For twenty years, Musica Secreta – co-directors Deborah Roberts and Laurie Stras – has been at the forefront of the discovery and interpretation of music for and by early modern women.
We bring together internationally-acclaimed musicians and ground-breaking research to perform this fascinating and continually emerging repertoire.
Our programmes illustrate the many faces of women musicians in the 16th and 17th centuries: courtiers, courtesans, actresses and cloistered nuns. There is always an element of story-telling, theatre, and surprise, in our performances, for the women who first made our music had lives as compelling as the music itself.
“a sense of scholarship as well as intense musicality runs through the whole: fascinating and lovely.” – Gramophone, Editor’s Choice, November 2009
Sacred Hearts, Secret Music is our award-winning CD, the result of a collaboration with novelist Sarah Dunant. From 2010-2012, a concert-length version of the show toured around the British Isles. See the Sacred Hearts live page for reviews and links.
Why do we call ourselves Musica Secreta (Secret Music) when we are presenting public performances and aiming to appeal to as wide an audience as possible?
This may seem paradoxical, but the history of female vocal ensembles seems always to have been shrouded in mystery; so much so that only recently are we fully realising just how widespread they were.
There were good reasons for secrecy. The final decades of the 16th century saw the rise of female performers at court, starting in Parma and Ferrara with the famous singing ladies, known as the concerto delle dame. The Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso II, guarded the secrecy of his concerto so jealously that he allowed only chosen guests to hear them in his private concerts, known as musica secreta. Yet as with all of the best kept secrets, the fame of these women spread throughout and beyond Italy. They inspired composers and performers alike with their dazzling technique, and laid the foundations of a rich repertoire as well as playing a leading role in establishing solo song and the new “baroque” styles.
At the same time, Italian convents were becoming equally renowned for their prodigious music making. A very large percentage of upper-middle class girls, many of them musical, were placed in convents as a cheaper alternative to marriage, and thus several convents had large choirs of highly skilled singers. This was a secret music in that the singers would have been invisible, but their voices and instruments wafted over the screens as if from Paradise.
Interestingly very little music for either court or convent was actually published in a format that would have been performable by all-women ensembles. Even the music composed by nuns, for nuns, included parts for tenor and bass voices. Recent scholarship, however, has revealed that these ensembles adapted music in clearly documented ways, depending upon the voices and instruments available to them:
- For choirs with no low altos both the tenor and bass parts could be transposed up an octave and the bass played at pitch on organ or bass instrument such as the viol or sackbut
- The vocal bass line could be played instrumentally with low altos providing the tenor line as the lowest sung part
- For very small choirs the top line alone could be sung with all other parts played on organ
- For pieces with a narrow overall compass the whole piece could be transposed up a 4th or 5th.
Doubtless there were other ways in which individual groups adapted music to suit their needs. The published score was merely a guide. Certainly the concerto di dame, who were, in fact, called upon to perform daily for several hours, all played instruments and accompanied themselves on harp, lute, viol and harpsichord. Yet nothing was published that specified instruments, and only one surviving publication, the Madrigali per uno, doi e tre soprani(madrigals for one, two and three sopranos) by Luzzasco Luzzaschi was clearly composed for them.
So where is all the rest of the music?! For over twenty years, we’ve been exploring…
Deborah Roberts formed Musica Secreta in 1990 with the harpsichordist John Toll. Her soaring soprano has featured in many of the leading early music ensembles in the UK,
and as a member of the Tallis Scholars for over 25 years, Deborah has a lifetime’s experience of singing Renaissance polyphony. She co-founded the Brighton Early Music Festival in 2002, and has watched it grow to become one of the largest and most innovative music festivals in Britain. She is in constant demand as a teacher, workshop leader and choral conductor, and currently runs two amateur chamber choral ensembles, the BREMF Consort and Musica Secreta’s sister choir, Celestial Sirens.
Laurie Stras joined Deborah Roberts as co-director of Musica Secreta in 2000. With a background in performance, including a spell as a musical director and keyboard player with the Royal National Theatre, she is now a leading authority on Renaissance female musicians. Known as the band boffin, Laurie also fills out the tenor lines in Celestial Sirens, researches the costumes and has been known to play Renaissance guitar. Currently completing a book, Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara, for Cambridge University Press, Laurie is Professor of Music at the University of Southampton.
