This Music, Lost For Centuries, Has Been Found!

Celebrating a poignant form of time travel.

Musical still life in the Renaissance style with lute and flutes.

(Sm_Cherry /

If you’ve ever heard a television jingle from your childhood, or a lullaby that your grandmother used to sing to you when you were young, you know that music has the power to evoke strong memories and transport one back to the past. 

Everyday music can accomplish this poignant form of “time travel.  Now BBC Radio is tapping into the timelessness of music, with a literal blast from the past, transporting its audience 400 years into past history. A musical composition, lost for centuries, was played for the first time in 400 years on BBC Radio, to mark International Women’s Day. 

A “futile error”
The Guardian explains the connection. Maddalena Casulana lived during the Italian Renaissance. Although during that era most musical compositions were written by men, Casulana thought the assumption that men were better composers was a “futile error.”

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A post shared by Maddalena Casulana (@maddalena_casulana)

Casulana wrote three composition books, one of which has survived intact into the modern day. Like other instrumental compositions from the 15th and 16th century, Casulana divided them into partbooks, with each part having a separate book. Casulana’s alto partbook from 1583 went missing, rendering the compositions unplayable. 

Laurie Stras, professor of music at the universities of Southampton and Huddersfield, explained that the madrigals wouldn’t work without the alto part. “It would be like performing a string quintet without the second violin. It wouldn’t have made sense.”

Tracking down the lost partbook
Stras single-handedly took on the task of tracking down the missing parts. She noted that the pieces had disappeared from the Gdańsk  Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences during the Second World War, presumably due to looting.

Eventually, Stras found the printed version of the books containing the alto parts in the Russia State Library in Moscow.

Finally Casulana’s long lost madrigals could once again grace the halls of music. “ I’ve been able to complete it. The jigsaw puzzle has slotted into place,” Stras triumphantly explained.

International Women’s Day
A fitting tribute to Casulana’s empowerment of female composers, the BBC played her “lost and found” composition on BBC Radio 3 to mark International Women’s Day last March.

The BBC reports that, as per usual, the BBC Radio 3 marks International Women’s Day by only playing compositions from female composers throughout the day, with all the recordings produced by female producers as well. 

But the 2022 BBC Radio 3 program brought the sensational rediscovery of Casulana’s century old composition to the forefront.  The Fieri Consort played the piece at London's King’s Place venue, where it was to be broadcast live on radio to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Olwen Fish, a BBC Radio 3 producer elaborated, “This year we are delighted to present the extraordinary rediscovery of Casulana’s music alongside several world premieres.”

On a personal level, a long lost tune from our childhood can evoke strong emotions and bring repressed memories to the forefront. On a societal level, a long-lost composition also invokes the past and brings historical figures and their accomplishments to the forefront. This was exactly what BBC Radio 3 accomplished by combining a long-lost tune with the inspiring story of its composer.

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