Page 16 - Church Music Quarterly June 2019
P. 16

Pick any recently published anthology of music off the shelf and you will see that one or two pieces, three at best, are composed by women.
Have a look at the programme of concerts given by your local choral society or at the music list for evensong at your nearest church, abbey or cathedral and see if you can spot a similar trend.
It seems perfectly normal nowadays to have women authors, artists, singers and instrumentalists. Almost all of our church choirs, be they parish churches or cathedrals, have a girls’ choir or a mixed top line. There are even women singing alto in several cathedral choirs. So where is the sacred music composed by women?
The most obvious answer is that women can’t compose sacred music: a perfectly reasonable conclusion, were it not for the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Gaining a historical perspective can help us to put this into context, and enable us to make informed repertoire choices in the future.
It has been estimated that up to 20 per cent of all women in Renaissance Europe were housed in a convent, a figure that rose to as much as 70 per cent among women of minor nobility. Unlike the male- voice choirs of chapels such as the Sistine Chapel, Duke Ercole’s chapel in Ferrara and the Medici Chapels (all essentially private chapels and therefore not accessible to the public), the music of the convent was available for all to hear. Anyone could walk into the external church of a convent and, from behind
Many unpublished manuscripts were lost in fires, languished in drawers,
or were forgotten as tastes changed
a grilled screen or from a gallery, hear the voices of nuns singing the office at regular intervals throughout the day. Not only were these nuns performing together, they were undoubtedly composing much
of the music heard, taking advantage of the periods each day set aside for work of this sort.
Although many of these talented women’s names are not known to most of us, their predecessor, Hildegard of Bingen, most certainly is. Hildegard ran a convent near Bingen, in modern-day Germany,
composing music for use in the liturgy which, crucially, she arranged to have collected together on her behalf and written down in one, huge illuminated manuscript. There are 77 such pieces, consisting
of antiphons, votive antiphons, responsorial psalms, hymns, sequences, a Kyrie and an Alleluia. In 1981, Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices, directed by Christopher Page, recorded an entire album of Hildegard’s music: A Feather on the Breath of God. The album won the Gramophone Early Music Record of the Year. It brought her music to a wider audience, sold 500,000 copies, and established her name in the previously all-male musical canon of the day.
But what of the many hundreds of women composers housed in convents in the 15th and 16th centuries? Following the success of A Feather on the Breath of God, one might expect a flurry of similar recordings. That these did not manifest is due to two issues: the necessary rediscovery of manuscripts and the identification of the authors of these manuscripts.
Authorship is the single most tricky hurdle to overcome when considering the music of the convents. Much of the extant manuscript goes unattributed, with the remaining pieces bearing anything from the enigmatic ‘Anon.’ to a pseudonym that cannot easily be traced back to its originator.
A case in point is Eleonora d’Este (1515–75), the youngest daughter of Alfonso I d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia. Leonora was brought up in Ferrara, in a convent famed for its musical excellence, where
she received a high-quality education in music and demonstrated real expertise in composition. In
1543, a collection of 23 motets in five equal parts
was published anonymously. For such a significant collection to bear no name presumably means that
it was either by a member of the nobility or by a nun. Renaissance scholar Laurie Stras has identified evidence that points to the motets’ authorship. However, the act of publishing these motets, possibly a commercial venture of the convent in order to cash in on the thriving tourist trade of the time, failed
to secure their legacy.
Unpublished manuscripts were the most transient
of documents: some were lost in fires such as the
one at Eleonora d’Este’s convent in 1667, but many languished in drawers, forgotten as musical tastes changed and as decrees from bishops stipulated what could and could not be sung in church. Only recently has a great deal of early music been rediscovered and

   14   15   16   17   18