Imagine it is the year 1707, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I is sitting in his imperial chapel in Vienna enjoying his latest commission: the oratorio Santa Beatrice d’Este. He seems very content, and so is the Duke of Modena – a man on an official state visit to Vienna and a d’Este by name. The oratorio is written by Camilla de Rossi, a composer who – apparent by the skill and maturity of the piece – is well-established with many works already on her opus list. De Rossi is one of many women and men that regularly provide the emperor with music without being recorded as employees of the court. She gets more commissions “at the Command of the Emperor” and the following years three more oratorios are premiered in Vienna: Il Sacrifizio d’Abramo (1708), Il figliuol prodigo (1709) and San Alessio (1710). The oratorios are then exported, Santa Beatrice d’Este is performed in Perugia in 1712 and music of her only surviving secular cantata Dori, e Fileno has been found in Dresden.
All these works are for singers (soloists) and orchestra, no chorus. They are wonderful in their complete form but there are also hits to be found e.g. the arias È la vita from San Alessio, Dal sogn ogn’astro from Il Sacrifizio and I just love the instrumental sinfonias which could and should be played more often on instrumental programs.
Scholar Barbara Garvey Jackson claims that de Rossi must have been a skilled string player based on the intricate and technically demanding parts for these instruments. Unique for this era is also her usage of the viola as an independent instrument. De Rossi writes cleverly for the lute (which often symbolises innocence in her works), the oboe, trumpet and chalumeau! The latter being a forerunner of the clarinet and only introduced in Vienna the year before she illustrates a pastoral lullaby in Il Sacrifizio with a chalumeau duet.
Camilla de Rossi lived at least between the years 1670-1710, we don’t know exactly, and added “Romana” when she signed her name. This could mean that she originally was from the city of Rome, or the papal state of Rome which at this time covered most of central modern Italy, or signalling her obedience under the Holy Roman Emperor which in turn would mean we have to search a very large geographical area for her origins. In any case it is at the Austrian National Library in Vienna that her manuscripts are kept, and many of her works are also published in modern times if anyone is tempted to have a go after reading this. Speaking of modern times: search for her on Spotify and you will find some first class recordings of her music!
That’s as far as research has given us so far, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know more?
We don’t have a portrait of her, so the illustration is a still life of the artist Anne Vallayer Coster from 1770.