For over thirty years, Musica Secreta has explored the music written for and by women from the fifteenth to the eighteen century. Combining expert scholarship and musical virtuosity, we present programmes that mix newly-discovered masterpieces with well-loved works that challenge and delight our listeners.
We welcome enquiries from choirs wishing to extend their repertoire of female-voice polyphony, and are delighted to work with groups to develop bespoke workshops. Please get in touch if you have questions or ideas!
Early Music America
In a typical Renaissance city, the average person might not have had much access to music, at least not high “art” music, as many might conceive of it today. Without sufficient funds or status, people were limited in what they could regularly hear. But what every (Christian) person had access to was the church, and where there were churches, there was music. Especially in a city like Ferrara, churches were everywhere, as were monasteries and convents, which also had their fair share of music. It might be a surprise to some, but nuns were active singers, even composers, of Renaissance polyphony. And yet, due to the nuns’ religious position and also their gender, at least some of this music goes uncredited.
Enter Laurie Stras. In a sort of musicological Indiana Jones moment, Stras came across a book of motets published by Girolamo Scotto in 1543. The motets are anonymous and, moreover, written for equal voices (i.e., within a two-octave range). As Stras worked on a performing edition, she began to realize how well written they were, full of dissonant clashes reminiscent of Tallis or Gombert, exploring free imitation in a time when to do so for five voices was fairly novel. But the publisher did not name any composer. Stras’s study of the motets revealed textual clues that led to a likely point of origin: the monastery of Corpus Domini in Ferrara. Furthermore, other musical and textual references suggested to Stras a possible composer: Eleonora d’Este (1515-75).
Eleonora spent almost her entire life in that monastery; after her mother, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, died when she was 4, she was sent there, and at 8 she proclaimed that she wished to become a nun. By 18, she was the abbess. The entire Este family comprised music lovers, many also virtuoso performers and composers; Leonora was her mother’s daughter in that regard. As not only a nun and a woman, but also a noble to boot, it is possible that she composed the works but wanted to keep her identity hidden. Such is Stras’s hunch, and a convincing one at that.
Sixteen of the motets are recorded on this album. Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens use a variety of voice combinations, along with organ and gamba, which a convent would have employed to reinforce or provide lines lower than the range of the voices they had at hand. Of particular note is the choice to feature women of different ages to better reflect a convent’s typical personnel.
The album is, in a word, compelling. Despite the contrasts in range and texture, moving from full group to soloists, instruments or no, the recording feels not timeless but out of time, mesmerizing in the constant wash of imitative lines and the gentle rise and fall of each individual voice. The little dissonances Stras mentioned surprise as well as uplift. “Sicut lilium inter spinas” is a tiny, perfect gem, whereas the lengthier pieces, like “Angelus Domini descendit,” seem to reinvent themselves every minute or so — here imitating bells, there borrowing a chant or even a singing exercise. It’s an album as beautifully performed as it is researched, and one can only hope that more “anonymous” works get such attention.
Artists and record labels often attempt to attract attention to their projects with innovative programming, intriguing/provocative titles, or both. Here’s one–and it does catch your interest. If the title doesn’t get you, the subtitle–“Princess, nun, and musician; Motets from a 16th century convent”–presents an irresistible challenge to the curious choral music fan. Who exactly was Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter? Did she actually write some newly discovered motets? Are they any good? Is this whole thing just a clever scheme to get us to listen to some deservedly obscure works?
As often happens with these things, it was the performers, not so much the promise of the musical content that drew me to listen right away. The name Deborah Roberts listed on the cover as one of the musical directors suggested that this likely would be a project well worth hearing. Roberts is a distinguished veteran of the Tallis Scholars (from the 1980s and ’90s); she is not only a director and singer here, but she prepared some of the performing editions used on the recording. Further, she is joined by another longtime Tallis Scholars soprano and noted musicologist, Sally Dunkley, along with a current member of the same group, alto Caroline Trevor.
These three perform along with seven other women singers and two instrumentalists–all very active in various groups in the U.K. and Europe–in the ensemble Musica Secreta, which for almost three decades has been concerned with the “discovery and interpretation of music for and by early modern women.” The disc’s other group, Celestial Sirens, is a semi-professional women’s choir (here 15 voices) founded by Roberts that specializes in just the type of music we hear on this program.
So what exactly is the music? On the one hand, it’s a remarkable discovery, drawn from “an obscure book of motets” published in Venice in 1543. On the other hand, it’s possible that these exceptional works, all by an anonymous composer (or composers), had nothing to do with Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, Leonora d’Este. The possible connection–and there are several tantalizing clues, explained in the first-rate notes by co-director Laurie Stras–begins with the music’s purpose (“the earliest published polyphony…intended for nuns”), and extends to the prevalence of convent choirs in the 16th century, and to the fact that Leonora, an accomplished musician, spent her life at the Corpus Domini convent in Ferrara, where the famed Este family ruled and worshiped for hundreds of years. (Lucrezia Borgia herself is among many members of that family buried in the convent.) It’s certainly possible that Leonora would have sung some of this music, but Stras also speculates regarding Leonora’s possible authorship and about why she may have remained anonymous.
