Christina of Sweden: the Girl King

Who Was Queen Christina of Sweden?

For our next concert, happening March 3 to 5, we’re delving into the world of Queen Christina of Sweden, one of Europe’s most colorful and eccentric characters. We’ll be taking audiences on a musical journey of Christina’s life, performing music that was written for her and heard by her throughout her life.

So who was Queen Christina? Co-artistic director Ellen Hargis gives us a window into her world in the program notes for the upcoming concert.

Who Was Queen Christina?

Kristina Augusta, Queen of the Swedes, Goths, and Wends, Grand Princess of Finland, Duchess of Estonia, Livonia and Karelia, Bremen-Verden, Pomerania, and Vandalia, Lady of Ingria and Wismar, was born to Gustav II Adolph, King of Sweden, and Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg in 1626 at the Tre Kronor palace in Stockholm. She was the sole survivor of three daughters born to the couple, and was proclaimed a boy – a prince at last – immediately upon her birth. Only later was it revealed (or discovered) that the hairy, lustily squalling baby was in fact a princess. Gustav was delighted nonetheless and commanded that she should be educated as well as a prince should be. Christina took enthusiastically to her studies of classics, philosophy, music, dance, languages and history, as well as horsemanship and marksmanship.

The ambiguity about her gender continued; she was described as both beautiful and odd-looking, and her habits of dress, of swearing like a sailor, and of being generally boisterous and coarse drew commentary throughout her life. She scorned feminine clothing and wore men’s boots and trousers, sometimes with a short skirt over top. She took no care of her complexion, showing a sunburnt face after outdoor sports, and often went about with her wig or hair undressed. She claimed to aspire to a life like that of Elizabeth I, refusing to marry, and even expressing a horror of physical love. She had frequent crushes on both men and women however, and while there is no evidence of the physical consummation of any relationship, she expressed passion beyond that of friendship in her letters, and kept her paramours near her at court. Throughout her life, she was dogged by rumors of lesbianism, hermaphroditism, and general deviance.

Christina was intelligent but quickly bored, curious but undisciplined, creative but often unsubtle. She must have had tremendous personal charisma to lead such an unconventional life of a celebrity citizen, dependent on the generosity of so many friends and acquaintances of note. The list of luminaries with whom she was closely associated reads like a Who’s Who of the 17th century: the philosopher Descartes, the sculptor Bernini, the Cardinals Barbarini and Mazarin, Popes Alexander II and Clement IX, and many musicians, including Corelli, Carissimi, Rossi, Cecconi, and Scarlatti, among others. 

Music for a Swedish princess

Stockholm was a cold, plain, Lutheran city in the early 1600s. Possibly to please his wife, who had enjoyed a much more urbane life at the Brandenburg Court, Gustav set about to improve the cultural climate in the capital. Her imported musicians from Germany, England, and Italy, and started a music collection that included madrigals, and sacred and chamber music by Schütz, Banchieri, Donato, Vecchi, and the Swede Gustav Düben. Madrigals were performed by instruments as well as voices, and you’ll hear a madrigal by Donato on the Ariosto poem about the “fair young virgin” played by our string band in our concert.

The theorbist, guitarist and composer Bartolotti was part of a troupe of Italian musicians invited to the Swedish court. He was employed there by Christina, and later followed her to Innsbruck and then to Rome. He dedicated his second book of guitar solos to the Queen.                                   

The death of Gustavus Adolphus

Christina’s father was a charismatic leader, called by some “the Lion of the North.” Christina worshipped her father, and he was fond of his daughter – certainly more so than her mother, who was still disappointed not to have produced a male heir. Gustav was determined to make Sweden a world power, and from his coronation at age sixteen until his untimely death at age of 38, he often led his armies in battle himself, and finally was killed at Lützen in 1632. The young composer Luigi Rossi wrote a lament on his death, sung in the voice of his widow Maria Eleanora. Un ferito cavaliero, which we’ll be performing at the concert, follows the standard form of the female lament in the period, with alternating expressions of grief, anger, desperation, and grim acceptance.

A royal conversion in Innsbruck

The regent Count Axel Ostierna ruled Sweden until Christina’s coronation at age 18. She was still in need of much counsel, and while she was eager to engage in political subterfuge, she proved clumsy and tactless. She displayed a reckless lack of financial prudence, and nearly bankrupted the court with purchases of works of art, productions of ballet and music, and the like. She adored attention, adulation, and entertainment, but was bored with the business of government.  Eventually her dissatisfaction with her royal duties, her fascination with the Roman Catholic faith and her lifelong desire to live in southern climes moved her to attempt abdication, to convert and eventually to move to Rome. She studied religion in secret (Catholicism was illegal in Sweden), and made plans to relinquish her throne and move to Italy.

