. We also learn about Anna Renzi (c. 1620-c.1660), who created the prototype of the first operatic prima donna; Nancy Storace (1765-1817), Mozart's "Susanna" (in The Marriage of Figaro) who masterfully combined comedic talent and acting ability with singing; Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865), whose tremendous vocal and dramatic talents inspired Bellini's Norma and whose singing Chopin called "sublime"; Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient (1804-1860), whose dramatic performance of Fidelio profoundly influenced Wagner's development of music dramas; Jenny Lind (1820-1887), the superstar who literally took America by storm; and Marian Anderson (1897-1993) whose determination and lovely contralto voice helped break down racial barriers.

As colorful as the reviews of each singer are, their often-flowery descriptions are sometimes rather repetitive. Unfortunately, no verbal description can truly convey the full measure of a performer's musical gifts. However, when combined with other supporting information, such as the musical works written for that singer (including her own compositions), a fuller appreciation of her talent emerges. The author successfully draws on many information sources for each singer's profile.

In assessing the legacies of singers, Emerson should sometimes have taken a broader view. While she successfully conveys the powerful and widespread influence of Lind, comparing her to the singer, Madonna, and noting all the memorabilia she inspired, Emerson did not adequately emphasize the full extent of Anderson's legacy, for instance, which helped break down racial barriers far beyond the field of music--Anderson was an inspiration for our whole society.

Overall, this well-written book spotlights the careers of notable but generally forgotten singers, and offers much interesting information on singers who are still well-known. Reviewed by Connie Arrau Sturm, NCTM, Morgantown, West Virginia.

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Author:Sturm, Connie Arrau
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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