REVIEW FEATURE:  Early Music News, April 2002

Musica Secreta and Dangerous Graces

One of the many surprises of the John Toll memorial concert in January was the contribution of the group Musica Secreta. They sang music by a composer who I didn't recognise (Cozzolani), from a tradition of all-female vocal ensembles of which I was unaware.

Musica Secreta specialise in vocal music for female peformers from the late sixteenth and early seventeeth centuries. From the perspective of three centuries later, this was the time when the “renaissance'' gave way to the “baroque'' but it is probably fairer to describe this as the time when new ideas were flooding Italy, creating a period of great vitality and change.

Two particular circumstances which led to the creation of all-female vocal groups. In convents music was sung by groups of nuns. In some ducal establishments patrons --- most notably Duke Alfonso II d'Este at Ferrara --- created all-female ensembles as a musica secreta to satisfy their own interests.

The various CDs and concert programmes from Musica Secreta explore both of these aspects. Where many groups singing sixteenth-century music can come across as “pure'', if you are feeling charitable, and “sexless'' if you are not, Musica Secreta's performing has a power and immediacy which is truly exciting.

The historical evidence from the court at Ferrara is particularly intriguing. He seems to have begun by assembling a group of virtuoso women singers and instrumentalists from among his own subjects, but gradually extended his search for musicians to the other courts along the River Po, most notably to Mantua and Parma. The positions of these women at court were both exalted and precarious. Arranged marriages and employment as ladies-in-waiting to the Duke's sisters and wife gave them security and status, but in any other context their musical activities wouhld have seemed less than respectable. The women of the musica secreta were performers in a very modern sense, playing and singing for an audience gathered together specifically to witness the Duke's private spectacle.

But what was the repertoire of the nuns in convents, and the ladies of the musica secreta? A small number for works for female performers do survive, including the Cozzolani O Caeli Cives which was heard at the John Toll concert, but that clearly is not the whole story, and historical sources record them performing works written for mixed voices.

Recent researches by Laurie Stras, at the University of Southampton, which were funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Board, have shed a great deal of light on the work of female musicians at the courts of Ferrara and Parma 1565--1589. Some of the fruits of that project can be heard on a forthcoming CD from the ensemble Musica Secreta, entitled Dangerous Graces (Linn Records) which will be launched at a concert in St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, on April 20th.

The most persuasive argument in favour of the techniques used on this new CD is that the music is utterly captivating. The music is by Giaches de Wert, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Cipriano de Rore. In some of these the lower parts of polyphonic works have simply been transposed up, with instruments providing a basso seguente. In others instruments take the place of the lower voices, so that de Wert's four voice madrigal Il dolce sonno becomes an exquisitely beautiful and expressive piece for solo voice and lute, and de Rore's O sonno, o della queta humida ombrosa turns from another four part madrigal into a haunting piece for solo voice and bass viol. Between those extremes, de Wert's five voice madrigal Non è sì denso velo turns into a piece for three female voices, with instruments taking the lower part. Here the replacement of the lower parts with instruments lends a wonderful clarity to the texture and enables the beauty of the individual lines to shine through in a way which sounds remarkably like the early baroque. Maybe this is actually the point: in turning works for mixed voices into works for fewer (female) singers and instruments, these sixteenth century women were also simplifying the textures of the music and giving greater scope for expression in a way that was to become the hallmark of the new “baroque'' style.

Dangerous Graces is a fascinating CD. It will be well worth ordering after April 20th, and is a good reason to head to the launch concert.

Mark Argent

Written by Laurie Stras.

Last updated 04 October, 2002.

The views expressed in this document are those of the author and not those of the University of Southampton.