To mark International Women’s Day (8 March 2017), I am featuring a new recording of 16th century motets, probably written by Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, Suor Leonora d’Este (1515-1575). Why? Well, this release is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it brings to our ears some beautiful music long forgotten, but as importantly, it explores the position of women in sixteenth century music in several ways – women as composers and as performers, but also the significance of convents as places of music. This recording will be a focus for BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week programme on IWD, as it clearly has national, even international significance. But there’s also a local dimension. Deborah Roberts, Co-director of Brighton Early Music Festival is a founder member of Musica Secreta, the group performing on this disc, and the Celestial Sirens who also perform here draw on some of the best amateur female voices across the south. Fellow Musica Secreta founder Laurie Stras, who was behind the research that brought this music to light, and Deborah talked to me about the recording and what it means for them, and for women in music in general.
Tell us a bit about Musica Secreta, and how this recording came about?
LS: Deborah Roberts and I started the group in 1990 to investigate music written for female musicians in the late sixteenth century – we officially joined forces in 1999 for a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board. This is the fourth recording we’ve made together.
DR: We founded the choir Celestial Sirens more than 10 years ago and it’s made up of female voices from the whole South coast region with a lot of Brighton members. Both groups have performed regularly at Brighton Early Music Festival, and will be again this year.
So how did you first come across the music of Suor Leonora – who was she?
LS: As all good research finds are, this one was down to serendipity. I was leafing through a catalogue of sixteenth-century prints, and a motet title just leapt out at me: 'Salve sponsa Dei,' which means 'Hail, Bride of God.' It seemed like an obvious candidate for a nun’s text, so I ordered a reproduction of the book from the library in Germany that has the only complete copy.
Leonora d’Este was the only surviving daughter of Lucrezia Borgia and Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara. She was only four when her mother died, and she was raised in the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara. She became its abbess when she was only eighteen. She was admired as a musician by some of century’s greatest musical minds, and even inspired one of them, Gioseffo Zarlino, to write his last great treatise.
There’s nothing in the book to say that the motets are by Suor Leonora: in fact, the entire book is anonymous. But completely anonymous music books, particularly at this point in history, are extremely rare – the only other ones we know about were, in fact, books of music written by noblemen, like Carlo Gesualdo, who did not wish to be seen to be doing something as common as entering the marketplace. It’s only through really close musical and textual analysis that I’ve been able to piece together evidence that points to her as the composer.
And what makes her music so special, do you think?
LS: The music is just startlingly beautiful, and very different to what you might expect. The most obvious feature is what I’ve called her radical attitude to dissonance – while most early sixteenth-century music is bound by rules that forbid harsh dissonances and ensures that even mild dissonance is used only sparely, the motets in this book just don’t. Of course, having five voices singing more or less continuously all in the same range, it’s hard to avoid some dissonance, but our composer here just revels in juicy clashes and unusual cadences. On there other hand, there are also a number of pieces in which all five voices swirl around the same pitches in a hypnotic way – it’s a bit like what you’d expect of a sixteenth-century John Tavener.
What can this tell us about women and music in the 16th century?
DR: That women were deeply involved in making music and composing and probably there is an awful lot of music composed by women that simply never survived.
LS: If I could do just one thing for the way we understand the history of music, it would be to bring women’s polyphony back into the frame. The cities of Europe relied on their convents – not just for their spiritual health, but for many economic functions – and one of the ways a convent could become prosperous was through its music. Ordinary citizens couldn’t hear the music of the great court chapels: the sound of the convents was the sound of the Renaissance city. Large cities had dozens of convents, and even if they couldn’t see the nuns, ordinary citizens could enjoy their music through listening from the outer church.
Why is it important to keep exploring music by women from so long ago – surely if it’s so good, we’d know about it?
DR: Ha! I think not. History I’m afraid has largely been HIS story. The evidence has always been there but never made it to the history books until recently. Now quite a few researchers have been delving into archives and discovering so much. One of these researchers, Craig Monson, published a book a few years ago called Disembodied Voices. It tells the story of a nun composer, Lucrezia Vizzana who spent her whole life, from the age of 8, in a Bolognese convent. The story is quite hair-raising (and all true!). It tells of convent riots, relationships between the women themselves, power struggles etc.., but also just how important music was to these women and how far they would go to preserve the right to perform.
LS: Well, didn’t Virginia Woolf say, 'Anonymous was a woman'? There are two things at play here. First, anonymous music is often passed over for exactly the reason you say: 'if it’s so good, surely someone would want to claim it'? Well, no: Leonora d’Este, for instance, had three good reasons not to put her name to published music – she was a nun, she was a woman, and she was a princess. Second, it is a sad but pretty consistent fact that even if women are recognised during their lifetimes as excellent musicians, they do not make it into the grand narrative: hence the brouhaha over the A level syllabus last year, spearheaded by a courageous young woman; hence the popularity of the International Women’s Day programming on BBC Radio 3.
Was it important for this recording that all the performers were women? Did it make a difference to the process?
LS: Since this music was so very different to the sort of polyphony we are used to, we had to find a new way to work with it: so in the summer of 2015 we retreated to a barn in Sussex to spend a couple of days living and singing together, relaxing rather than wondering if the train would be late on the way home. This worked so well that we decided to make the recording this way: we recorded the CD last August in the chapel of the Cuddesdon Sisters. We ate our meals with them, and stayed in their new accommodation block. We did bring our own prosecco, though…
And where next – is there music by women out there still to be discovered?
LS: Oh, I’m sure there is: and there is loads more convent music that needs exploring. Our next project may even take us back further into the fifteenth century, to the beginnings of convent polyphony in the Renaissance.
DR: The main thing I would add to this is that it’s not just music BY women, but what we are doing is opening up a massive repertoire of music from as early as the 15th century onwards that was always assumed to be originally performed by all male choirs. Laurie’s research is discovering clear evidence that choirs of women in convents performed virtually all of this music. That anything which can be performed by all male ensembles is equally valid (and historically appropriate) for women’s voices!
And so to the recording. The sixteen pieces here vary from short gems such as Veni sponsa Christi, sung by the full combined forces of Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens, to the centrepiece, the fabulous Angelus Domini descendit, sung by just four voices from Musica Secreta, accompanied as on most of the disc by Claire Williams on organ and Alison Kinder on bass viol. Many of the Musica Secreta pieces are sung with two voices to a part, with a perfectly blended sound, creating that hypnotic effect that Laurie mentions. However, in the pieces for solo voices, such as Angelus Domini and Ego sum panis vitae, a much more intimate sound is created, making the dissonances here even more striking, and the individuality of solo voices is allowed to come through. As Laurie explains in the informative liner notes, they followed techniques that 16th century nuns would have used, with some transposition to match voice ranges, so that further variety is created, from the souring, crystal high soprano line of Sicut lilium inter spinas, to a deliciously fruity low alto/tenor line in Iste est Joannes. By any measure, this is striking music, and you couldn’t ask for more committed and expert performances. Highly recommended.
d'Este, Suor Leonora. 2017. Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter. Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, Claire Williams, Alison Kinder, Laurie Stras, Deborah Roberts. Compact Disc. Obsidian. CD717.
(An edited version of this article was first published in GScene, March 2017).