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The ‘archive angel’ and new music from the Renaissance

Musica Secreta’s Laurie Stras on women’s voices

By Margie MacKinnon

Musica Secreta, ph Kate Beaugié

“I’ve made it my musicological life goal to restore the female voice to its central role in the sound of the Renaissance city.” These are the words of Laurie Stras, director of Musica Secreta, a British vocal ensemble founded in 1991 to explore, perform and record music written by and for women in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Stras is making the point that traditional musical history focuses on compositions that would have been performed (by men) at great Papal and ducal chapels – accessible to only a small number of ‘worthy’ individuals. The music that would have been familiar to ordinary citizens, on the other hand, was “the sound of female voices, going up to God, and maintaining the spiritual health of the city”. People could walk into a convent at almost any hour of the day and hear women’s voices. “The sisters would have spent at least eight hours singing,” notes Stras, “and would never have got much sleep!”

Over the course of 30 years, Musica Secreta have recorded ten CDs, four of which are of music exclusively by historic women composers. Their most recent CD, Mother Sister Daughter, features music believed to have originated in two Italian convents, Santa Lucia in Verona, and the Florentine San Matteo in Arcetri. The album was included in a New York Times review of ‘classical music albums to listen to right now’, which noted approvingly that, the repertoire includes “a setting of the Vespers of St Lucy that has a … tangy simplicity and transparency; [and] two sets of Vespers for St. Clare [that] are … polished and pristine.” The review also singled out Stras for creating the performing editions, which include light accompaniment for harp, organ and bass viol, as well as for directing “this precise, intimate and unaffected gathering of voices.”

Stras explains that creating the performing editions is a process of taking various bits of music from a manuscript, which may have been written in separate polyphonic voices, and working out how to put them together. Where there are ‘gaps’ in a score, the composer must try to work out what the missing notes are from what’s left or, in the worst case scenario, she will have to recompose things - much like a restorer matching an artist’s style to fill in damaged parts of a painting. In some cases, an instrument will be substituted for a lower voice, or music will be transposed to suit the register of the singers.

A meticulous scholar, Stras often can’t say definitively which music is linked to a particular convent. “There is no incontrovertible evidence linking the Vespers of St. Lucy with Santa Lucia,” she explains, “but both their repertoire and the illuminations in the manuscripts point to a Benedictine convent dedicated to Saint Lucy.” Archival research is the starting point for uncovering the music of the Renaissance – but ‘archives’ can vary from sophisticated digital platforms that allow scholars to search documents online, to a cardboard box tucked out of view in the vestry of an ancient church – and everything in between. As with all historical research, original documents may be incomplete or difficult to decipher, or so fragile that it is not possible to consult them. Important discoveries may be serendipitous or, as Stras prefers to think, given a helping hand by an “‘archive angel’ who guides you towards things that you would not otherwise find, when you least expect to find them.”

Laurie Stras, centre, and Musica Secreta, ph Nick Rutter

Stras describes a research expedition she had planned in 1996 to the State Archives in Regio Emilia. With only a brief amount of time available to her, she called ahead to ensure the Archives would be open on the day of her visit. But, when she arrived, she was met with a sign announcing ‘Arcihvio Chiuso’ – Archives Closed. “Some years later,” she continues, “I found myself at a loose end, and decided that I would go for a half day and look through this book that I hadn’t managed see earlier. As I read it, I noticed something about one of the pieces that was very unusual, but I knew exactly what it was because I was doing a research project at that time about musical puzzles. What I found indicated that the whole piece would have been a musical puzzle – but I wouldn’t have known that in 1996 and I would never have returned to that archive and seen that book had I not been prevented from seeing it when I first attempted to visit.”

Another intervention of the ‘archive angel’ came on the day in 2018 that Musica Secreta arrived in Florence to perform at the unveiling of a newly restored painting by sixteenth-century painter Sister Plautilla Nelli, at the Last Supper Museum of Andrea del Sarto. Stras made an impromptu visit to the Biblioteca Nazionale where, in the final moments before closing time, she discovered the manuscript of the complete Lamentations for Good Friday by Antoine Brumel, one of the most celebrated composers of the Renaissance. Musica Secreta’s 2019 album From Darkness Into Light became the first recording of Brumel’s ‘Lamentations’ which had been believed to be lost.

The Vespers for St Clare were found in the ‘Biffoli-Sostegni’ manuscript, dated 1560, and named for the two nuns whose names are embossed on the leather bindings: Agnoleta Biffoli and Clemenzia Sostegni. It was apparent to Stras that the Vespers were written for four skilled women’s voices. “It is possible,” she suggests, “that they were specifically written for the nuns at San Matteo. They have these three shimmery really high voices, and a fourth that is almost as high as the others, in this kind of transparent sound which is quite extraordinary.” Stras discovered that the manuscript originated from the small and relatively poor convent of San Matteo, about a mile south of Florence’s city walls.

Despite its modest stature, San Matteo has an illustrious connection: it was home to the illegitimate daughter of the scientist Galileo Galilei. Born Virginia Galilei, but known as Sister Maria Celeste, she was sent to live in the convent soon after her thirteenth birthday. As well as taking on the duties of apothecary, Maria Celeste became responsible for the day-to-day running of the choir. Stras admits that “it is tempting to speculate that Maria Celeste herself would have used the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript after it reverted to the convent on Clemenzia Sostegni’s death some time after 1606.”

Traditionally identified as a portrait of Virginia (1600-1634), natural daughter of Galileo Galilei and Marina Gamba Wellcome Collection

We have been able to learn a great deal about the close relationship between daughter and father through a series of 124 letters written by Maria Celeste to Galileo which were discovered among his papers after his death. The letters also reveal many of the details and hardships of life inside the convent. In a letter to her father dated 18 October 1630, Maria Celeste wrote: “I write at seven hours after sunset: I beg your Lordship to excuse me if I make errors, because during the day I haven’t an hour that I can call mine, since to all my other jobs is now added the teaching of plainchant to four girls and … the organisation of the Office in the choir. This wouldn’t be tiring for me, except that I do not understand Latin at all.”

After being condemned by the Roman Inquisition in 1633 for his theory of a sun-centred cosmos, Galileo returned to live under house arrest in Arcetri, in a villa within view of his daughter’s convent. Just four months after he arrived there in 1634, Sister Maria Celeste died of dysentery at the age of 33.

All that remains of the original Convent of San Matteo is a door and a courtyard, but it is possible to imagine how the convent looked from a whimsical document created, during Maria Celeste’s lifetime, by a visiting archbishop. Concerned about the fact that the villagers in Arcetri had to come into the convent to draw water from their well, the archbishop drew a map showing the existing layout – in preparation for building a well outside the convent walls. “He must have had a lot of time on his hands,” Stras comments, pointing out the details. “It even has little footsteps, almost like the Harry Potter maps.” One can only wonder how much longer the villagers lingered at the well, just to hear the voices of the nuns chanting the psalms and reciting stories in music. For them, it might have been the high point in a long day of arduous toil. For us, it is further proof of how essential the female voices emanating from Renaissance convents were to the everyday well-being of the city.

Musica Secreta CD cover

Available as a download or CD, Mother Sister Daughter concludes with Musica Secreta’s first commissioned work: The Veiled Sisters by British composer Joanna Marsh. This work weaves together the present and the past, combining the words of contemporary Norfolk poet Esther Morgan and the seventeenth-century poet Alessandro Francucci, contrasting the moment a beautiful young singer enters a convent with the view of another woman looking out from a dark interior.


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