Roots, Shoots, and Celestial Flowers

Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens


The rise of the great convent choirs of Italy is told in music from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries celebrating the Virgin Mary. Anonymous laude – the private devotional music of the nuns – are performed alongside music found in the Brenzoni-Maffei manuscript from late fifteenth-century Verona, the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript from sixteenth-century Florence, and the works attributed to Suor Leonora d’Este, the nun-princess of Ferrara.

(note: sound clips are from an amateur recording of a concert in November 2017)

Salve Regina, Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript, Brussels 27766

O gemma clarissima – Willaert, Bologna Q19

Sanctus, Missa Recordare virgo Mater, Brussels 27766

Te Deum, Binchois, Brenzoni-Maffei manuscript, Verona 761

Programme notes

In some convents the holy sisters were used to praising God with polyphony in imitation of the chapel of the pope,
the vicar of God. Those prophets have shouted much atthe nuns, that they—through their feminine ignorance—
are neglecting that most praiseworthy Office, and ceasing it would lead to great offences, since many, attracted by the sweetness of this music leave their games, their blaspheming, whoring and thieving, and come to hear it: but
if it were lacking they would give themselves to vice. They 
[i.e. the prophets] tried to persuade the simple nuns that the public came because they were singing in that way to please men. This is what comes of the great presumption of guessing the minds of men, known only to their God.
And I do not reckon that one could find anyone so stupid as to believe that these nuns grounded their primary thinking in such error, but in praising God and in pleasing
men, following the doctrine of Romans 15, ‘let each pleasehis neighbour for his good, to edification’.

So wrote Don Angelo da Vallombrosa in 1496, in defense of convent polyphony in Florence, which had come under attack by the Ferrarese archreformer, Girolamo Savonarola.  We perhaps should no longer be surprised to see testimony to nuns making music in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even so, his words are startling, for they invoke the repertoire of the Sistine Chapel, from what is still thought of as the Golden Age of Polyphony.

Proof that nuns were singing complex works by the most esteemed composers can be found in tiny documentary fragments like this, but also in beautiful bound manuscripts, such as Verona Biblioteca Capitolare MS 761. It was compiled in 1495 for the nuns of the vast Benedictine community of Santa Lucia sopra il Chievo, which stood outside the city until it was destroyed in the wars that raged across the peninsula in the first decades of the sixteenth century. MS 761 shows the convent nuns in happier times, clustered around a choirbook, singing a polyphonic Kyrie – the choirmistress’s steadying hand on her novice’s head.  The book contains fifteen masses from the late 1400s’ Sistine Chapel repertoire, alongside a much earlier work by Gilles de Binchois, a Te Deum setting for two voices and an extemporized third “contra a faulxbourdon.”

Binchois’s Te Deum was written in the lifetime of Ferrara’s most musical nun, Caterina Vigri, who became St Catherine of Bologna. Caterina’s love of singing laude – spiritual songs – helped her create a close bond with her fellow nuns at the Ferrarese convent of Corpus Domini. Her most intimate visions of God always involved music, especially the singing of angels. Near the end of her life, she was sent by her Order, the Order of St Clare, to form a new convent of Corpus Domini in Bologna, where she continued to lead her community with her love of music: her biography tells that she even insisted on singing with her sisters as she lay dying.

Duke Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara deeply regretted the loss of Caterina Vigri to Bologna, but continued to support his city’s convents, and their music-making thrived.  The maestri at his court, that of his son Alfonso I, and his grandson Ercole II – Brumel, Josquin, Willaert, de Rore –   a succession of the finest composers of their age, wrote music that Ferrarese nuns could use as part of their daily worship. This was certainly because of the Este’s intense love of music, but it was also because their rivals, the Medici, also encouraged the convents in Florence to establish virtuosa ensembles. Ercole’s ambassador to Florence observed that the convents of Florence had choirs that equalled the ducal chapel in their skill.

Although we cannot be sure from which convent it originated, Brussels, Bibliothèque du Conservatoire Royal de Musique Ms.27766 – copied in 1560 – is a unique witness to the music of Florentine nuns in the first half of the sixteenth century.  The owners or commissioners of the manuscript, Suor Agnoleta Biffoli and Suor Clemenzia Sostegni, were both from prominent Florentine families.  It is clear from book’s contents that it belonged to a Clarissan convent dedicated to an apostle: potentially San Jacopo in via Ghibellina, or San Matteo in Arcetri, the future home of Suor Maria Celeste Galilei.

The works placed at the front of the manuscript, a mass based on the motet Recordare virgo Mater and the motet itself (attributed to Josquin des Prez in a posthumous print) were clearly the convent’s most prized repertoire.  But the manuscript gathers together an entire working repertoire for the convent: psalms, magnificats, hymns, masses, antiphons, motets, carols, laude, litanies – an extraordinary collection of all the different kinds of music the nuns might need for both liturgy and communal enjoyment.  The three settings of the carol Verbum caro factum est perhaps show us just how important singing together was at Christmas.

The unique medley of texts sung before the Cross, Adoramus te Christe, may suggest a further connection with San Jacopo, which was inundated in the great flood of the river Arno in 1557. Almost all the convent’s possessions were destroyed or damaged (including its music books), but its grainstore was saved by its miraculous Crucifix, which was discovered wedged against the door, keeping the waters from destroying the precious grain. Immediately afterwards, the Crucifix was venerated by pilgrims, who called it the Hope of Florence: we can imagine these motets as sung by the nuns in the convent’s outer church, which was built with a matroneum(a raised gallery) from which the nuns could be heard, not seen.

San Jacopo’s Crucifix still exists, and hangs in a small village church outside Florence, with no indication of its illustrious past. The concert tonight is the first public performance of the works in the manuscript – hopefully ushering in a new phase, recognizing them for the precious relics they are.  From works such as these grew the great tradition of women’s sacred music that flourished from the beginning of the seventeenth century: from the psalms of Margarita Chiara Cozzolani to the virtuoso concerts of the Venetian ospedali in the eighteenth century. But even these works are rooted in the chants of the Office, which punctuate this evening’s performance. At the beginning and the end, the nun’s day was framed and structured by chant – the origin of all that she sang.

© Laurie Stras

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