The music is of such quality and the singing of such beauty and refinement that we’re not likely to care so much who wrote it: the mystery perhaps makes it even more compelling–truly ethereal. Especially interesting is the form of these motets: they are written for “equal voices” in five parts, freely imitative and contained within a vocal range of two octaves. Again, whoever wrote them was a composer of exceptional skill and inventiveness. The melodic and imitative sophistication does not preclude the use of some spicy dissonances in several of the works that these singers happily embrace and enjoy.
Many of the 16 works included here are fairly substantial–five to six minutes (one is more than 12)–but among the most strikingly beautiful is one of the shortest and simplest: Sicut lilium inter spinas (sound clip), with its high soprano and transparent texture. Regarding performance (Stras and her colleagues spent seven years studying these manuscripts) Stras explains that they adopted approaches that reflect the realities of convent performance, using varying numbers of singers for different pieces (some are with full choir, others with one or two voices to a part) and sometimes including instruments (organ and bass viol). This variety not only makes musical/historical sense, but it enhances and enriches the listening experience–and you easily accept Stras’ claim that the recording “recreates the remarkable sound world of the 16th-century Italian convent, as preserved in the [1543 motet collection]”. Highly recommended.
Fascinating historical contexts for musical works are no guarantee of great performances or even of musical quality, but this recording took my breath away with its sheer depth of music making combined with such an exciting historical premise.
As Laurie Stras explains in her engagingly written liner notes, the CD explores an anonymous book of motets published in Venice in 1543: the Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata. While the works in this book are anonymous, there are several factors that lead us to associate them with the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara. This convent was the home of Suor Leonora d’Este (1515-1575), who announced her intention to become a nun aged eight and may have been the composer of this book of motets.
Either way, the disc sets out to recreate the sound world of the sixteenth-century Italian convent, using the vocal forces of Musica Secreta (6 sopranos, 2 mezzo-sopranos, and 2 altos) and the Celestial Sirens (9 sopranos and 6 altos) alongside Claire Williams on organ and Alison Kinder on bass viol.
While one might think that the sound of a choir made up of only upper voices would be predictable, I found myself marveling at the wealth of contrast in textures and colours. Somehow, not a single voice seems to stray from the flawless blend of matching timbre and good intonation, constantly delighting a listener with hidden melodic shapes thrown into relief by the similar ranges, while the viol and organ magically take on vocal qualities while maintaining their own instrumental identities to seamlessly support and uplift the choir.
Throughout the recording, I get the keen impression that all the musicians are alive to every nuance of the lines they sing and play, unafraid to enjoy each dissonance, glorify every unusual sequence, and characterise every single piece. In the week since I started listening to the CD, my discovery of new musical moments and corners that make me smile and restart the track have been unending: this is one of those discs that only improves on an already very favourable acquaintance. On Musica Secreta’s website I found a clip of one of my favourite pieces on the CD: Haec Dies Quam Fecit Dominus which seems to illustrate well not only the thrill of this music but the infectious enjoyment with which it is conveyed.
While this music needs no advocacy, Stras and Musica Secreta are so musically and academically articulate that the end result is irresistible.
This surprisingly impassioned selection of anonymous motets from a Venetian publication Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata (1543) has been carefully researched by Professor Laurie Stras of Southampton University. She believes them to be the earliest published polyphony for nuns, and their origin to be the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, home of Suor Leonora d’Este (1515 75), Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter.
The progressive nature of these motets will surprise and delight lovers of 16th-century music. Written for equal voices, they are contained within a two-octave compass promoting a rich, sonorous texture. Such textures are beautiful and supple in the hands of Musica Secreta, whose singers include leading voices of Renaissance music: Deborah Roberts, Sally Dunkley and Caroline Trevor. They are cushioned by the warm embrace of an organ and underpinned with a sinewy viol to provide a firm polyphonic meld.
The Easter Day motet, Hec dies quam fecit Dominus, is the most exciting piece on this disc: musically, because it is emblazoned with rapturous harmonic twists; and in performance because of its joyful exuberance of overlapping alleluias, where closely clustered points of imitation peal like church bells. Yet this narrow vocal compass doesn’t always dominate: there are, for instance, wonderfully delicate, almost fragile, soaring soprano lines in the miniature setting of Sicut lilium inter spinas. In the Magnificat antiphon Veni sponsa Christi, Musica Secreta are joined by the choir Celestial Sirens, who provide pleasing choral depth. However, in Felix namque es [sacra virgo Maria] this choral treatment highlights sibilant clusters that lead to rather scurrilous phrasing.
In short, these unexpectedly sensual motets form an immaculate collection of convent music that is both unrelentingly beautiful and fully captivating throughout.
