Josina Anna Petronella was born in the Hague in 1733 to the van Aerssens, an old aristocratic family originally from Belgium. She soon became a lady-in-waiting to Princess Anna, and eventually to Princess Anna’s daughter, Princess Caroline. Princess Anna, who came from England, was well-educated in music, having studied with Handel before she arrived in the Netherlands. In court, Josina was surrounded by music, and many famous musicians of the day visited, including a young Mozart and later Beethoven. In addition, the Princess and her daughter hosted private chamber performances where its likely Josina participated as a singer (which is probably why her works for soprano are so fiendishly difficult!).
Interestingly, Josina did not marry until she was thirty-five. When she married Carl van Boetzelaer in 1768, a military man from another old aristocratic family, she was able to remain financially independent due to new inheritance laws. The couple had three children together, although only two survived into adulthood. It wasn’t until after she got married that Josina began to study composing. The records aren’t super clear, but it is likely that she started learning with Francesco Pasquale Ricci after the birth of her youngest daughter in 1775. Through him, she was exposed to the music of Maria Teresa Agnesi and Marianna Martines, contemporaries of hers from Milan and Vienna, respectively. Ricci left the Netherlands in 1780, after dedicating a set of six ariettas to Josina. After his departure, Josina began to publish her works. In 1795, there was political upheaval in the Netherlands, and the family fled to IJsselstein. Josina died there at the age of 64 in 1797.
Unlike other Dutch women composers, Josina published her works, which preserved them. She published four opuses, several of which are for orchestra and voice. Unfortunately Op. 3 has been lost, but 1, 2 and 4 can be found in libraries in Bologna, Zurich and Slovenia. She was also one of the few native Dutch composers of her time – in the eighteenth-century, many famous composers were foreigners who came to the court. In addition, many of her arias are set to Metastasio libretti, which sets them apart as opera seria was not widely written in the Netherlands. She composed for relatively large-scale orchestras (for the time, at least), so it seems she was not restricted by later ideals of “women’s’ music” which shackled Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn to writing smaller scale works. Although it seems that she did not organize performances of her pieces (unlike other aristocratic composers of the time – including Anna Amalia of Prussia), she was acknowledged even by critics of her own time.
The aria that I’ve chosen is called Che non mi disse un di and is from her Op. 4. The libretto is from Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade, and the entire opus is in fact dedicated to him. The aria is not only incredibly beautiful, but extremely virtuosic. The anger with which the singer describes her lover’s betrayal is contrasted with her sadness at losing him again. It was part of the livestream mini-concert on June 20, and you can watch it below. I hope you enjoy the performance, and if you’re interested in learning the piece you can find music at Hildegard Publishing.
It was difficult to find much information about Josina – this article owes a lot of thanks to “Women Composers: Music through the Ages”, and to the Oxford Music Online. Helen Metzlaar has also written a biography about the composer, “An Unknown 18th-Century Dutch Woman Composer: Josina Boetzelaer (1733-1797)”.