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“The cloistering of women may be necessary, so that the young girls do not remain in the paternal house at the risk of losing their honour, not only to outsiders, but also to the household servants, and what is worse, even to their own brothers or perhaps also to their own fathers!”

Thus wrote a gentleman living in Bologna at the beginning of the 17th century. He was referring particularly to girls whose mothers had died, and who had therefore lost their protection. However, in cities such as Bologna and Milan, over 60% of girls from the upper middle classes were dumped in convents – with or without their consent. The motive was more usually concerned with saving the family fortune rather than wasting it on expensive marriage dowries. In an already turbulent and violent century, competition and power struggles between prominent families was leading to a practice of disinheriting all but the first-born son. This was in order to keep the family fortune in one piece rather than fragmenting it and weakening the family status. Younger sons would be thrown on to their own resources, to make their own way in the world. Girls were sent to the cloister.

Yet this was not necessarily as bleak a fate as it might appear. For some time convents had been great centres of musical excellence. Thus a musical girl might be sent to a convent specifically in order that she might continue her musical career, which would otherwise generally end after marriage. She would frequently receive musical training at home in preparation for taking the veil, and might also be offered a dowry reduction from a convent eager to add her talents and experience to their ranks. Even within the convents a good deal of musical training clearly took place. Convent performances were not restricted to a cappella singing either. Surviving accounts from people who heard the nuns performing from within the inner, private chapel (they themselves would listen from the outer, public church) speak of numerous instruments as well, even though these were supposed to be forbidden! Contd...

In 1595 Paulo Morigia, a gentleman visiting Milan, wrote:

“I shall go on to say how in this our city almost all the convents of nuns devote themselves to music, both with the sound of many kinds of musical instruments and with singing, and in some convents there are voices so fine they seem angelic, and like sirens they allure the nobility of Milan to come to hear them……” contd...

Born around 1580 in Pavia near Milan, Caterina Assandra was one of the earliest nuns to publish her own music. She was also well known as a keyboard player, and interestingly two of her vocal works survive only as transcriptions for organ. In one of these, Ave verum corpus, I have restored the text to allow choral performance.

The music of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani is only recently becoming known as editions and recordings of her music begin to appear– indeed, she is emerging as a major discovery. Though still within the cloister, she was a composer who suffered none of the infirmity and misery that afflicted so many nuns’ lives. Not that her convent, Santa Radagonda in Milan, was without strife, conflicts and battles over music. Born on 27th November 1602, she entered the cloister at the age of 17 and rapidly gained renown as a singer. In fact she was not to publish any of her own compositions until she was 37 years old, and appears to have stopped composing 10 years later.

Cozzolani’s style shows a masterful handling of large scale forms with a great sense of drama. Almost all of her larger pieces are in the form of a dialogue between individuals or groups. Many use narrative, foreshadowing the oratorio.

The 8 - part Vesper Psalms were published in 1650 along with various motets and dialogues using a reduced scoring, and two settings of the Magnificat also for 8 voices in double choir format. Cozzolani creates a constantly changing palette of colours using different combinations of voices pitted against rich and sonorous tuttis. For practical reasons the music was published in a format that included tenor and bass voices. This was quite a standard procedure for nun composers at the time, as rules for arranging the music for female performance were clearly documented. What becomes clear is that these women could sing both very high and very low. Very often it took only the transposing of the bass parts up the octave for them to be able to perform virtually any polyphonic piece. The need to hear the bass in its true octave led to the use of the organ and other foundation instruments to accompany the voices long before the basso continuo style became commonplace.

Rosa Giacinta Badalla lived in the same convent as Cozzolani, but was a generation younger. Pane Angelico was published in 1684. Its wide range (middle c to top c) and highly virtuosic style shows just how accomplished these singing nuns must have been.

For this performance of the Vesper Psalms we are using the original published format for mixed voices– apart from Tu Dulcis, which we will sing transposed for female voices, as the nuns would have done.

We are also proud to present this entire work as a premier in Sussex, though some members of the audience may have heard the Magnificat performed by Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens in last October’s Brighton Early Music Festival, in the female voice arrangement. The two groups will return with another programme of Convent Music on Sunday, September 28th as part of the 2003 Brighton Early Music Festival.

Deborah Roberts © 2003