Women of the Italian Baroque

7:30pm March 7th, 2020 at Pacific Spirit United Church, Vancouver

with Alexander Weimann, Guest Conductor, organ
Chloe Meyers and Elyssa Lefurgey-Smith, violins
Guzmán Ramos, archlute
Katrina Russell, bassoon
Natalie Mackie, viola da gamba

In its three decades of existence, Elektra has not performed much Baroque music, certainly less than many classically-based mixed-voice choirs will have done. The reason is simple – ensembles of women singing publicly together without men’s voices were somewhat invisible prior to the 19th century, and therefore did not have much traction with the music publishing industry. Johannes Brahms, participating in Hamburg in the Frauenchor (“women’s choir”) movement as a conductor, wrote interesting repertoire for his own women’s choir and things started to change. The 19th century was also a time when travel was easier, and musical influences, like all others, were more mobile. What this point means for Elektra and other women’s choirs is that we had no Bach written for us, no Mozart, no Haydn, and no Beethoven. Until recently, our “core repertoire” was considered to start with Mendelssohn and Brahms and flow through the 20th century and into the 21st, where it is currently enjoying a great flowering.

Two centres of musical activity for women’s singing ensembles are the notable exceptions to these facts: 1) a vibrant and celebrated musical curriculum at Venetian girls’ orphanages (“ospedali”) spanning many centuries and which flourished in the early 18th century, and 2) beautiful and relatively unknown music by nuns who were part of a flourishing artistic world within the walls of their convents. Specifically, Elektra’s March 2020 concert featured the music of seven nuns who lived in Milan, Novara, Modena, Pavia, and Ferrara. The music spanned a century – from 1600 to 1700 and featured voices and instruments in various combinations, as music in these institutions was not limited to vocal music. A young woman entering the convent at age 16-19 was usually from a privileged family background, and arrived having had several years of formal music education in voice, keyboards, or stringed instruments. If she had sisters, some of them would likely have been married and some selected for the convent. Our 21st century instincts might be that the married ones had a better life, but that was not a given. Social expectations for a married woman in 17th century Italy would likely have been as restrictive as a structured religious life. In addition to providing a modest dowry to the convent when the girl first took her vows, her family would typically have continued to support the music in the convent in some way, perhaps paying for instruments or other necessities.

We were very fortunate to have Baroque specialist Alexander Weimann as our Guest Conductor and organist for this concert. He brought a lifetime of knowledge, leadership, passion and artistry to the project, and chose to focus exclusively on repertoire from the convents. I was very happy with its variety and challenges. With Alexander came an ensemble of leading Baroque music instrumentalists. Two violins played in and above the range of the singers, and the archlute, bassoon, viola da gamba and portatif organ supported the sound as the basso continuo.

All but two pieces in this concert (Canon Coronato and O Lacrimae Amare) were in Latin. Unlike most of our modern choristers, the nuns would not have experienced any linguistic barrier to expressive singing in Latin. For them, it would have been virtually as natural as singing in their native Italian.

I had the chance to sit back in our dress rehearsal and observe the Elektra singers learning from Alexander music that was created for a community that had a great deal in common with our own. The nuns were also women of all ages who had the thrill of making music to the best of their ability, experiencing new music on a continual basis, and bringing their energies to making it come alive. I have no doubt that they also had their own personal favourite pieces and composers and took great pride in being part of an accomplished ensemble of women who knew each other well. Some of the seven whose music we performed lived long lives, including our featured composer, Isabella Leonarda, who was 84 when she died, having served the convent in many influential roles and written over 200 works. By contrast, Caterina Assandra lived only to the age of 28 and Bianca Maria Meda to 35. One wonders about the small details of their lives.

Our 12 Mira Youth Mentorship students (Grades 11 and 12) performed the second half of the concert with us, including the two Aleotti pieces, the Cozzolani, and the Leonarda “Magnificat”.

A note about the scores. Most were sourced from IMSLP, the International Music Score Library Project. Almost all of the 11 choral pieces have tenor and bass lines, which we transposed up one octave in most cases. Each piece had to be considered individually. Some were a three-part texture, some four, and some double choir, demonstrating a diversity of options available in this period. Because we were largely photocopying public domain scores, I took the opportunity to make a cover page for each featuring a portrait of the composer, the translation, and some biographical information. I feel that anything we can do to connect our singers to the composers whose music they are singing, whether living or from 400 years ago, strengthens their engagement with the music and improves the performance.

The big learning curve for us as we started the rehearsal process was just how much more challenging it was for the altos, who were frequently reading bass clef and singing an octave higher than what they were looking at, or tenor lines in tenor range. A couple of my alto singers took it upon themselves to re-typset the most challenging of the scores, and I could make those available. I am hoping to concentrate on further cleaning up a few scores that I feel are the most likely works to be adopted by choirs like ours and which, to my knowledge, are not yet published elsewhere. Please email me at morna@elektra.ca if you would like to see how that’s coming. I also highly recommend you look into the excellent work of scholars Dr. Meredith Y. Bowen (2017 thesis from Michigan State University), Robert Kendrick, and the recordings and publications of Candace Smith and her ensemble, Cappella Artemisia (artemisiaeditions.com).

Read Morna’s Women of the Italian Baroque Listeners Guide

Performance Pieces:

  1. Canon Coronato à 3 Isabella Leonarda
  2. Domine, ad Adiuvandum Isabella Leonarda
  3. Plaude Anima Isabella Leonarda
  4. O Lacrimae Amare Bianca Maria Meda
  5. Cessate Tympana, Cessate Praelia Maria Xaviera Peruchona
  6. Duo Seraphim Caterina Assandra
  7. Cantate Domino, canticum novum Suplitia Cesis
  8. Ego Flos Campi Raphaella Aleotti
  9. Surge, Propera Amica Mea Raphaella Aleotti
  10. Tu Dulcis, O Bone Jesu Chiara Margareta Cozzolani
  11. Magnificat Isabella Leonarda

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