Sally Dunkley‘s lifelong interest in 16th-century vocal music was established during her student days at Oxford University. Her subsequent career as a professional consort singer has run hand-in-hand with study of the music as editor, writer, researcher and teacher. She sings regularly with The Sixteen, of which she is a founder member, and with Philip Cave’s ensemble Magnificat; she also contributed to more than 1000 concerts and many recordings with the Tallis Scholars. Throughout her career she has pursued an interest in preparing performing editions from original sources, and she is now involved in the Tudor Partbooks initiative run by Magnus Williamson at Newcastle University. She is often busy behind the scenes as programme consultant, and is increasingly involved in sharing her experience through summer schools, workshops and lectures. She co-presents a series of highly regarded workshops for The Sixteen, coaches vocal consorts for Sixteen Genesis courses, and takes singing days for several of the Early Music Forums in the UK. She has been a regular faculty member of Chorworks summer workshop in Washington DC ever since its launch in 2005, and recently led a Vocal Consort class at Dartington International Summer School.
Katharine Hawnt was a choral scholar at King’s College London and then trained at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland. Her main teachers there were Evelyn Tubb and Kathleen Dineen, and after finishing, Stefan Haselhoff. She performs throughout Europe as a soloist and chorus member with groups including Collegium Vocale Ghent, Musica Secreta, Al Ayre Español, Trinity Baroque, Nuove Musiche and her own medieval ensemble, Le Basile. She teaches singing at Sherborne School for Girls.
Caroline Trevor has sung and recorded with a number of prominent groups, such as The Tallis Scholars (since 1982), The Sixteen, The Cardinall’s Musick, The Taverner Consort, The Gabrieli Consort, Consortium, The Rose Consort, Aurora Nova, and, of course, Musica Secreta.
Caroline feels very at home singing with all female groups, and wonders if perhaps she was a happy nun in a former life.
An exiled Geordie, Yvonne Eddy studied music at the University of Manchester then followed the postgraduate Medieval and Renaissance course at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland. Now based in London, she sings in many professional church choirs and ensembles including Philharmonia Voices, Retrospect Ensemble, RSVP Voices and Sarum Voices. Yvonne directs her own medieval vocal trio Levedy and sings with medieval ensembles Le Basile, Mediva and The Telling. Yvonne seems to be carving out a niche as a nun spanning several centuries. As well as working with Musica Secreta, she has performed in Hildegard of Bingen’s 12th century liturgical drama Ordo Virtutum with Vox Animae at several international early music festivals and appears as a singing nun in all four series of the hit BBC1 drama Call The Midwife.
Kim Porter studied music at Manchester University before attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a postgraduate singer and composer. Her first major professional work was a full time position as an Alto the BBC Singers. She left the group when she moved up to County Durham and is now a member of The Sixteen who’s Choral Pilgrimage concerts take her yearly all over the country. She is also a member of the Gabrieli Consort and Ora, a recently formed choir singing new commissions inspired by much older music and for whom she’s written a piece, Pulchra Es, which will be released on CD in 2018. Kim has performed and recorded discs with other group including The Tallis Scholars, Polyphony and Exaudi.
Hannah Ely read music at the University of Manchester, studying piano and voice. She continued her piano studies at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, graduating with a distinction. During this time she also studied ensemble singing on the Sixteen’s inaugural Genesis Sixteen scheme and is currently studying part-time at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland with Evelyn Tubb and Anthony Rooley. Living in London, Hannah works as a pianist and soprano, performing with various ensembles. She is a core member of Siglo de Oro, the Erebus Ensemble and the Fieri Consort, of which she is a founding member and manager. With the Fieri Consort she has performed several times on BBC Radio 3 and toured much of the UK and Australia. Hannah also sings for groups including The Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia Voices, the Gabrieli Consort and Tenebrae and currently sings at the Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great.
Nancy Cole is a busy consort singer and soloist based in London, singing with a number of the top professional ensembles of today. She regularly sings with The Sixteen, Tenebrae, The Choir of the Enlightenment, Britten Sinfonia Voice and The Fieri Consort, and sings on many of their recordings. In January she became a permanent member of the BBC singers. She has given solo recitals at St Martin in the Fields, the Handel House Museum and the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. She has appeared as an Oratorio soloist all over the UK, including the York Early Music Festival. She was one of the soloists for Brighton Early music and the performance of the opera La Liberazzione di Ruggiero, November 2015, and sang in the production of All the Angels at the Sam Wannamker Theatre, The Globe (Dec-Feb 2017). Brought up in Lancaster, Nancy was then a Choral Scholar at St Edmund Hall Oxford, an academic masters music scholar at York University and then spent one year further training at the Royal College of Music. In 2011-2012, Nancy was part of the inaugural year of The Sixteen’s training programme, Genesis Sixteen, led by Harry Christophers.
