Born: ca. 1640, Venice, Italy
Died: ca. 1720, Paris, France
Antonia Bembo was a native of Venice but spent most of her composing career in France. She maintained a consistent relationship with King Louis XIV and his family, who respected her first for her beautiful singing voice and later for her compositional skills. Bembo was a singer in her early life and later composed predominantly for high voice and continuo to suit her own soprano range. She studied with famed composer, Francesco Cavalli, and often found inspiration from the compositional techniques used by another of Cavalli’s famous students, Barbara Strozzi.
Bembo’s personal life in Venice caused her a tremendous amount of strife and stress. She had three children with her husband, Lorenzo, and soon after the birth of their third child, he left for five years of military duty without providing any money or means for his family to survive. Eventually, Bembo brought him to trial and accused him of raping the staff in their home and having illegitimate children with other women, but he was found not guilty. She later arranged to relocate to Paris with the help of Francesco Corbetta, an Italian guitarist, teacher, and composer. On the night of her departure, Bembo brought her daughter to live in a Venetian convent, presumably to protect her from her father.
In France, Bembo likely worked as a music teacher in the community before beginning to compose. Her first manuscript of forty-one works, Produzioni armoniche, was dedicated to King Louis XIV; three pieces from this composition were written specifically for the nuptials of King Louis’ grandson and his wife, the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy. It was rare for a foreigner’s work to be performed, so Bembo dedicated several of her other manuscripts to King Louis and his family members out of respect, and to aid the performance and proliferation of her music. In addition to arias, motets and cantatas, Bembo wrote an opera, L’ercole amante, which was previously set by Cavalli. This was also dedicated to King Louis XIV.
Antonia Bembo’s distinguished career in Paris and her ability to write in a way that pleased those that supported and facilitated her career shows the depths of her adaptability and creativity. Her hard work earned her a pension with the king, allowing her the freedom to compose as she wished without financial or time obligations pulling her away from her creative passions. She exemplified both the needs and perspectives of women through her own life experiences and her music, giving a voice to them in a way that they could not do themselves. She was also one of the only female composers able to establish herself in two different cities and countries so decisively. Bembo’s compositional choices, especially in her opera, represent a conscious blending of Italian and French styles with both past and future trends. Her music was an amazing feat for a woman of her time who established herself so concretely in a foreign country while continuing to pursue her musical interests.