Background

Sarah Dunant and Deborah Roberts
Sarah Dunant and Deborah Roberts, South Bank Centre, 2009.

For more than thirty years, Musica Secreta  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. Founded by soprano Deborah Roberts to explore the music of the concerto delle dame at Ferrara, the group was co-directed by Roberts and musicologist Laurie Stras from 2000-2020. Stras continues to provide research leadership, and the group works collectively to keep the ensemble thriving.

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

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 sixteenth century saw the rise of female performers at court, starting in Parma and Ferrara eventually, these ladies became known as the concerto delle dame. The Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso II, guarded the 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.

Little music for either court or convent was actually published in a format that would have been performable by all-women ensembles. There is a discrete repertoire for equal voices that survives in both manuscript and printed sources, but even the music composed by nuns, for nuns, often included parts for tenor and bass voices. Scholarship and practical exploration, 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 delle 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. And almost nothing instantly identifiable as nuns’ music remains of what would have been a vast repertoire used by medieval and early modern convents.

So where is all the rest of the music?! For over thirty years, we’ve been exploring…

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