An anonymous collection of motets published in 1543, Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata may have been composed by a princess, Leonora d’Este, the daughter of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and Lucrezia Borgia. According to research by Laurie Stras, who, with Deborah Roberts, directs Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens on this 2017 release from Obsidian, the collection is connected to the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, where Leonora was a nun and a musician, and quite possibly the director of the convent choir and its chief composer. Leonora was the owner of several keyboard instruments, and her musical knowledge and abilities were praised by Francesco della Viola and Gioseffo Zarlino. Furthermore, the uncredited motets may point to a composer who was a noble, a woman, and a nun — all likely causes for anonymous publication in 16th century Ferrara. The music’s sophistication and consistency, as well as its originality, suggest an experienced musician well-versed in convent music, and the scholarship pointing to Leonora’s authorship makes this album a fitting celebration of her unsung work and devotions. The combined voices of Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens, ranging from teens to mature women, re-create the varied textures and timbres of a nuns’ choir, and the sparse instrumentation of organ and bass viol provides support in the lower voices. The recording in Bishop Edward King Chapel at Ripon College is quite transparent, though the resonant acoustics lend a wonderful lushness to the group’s sound.
Limelight Magazine, Australia
According to 16th-century clerics, convent polyphony was dangerous, liable to lead nuns into vanity and other wickedness. Listening to the sensuous contrapuntal writhings and twinings, the ecstatic, rapturous beauty of these motets – possibly by Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter Leonora d’Este – you wonder if they didn’t have a point.
The motets are from the Musica quinque vocum motteta maternal lingua vocata – the earliest published collection of polyphony composed for nuns. As piece after piece of graceful, equal-voice counterpoint unfolds, what’s striking is how progressive and sophisticated the style is for the 1540s, its smooth consonance spiced with occasional hits of chromaticism, its long lines embellished with little gilded flickers of ornamentation.
With voice-parts confined to a two-octave range the risk is of a lack of scope. But thanks to careful deployment of solo and collective forces – the professional singers of Musica Secreta and excellent amateurs of Celestial Sirens – and judicious use of bass viol and organ, there’s enough delicate variation to keep things interesting.
Haec dies is rejoicing, kept from all-out ebullience by its dark modality, while the filmy Hodie Simon Petrus, with its imitative upper voices and lace-like detailing, unfolds in rapt arcs. The longest work, Angelus Domini descendit, is a musical meditation whose impetus never sags. But whether it led convent visitors to thoughts of God or those of a baser kind it’s hard to say.
A window into the mesmerising world of music in 16th century Italian convents
The motets on this disc, Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, nun and musician, were published anonymously in Venice in 1543, and though still anonymous when republished in 1549, there is good reason to believe they are the work of Suor Leonora d’Este, the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia (yes, that Lucrezia Borgia) and Duke Alfonso I d’Este of Ferrara.
The disc, on the Obsidian label, supported by the Ambache Trust, presents motets by Suor Leonora d’Este performed by Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens, directed by Deborah Rogers and Laurie Stras. A selection of motets were performed at Brighton Early Music Festival in 2016, and on this disc we get the opportunity to hear 16 of the 23 motets, written in a style which is some of the most advanced of the period. We know little about Leonora, she was four when her mother died and she was placed in the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara (lacking a near female relative), she told her father (firmly) at eight that she wished to be a nun, was Abbess of Corpus Domini at 18. She was also very musical and from a musical family.
We also know little about music in convents at the time, except that the men of the church hierarchy distrusted convent polyphony saying it was morally dangerous for the nuns as it led to vanity.
Here we have motets written for voci pari – equal voices, in five parts. Some are sung one to a part, some two, using singers from Musica Secreta, and in others Musica Secreta is joined by Celestial Sirens, a non-professional women’s ensemble directed by Deborah Roberts which specialises in music of this period.
The results are entrancing and mesmeric.
Leonora d’Este, assuming she is the composer, was very fond of imitation so that many of the motets have a hypnotic quality as voices imitate each other in repeated waves. In her booklet note Laurie Stras explains that they have come to this performing edition after many years performing these works so I am not clear how much the use of lower voices (in some the altos go very low) is editorial or Leonora d’Este. But clearly the nuns would have used these as source material just as Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens do.
The women of Musica Secreta have some lovely solo voices, and the smaller scale performances are recorded relatively closely giving us an intimate view of the texture of the pieces whilst the larger scale performances are recorded at more of a distance.
This is not simple, or simplistic, music and Leonora d’Este was not frightened of occasional semitone clash in the music arising from the imitation. But the sheer mesmeric nature of the pieces can get a bit much and this is a CD to dip into.
Thanks to Laurie Stras, Deborah Roberts, Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens we are able to glimpse into the world of convent music in the 16th century. There is an excellent CD booklet which introduced Leonora d’Este and her music as well as the background to Deborah Roberts and Laurie Stras’ work on the motets and the attribution to Leonora d’Este.