Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Duchess Sophie-Elisabeth of Mecklenburg

Four hundred years ago, Duchess Sophie-Elisabeth of Mecklenburg was born into a life of immense wealth and privilege. But even as a noble woman her options for a fulfilling life were limited. With the support of her family she was able to build on her innate musical talents and produce many projects which have been remarkably well preserved as an example of early baroque compositions.

She was born on August 20th in 1613, into a wealthy family with a long history of supporting the arts. While it was not unusual for girls of her status to be given a basic education in language and culture, her experience was more than simply learning how to appreciate fine art and music. She was afforded the remarkable luxury of being able to study with many distinguished musicians, and eventually given the opportunity to become an important figure in the German baroque movement.
"At Güstrow, Sophie-Elisabeth's father maintained a thriving musical establishment, with a sizable contingent of English virtuoso performers in its orchestra. Sophie-Elisabeth and her sister Christine Margarete thus had rich opportunities to study the lute and gamba."
Her mother, a remarkable musical talent herself, died while Sophie-Elisabeth was still quite young. Her father soon remarried, and his second wife, Elisabeth, was an extraordinarily gifted musician and singer as well. In addition, she was fluent in several languages, as well as educated in theology.
"Following her personal convictions, Elisabeth of Hesse-Kassel involved herself directly for nine years in the education, including religious and musical tutoring, of the young Sophie-Elisabeth and her sister. Elisabeth's upbringing amid the intense musical activities and her father's court prepared her to be duchess at Güstrow, expanding its instrumental forces and actively encouraging festive court representations. Thus as a teacher and active musical administrator, she acted as an influential role model for her young charges at Güstrow. With adulthood, Sophie-Elisabeth would follow Elisabeth's example as an important musical impresario."
Tragically, when Sophie-Elisabeth was 13, Elisabeth, only 29 herself, died, leaving her father widowed and his children motherless for a second time. Proving the importance placed on music and arts training in the Güstrow estate, his third wife, Eleonore Marie, was also a well-educated woman, with a strong background in religion, languages, and especially music. She took over the continued education of Sophie-Elisabeth and Christine Margarete.

Only two years later in 1628, the whole family was forced to flee their home and homeland of Mecklenburg as exiles as the political and religious turmoil of the Thirty Years' War spread to the region. Sophie-Elisabeth and her sister spent the years at the Kassel court with the father of their former step-mother Elisabeth. While this experience must have been stressful for two young women in their formative teenage years, it was also likely a highly influential experience on Sophie-Elisabeth's musical experience, as the Kassel court had a "long and distinguished musical history." Her step-grandfather himself was an educated musician as well as a patron of the arts, and regularly hosted musical events as well as fostered a general atmosphere of refined culture.

After the family estate was liberated, Sophie-Elisabeth and her family returned to Mecklenburg, and slowly resumed their lives of luxury and study. In 1635, at the age of 22, Sophie-Elisabeth married Duke August the Younger of BraunschweigLüneburg, himself a highly educated man and patron of the arts.

The Thirty Years' War continued to rage in her homeland, Sophie-Elisabeth and her husband Duke August and his children were somewhat protected, and continued to participate in an active cultural life.
"Sophie-Elisabeth's humanist background fit in perfectly with the Wolfenbüttel court, a sophisticated center of German intellectuals and literati. She participated in several of Wolfenbüttel's exclusive literary-arts societies that she had joined early in her marriage: the Académie des Loyales, the Tugendliche Gesellschaft, and the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, in which she was given the pseudonyms die Fortbringende, die Gutfillige, and die Befreiende, respectively. Dedicated to the cultivation of works in the German language, Wolfenbüttel's Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, however, offered full membership only to men. But with her status as Duke August's wife, Sophie-Elisabeth was thus admitted as an honorary member, one of the earliest women accepted into this society. Her participation in these organizations contributed significantly toward maintaining the Wolfenbüttel court as a major center of contemporary German and French literature."
Her marriage to the Duke gave her a rich cultural experience, and contributed to the expanding of the arts throughout Europe, despite the continued ravages of the war. While acting as a mother to the Duke's four children, as well as raising her own two children, she also managed much of the cultural events at court. By 1645 her husband was so busy with political duties he officially made her the administrator of the musical events of his court. She was tasked with the management of the musicians and structuring of the musical establishment. This duty sometimes even meant reprimanding her husband for failure to pay his court musicians.

It was during this time that she collaborated with Heinrich Schütz, an established composer affiliated with the nearby Dresden court. He acted as her mentor in the reorganization of the musical events at her husband's court, as well as helping her with her own musical compositions. With his assistance she was able to restructure the musical life at court after the chaos of the war.
"Sophie-Elisabeth -- because she was a woman -- never had been able to undertake the rigorous formal course of study, particularly in counterpoint, traditionally required of 'professional' male students for composing unaccompanied choral works." Schütz offered her suggestions for improvement and encouragement in her talents. In 1661, he wrote to her husband, praising her "as the incomparably perfect princess in all other princely virtues, especially in the praiseworthy profession of music."
"The earliest surviving collections of Sophie-Elisabeth's musical works and arrangements appear in three sizable manuscript collections now in Wolfenbüttel's Herzon-August-Bibliothek, the distinguished library founded by her husband."
Each of the three manuscript collection contains works of a smiler type and period in her development, and document her improvement over time. Additionally, there are two songbook collections of works Sophie-Elisabeth created with her husband.

In her role as administrator of the musical events at court, she was involved in creating and producing twenty-five Festspiele -- "song-ballets, each one consisting of a series of dances with much vocal music embellishing the drama itself."  Not only did she organize these events, she also composed or arranged much of the music for them.
"Although twice left motherless in her childhood and subjected to the horrors and indignities of a terrible was, Sophie-Elisabeth transcended the typically circumscribed orbit of a female royal spouse in her day with its rather fixed cultural and gender roles. To the contrary, this musically gifted, persevering, compassionate, and politically astute duchess contributed significantly to the cultural history of the German early baroque period."
"Among the relatively few seventeenth-century German noblewomen composers of her day, Sophie-Elisabeth was also the first German woman composer to attain performances and publication of her works while she was living. That was no small feat."
While she may not have been up to the standards of many of her contemporary male composers, it is clear that she was quite talented and that this talent had been supported by her father and her husband, which in itself is quite remarkable. Her strength as a woman who had to overcome the hardships of life and war is evident in her quite capable handling of court affairs as duchess. That so many of her works have been preserved shows that she was a valued member of the court. She clearly deserves to be remembered as a talented and capable musician in her own right.

text source: Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present by Cecelia Hopkins Porter)

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