Abdication was a tricky matter – she appealed several times to the very reluctant Swedish government before they finally acceded to her demands, and with the generous golden handshake she insisted on. Christina had been making her own provisions for her future, sending works of art, silver, books, and other valuables out of the country to be stashed away for her security once safely out of Sweden. The journey to Rome was long, and involved several protracted visits along the way. In Brussels, she finally realized her dream of converting to Catholicism (which was illegal in Sweden), and after a private ceremony in her chambers, she continued to Innsbruck, where a lavish public display was mounted to celebrate her new faith. She was honored with a new opera, L’Argia, written for the occasion of her conversion by the young Antonio Cesti. The plot featured a cross-dressing heroine, improbable plot twists, comedy, and romance. The Prologue praises the Queen by name, describing her various physical and mental attributes with dazzling coloratura and extravagant verbal imagery.

In Rome, Christina was paraded as a poster child for conversion by the Church, and she was welcomed with much fanfare, a grand procession and musical festivities in her honor. Domenico Mazzochi was a Roman composer of vocal music who worked for several popes; we will perform on of his stunning sacred duets. The renowned violinist Archangelo Corelli wrote that he had entered Christina’s service and was busy writing music for her to the exclusion of other commissions. His trio sonata no. 6 from Opus one in b minor is a somber and elegant and example of his church sonata output.

A Queen without a realm

Once established in her temporary new home, the Palazzo Farnese, Christina had occasion to make several journeys away from her adopted country. Always in need of money, she returned twice to Sweden to seek financial relief, and on other occasions, to investigate the possibility of a new throne in Naples, and in Poland.   During a trip north, she was received at the court of the young Louis XIV, and there was treated to a performance of the new Ballet-Opéra L’Alcidiane, composed by the expatriate Giovanni Battista Lulli (now Jean-Baptiste Lully). Louis himself danced in the opera, and Christina is said to have loved it so much that she saw it three times during her stay.

At home in the Rome

Christina eventually settled into a happy domestic pattern at her own Palazzo Riari. Surrounding herself with her art collection, her servants, and her roster of musicians, she entertained lavishly. Bernardo Pasquini, who was a student of Cesti and a composer as well as a virtuoso harpsichordist, (according to the New Grove, his reputation as a keyboard player was equal to that of Corelli as a violinist), wrote fifteen operas, two for his patron Christina. He also wrote oratorios, cantatas, and chamber sonatas, but tonight we’ll hear one of his famous variations on a theme for harpsichord.

Marco Marazzoli, known as Christina’s “virtuoso da camera,” was a priest, and in the employ of the Papal Chapel as a tenor in the choir as well as a composer. He also enjoyed the patronage of the Barbarini family, and was a first-rate addition to Christina’s musical entourage. His opera “La Vita Humana, ovvero Il trionfo della pietà” (Human Life, or The Triumph of Piety), with a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi, later to become Pope Clement IX, was dedicated to the Queen. You’ll hear several excerpts during our performance, displaying a number of stock forms in 17th c. vocal writing: a double-echo aria for three debating characters, an aria in passacaglia for the search for truth, and a shipwreck or storm aria for a troubled soul.

Love and death in the Vatican

Among the frequent visitors to the Palazzo Riari was Cardinal Decio Azzolino, the Pope’s personal representative to Christina. Warm, witty, intelligent, but with a somewhat tarnished reputation for womanizing, he and Christina struck up a close friendship, and later, a likely unrequited romance that lasted until their deaths. He managed her financial affairs, and was her sole heir at her death. They exchanged countless letters during their various absences from each other, most burnt by mutual consent, but enough survive to tell us of a deep attachment that survived the political vagaries of Roman society and the Vatican.

Christina had named Giacomo Carissimi her “Maestro di capella del concerto di camera,” and while we cannot claim that the achingly beautiful “Rimanti in Pace” has any personal connection to Christina and Azzolino, the text certainly seems to express the grief we know the Cardinal felt upon her death. We will frame the duet with the touching Passacaglia by Luigi Rossi, bookending our program with the same composer who memorialized the event that launched her extraordinary public life.

See our performance of “The Queen — Christina of Sweden: The Girl King,” March 3 at 8 p.m. at the Newberry Library, March 4 at 8 p.m. at Galvin Recital Hall at Northwestern University in Evanston, or March 5 at 3 p.m. at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.

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