Described as both ‘promising’ and ‘fresh’ (Bachtrack), mezzo soprano Bethany Horak-Hallett is currently studying towards a Masters in Performance at Trinity Laban with the generous support of the Noble Award, taught by Alison Wells and coached by Kelvin Lim. Having completed an academic Masters in Music from at Leeds University in 2012, Bethany has since been working as a freelance singer both nationally and internationally.
Since moving to London, Bethany has taken on a number of exciting musical projects, including various soloist projects, soprano and alto engagements with Voces8, London Contemporary Orchestra, Erebus Ensemble, Sansara, St Paul’s Cathedral Consort, Musica Secreta, performances with the Tallis Scholars, and soprano member of the coveted Genesis Sixteen Choral Scholarship under the direction of Harry Christophers.
Recently, Bethany has been selected to take part in masterclasses with Brigitte Fassbaender as part of the Wigmore Hall artistic series, Mary Bevan as part of the Milton Abbey International Music Festival, and Ruby Philogene as part of the Trinity Laban masterclass series.
Solo roles have included Lucia (The Rape of Lucretia), Giovanna (Giovanna d’Arco), Mimi (La bohème), Dido, Sorceress, Second Witch, Belinda (Dido and Aeneas), Peaseblossom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Woman (Riders to the Sea), projects with Opera North, Brighton Early Music Festival, Collision Opera, Surrey Opera, Hashtag Opera, Picalilli Opera, Milton Abbey International Music Festival, and many other fringe companies. Roles performed in scenes include Orfeo (Orfeo ed Euridice), Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), Hänsel (Hänsel und Gretel).
As well as performing, Bethany is passionate about music education, and works alongside ensembles and organisations such as Voces8.
Kat Carson graduated with a first in undergraduate music from Sussex University and has begun studying under Xenia Mejer at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. She has had the privilege of being coached by Neil Jenkins, Dame Felicity Lott, David Wilson-Johnson, Chris Bucknell and William Carslake. She has also been conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel and Howard Goodall and in 2015 she was the recipient of the Springboard Festival’s Madame Mimi Scharrer cup. She is a keen ensemble singer and previous member of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. She is also currently a member of the Sweelinck Baroque Singers and is working with various other ensembles based at her conservatoire.
Originally from Bath, Claire Williams studied piano, harpsichord, fortepiano and clavichord at the Royal College of Music in London. She subsequently completed a Master’s degree at Trinity College of Music, studying harpsichord and chamber organ with James Johnstone.
As well as Musica Secreta, Claire works regularly with a wide range of ensembles, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and her own chamber group Baroque Encounter. She has been a guest artist at the Latitude Festival, and Dartington International Summer School.
Alongside her demanding performance schedule, Claire finds time to teach the piano and harpsichord, and regularly gives recitals at the Handel House Museum in London. She can also occasionally be found shark diving, as a qualified PADI Open Water Scuba Diver.
Alison Kinder read music at Oxford and was then given a scholarship by Trinity College of Music where she studied viol with Alison Crum, being awarded the college’s Silver Medal for Early Music Studies. She is a founder member of Chelys consort of viols where she enjoys researching and performing programmes covering all aspects of consort music, and with whom she made the world premiere recording of Christopher Simpson’s four-part ayres. She has a particular interest in Renaissance viols (early viols made with no soundpost) with The Intrepid Academy, who specialise in music of the Italian Renaissance. Venturing into the 18th Century with a beautiful 7-string viol named Flo, Alison plays with trio sonata group Saltarello, and the Christian Baroque ensemble Dei Gratia.
A keen teacher of both children and adults, Alison is a tutor on a number of Early Music courses including the Easter Early Music Course and Norvis, and she regularly leads workshops for the various Early Music Fora. She is co-director of Rondo Viol Academy, which runs weekend courses for players of all standards from Elementary to Advanced. Alison directs the Warwickshire Youth Waits, a Renaissance band for young players which includes everything from recorders and viols to crumhorns, shawms, sackbuts and more!
Alison has had a number of educational books published with colleague and fellow viol player Jacqui Robertson-Wade. They include group teaching material for viols and recorders,and a children’s music theory series called ‘The Notehouse People’. She has also published a modern edition of the divisions from Christopher Simpson’s ‘Division Viol’ treatise.