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Out of the Shadows

Feature

From the Dark Ages to the Baroque period, European convents provided a rare – though continually threatened – space for women to develop as serious musicians and composers. Professor Laurie Stras sets the scene.

‘Let each maid who loves the Lord, come to the dance singing of love.’ These words, from a popular devotional song, open an instruction book on how to live the spiritual life, written by the 15th century’s most musical nun, Caterina Vigri, or Saint Catherine of Bologna.

Catherine understood well the importance of music to nuns, and the importance of their music to the outside world. Many women – up to 20 per cent of the female population of Europe, and a much higher percentage of its noblewomen – would live their entire adult lives in convents, and music was one aspect of that life that could make the isolation from their families bearable. On the outside, people came to convent churches to hear the ethereal harmonies but stayed to hear the liturgy, and in that way, nuns could justify their music as God’s work. It is not an exaggeration to say that the sound from the convent was the sound of the Renaissance city: unlike the music from the chapels of the great and the good, nuns’ singing was available to everyone, rich or poor. And yet, the history of convent music is a centuries-long story of inventive and tireless resistance against male authorities who would have silenced it.

The Church feared the seductive, siren powers of the female voice, and many worried that singing would lead nuns into the mortal sin of pride. During the Renaissance, bishops often forbade music altogether in convents under their rule, and in 17th-century Bologna, tensions between citizens supporting the choir nuns of Santa Cristina, home of composer Suor Lucrezia Vizzana, and the authorities trying to silence them developed into pitched battles at the walls of the convent. But even in more lenient times, the prohibition of music could be used as an ultimate sanction: even the convent of the great Hildegard of Bingen, one of the earliest and most prolific medieval composers, suffered this punishment when the abbess became too outspoken against her superiors.

Convents fulfilled many functions in medieval and Renaissance societies: they were the economic and spiritual heart of many communities, safe spaces for women at all stages of life and from all strata of society, and often places where women could thrive intellectually, practically and creatively away from the intense scrutiny of male relatives. Women trained in music were particularly welcomed, because fine music could elevate a house’s reputation, attracting wealthy families to the convent to celebrate weddings and burials, and to provide the more permanent investment of daughters as novices. Through their musical labour, nuns ensured the spiritual wellbeing of the entire city.

‘Nuns spent more time singing than in any other single activity, even sleeping.’

Nuns spent more time singing than in any other single activity, even sleeping. Their lives were regulated by the Divine Office, which they sang or chanted eight times per day and night. Music was at its most dazzling during the principal feasts of the Christian calendar – Advent and Christmas Week, Holy Week and Easter – and at times of civic rejoicing, such as the celebration of royal weddings or military victories.

But music was also a way that nuns could be brought closer together, and closer to God. Convents used music for both private and collective devotion, teaching the sisters, especially those who could not read, Bible stories and theology through simple and repetitive song.

For nuns with musical education, though, singing more advanced compositions was an even more immersive experience: the veil heightens the need to listen, and the mingling of multiple voices all in the same register requires acute concentration. In some convents, singing polyphony may have been, an intense, meditative practice, intended to internalise the meaning of the words. This intensity finds its ultimate expression in the motets attributed to Suor Leonora d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, who rejected life as a princess of Ferrara in favour of a life of contemplation, devoted to serious musical study at the highest level.

Sacred musical dramas or plays with musical interludes were once a common feature of elaborate medieval public celebrations on important feasts, often performed by the novices and noble girls educated at the convent. The line between sacred and secular was not as sharply delineated as it might appear now, and nuns would enliven their spiritual texts with popular or courtly melodies that had filtered through the cloister walls. Nuns, paradoxically, sang freely as women about sensual love much earlier than their secular counterparts, with special affection for the divine ecstasy of the Song of Songs. Their vows of chastity did not prevent them from expressing passion for the Body of Christ, their collective husband. Singing together could also serve a greater spiritual purpose, by heightening their emotional responsiveness to the Sacraments.

The Reformation deepened the Church’s anxieties regarding women, especially nuns, and the propriety of any engagement with the outside world. But some cities still cherished and supported convent music, protected by their bishops, well into the 18th century: Ferrara, where the convent of San Vito (according to one writer) boasted the finest ensemble in Italy, led by Suor Raffaella Aleotti; Novara, where Suor Isabella Leonarda published both vocal and instrumental music; Milan, where convent music flourished most visibly in the 1600s, home to Suor Chiara Margarita Cozzolani and Suor Rosa Giacinta Badalla, among others.

‘It seems likely that much of the music written by nuns will remain anonymous’

Italy was particularly blessed with gifted musical nuns, some of whom were able to see their music into print, but across Europe and into the New World convent music could be heard: Syon Abbey in Middlesex, the Abbaye royale de Longchamp in Paris, the Königinkloster in Vienna, the Monasterio de Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas in Burgos and the Convento de la Encarnación in Mexico City all nurtured communities which led the way in fostering choirs and, later, orchestras that made music to enrich their communities’ worship. We know some of the male composers associated with these ensembles – Tomás Luis de Victoria, François Couperin – and even a few of the women, but it seems likely that much of the music they made was written by nuns who have remained anonymous.

Nuns from the British Isles to Scandinavia, Iberia to the eastern Venetian Republic, found solace in music over centuries, but their voices were silenced by reformers and a decline in convent populations in the modern era. However, since the 1990s, ensembles such as Musica Secreta, Cappella Artemisia and Anonymous 4 have explored the repertoire, and as women’s voices have become more accepted in places of worship, curiosity about female-voice polyphony and women composers of sacred music has increased. Gradually more convent music is being discovered, and – just as importantly – music and manuscripts that were thought to have belonged to male institutions are being shown to have belonged to convents. Even though nuns’ activities may have been written out of music history in the past, we have begun to heed them again, revealing just how glorious and rich the musical traditions of Europe’s convents were.

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