FEATURE:  Early Music Times

Concerti di donne

Published February 2000

The all-female ensembles at Italian courts during the second half of the sixteenth century have fascinated historians, musicologists and performers alike for over one hundred years - from Angelo Solerti's groundbreaking account of Duke Alfonso II d'Este's court at Ferrara, published at the turn of the twentieth century, via Anthony Newcomb's detailed study of its 1580s ensemble, to a crop of recordings produced in the 1980s and 1990s. It is still a vibrant area of enquiry; as the depth and breadth of scholarship increase, the performance techniques used by the concerti di donne are coming into sharper focus, and a true appreciation of the importance of these ensembles in the musical developments of the late sixteenth century is beginning to unfold.

Devotees of the Italian madrigal may know of the 'three ladies of Ferrara' - Laura Peverara, Anna Guarini and Livia d'Arco - and their director-cum-mentor, Tarquinia Molza, recruited permanently to the ensemble some time after its initial formation. Some may also have heard of the soldier bass Giulio Cesare Brancaccio, who sang with the women at the request of the Duke Alfonso. Composers associated with this group are familiar to many - Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Giaches de Wert, Luca Marenzio. However, it is not so well known that these ladies, who sang and played in nightly concerts before a private audience of sometimes no more than three or four guests, were carrying on a practice of female-oriented performance that stretches both back into the previous decades and beyond to other northern Italian courts.

Since at least the beginning of the 1570s, singing women had been part of the entertainments enjoyed by Duke Alfonso. His obsession with the female voice would eventually cause him to look to neighbouring courts for ladies who he might bring into his own household in order that they might perform for him. In the 1570s, noblewomen with talent, including the sisters Lucrezia and Isabella Bendidio, were retained at the court by marriage, preferably to husbands many years their senior who would not trouble them with the need for heirs. As he cast his net wider, Alfonso's attention fell on a young woman at the Farnese court at Parma, Leonora Sanvitale. Sanvitale's father was an enthusiastic patron of the arts, and had raised her in a cultured family which participated in madrigal games and theatrical presentations - an ideal preparation for the d'Este court. An easy match to an elderly widower was not enough to tempt her, but after lengthy negotiations, Sanvitale was eventually married to a Ferrarese nobleman of her own age, the Conte di Scandiano, Giulio Thiene. Their sumptuous wedding took place in February 1576, and Sanvitale was welcomed at court as Queen of the Ferrarese carnevale. She became central to the Duke's entertainments, but was obliged to take time out during a number of pregnancies. Thus Alfonso's gamble ultimately failed, for she died in childbirth in 1582.

As he exhausted the supply of noblewomen who could sing as he required, Alfonso began recruiting women from artisan classes. Laura Peverara, a merchant's daughter from Mantua, was brought to Ferrara in 1581; over fifteen years after her skills as a singer and harpist had been first celebrated by the poet Torquato Tasso. Being already in her thirties, her arranged marriage to a Ferrarese courtier was unlikely to produce issue and, in contrast to her fellow performers, her activity and status at court was defined by her employment. Unlike the Bendidios, Sanvitale and eventually Molza, Peverara was not expected to participate in courtly conversation, only to provide musical diversion. Despite this, her arrival at the court inspired a wealth of poetry and music extolling her beauty and virtuosity - much of which appears in two published anthologies, Il lauro secco of 1582, produced on the occasion of her betrothal to Conte Annibale Turco, and Il lauro verde of 1583, which celebrated their wedding. Two younger singers, Anna Guarini (daughter of the poet Battista Guarini) and Livia d'Arco, were made ladies-in-waiting to the Duchess and given husbands at court; Guarini was later murdered by her husband.

The Modenese Tarquinia Molza, whose vocal talents had enchanted the Duke as early as 1568, joined the court permanently in 1583, four years after the death of her husband. Daughter of a Roman cavaliere and ward of the powerful Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, she was already famous as a poet, musician and scholar, having achieved recognition (on a par with masculine peers) in academic circles in both Rome and Parma. Instead of remarriage, she demanded a salary and independent lodgings as a condition of her installation at Ferrara. Her role in the concerto appears to have been both as performer and director, instructing the younger women in singing and playing. She remained in Ferrara until 1589, when her affair with the composer Wert was exposed by a jealous fellow musician, and she was banished by the Duke. Even though she and Wert were both widowed and well into middle-age (she 47, he 54), without noble blood or a marriage to shield her honour, her reputation dissolved; celibacy had been the one quality that firmly distanced her from the world of the learned and accomplished courtesan. Molza's humiliation was a watershed in the concerto’s decline; further rivalry between the Duke's wife and his sister, who set up separate musical establishments, hastened the demise of the ensemble.

For many years the Luzzaschi madrigals for one, two and three sopranos, published in 1601, were assumed to be a unique example of repertoire composed exclusively for performance by the singing ladies. In style and appearance they are quite unlike any other publication of the period, including those by Luzzaschi himself, having fully written-out keyboard parts and elaborately ornamented vocal lines. Closer inspection reveals that the keyboard parts are nothing more than entabulations of four- or five-voice madrigals while the vocal parts are embellished versions of one or more of these lines. By 1600, the accepted format for the publication of solo song was either with lute entabulation or with basso continuo. The unusual format of these madrigals, together with their anachronistic musical foundations and the fact that the concerto at Ferrara had been disbanded for some time, suggests they were already testimony to a earlier approach to performance. The Duke would certainly not have permitted their publication while the concerto was still flourishing. As such they give insight into performance practice within the musica secreta (the term often used to describe the Duke’s ensemble), a link between the madrigal as published and the madrigal as performed.

With this in mind, the ensemble Musica Secreta began in the early 1990s to look at other madrigals by composers known to be associated with the Ferrarese court in the 1580s and 90s. Was there any reason why these could not be similarly arranged along the lines of the Luzzaschi models? Many, particularly those by Wert, have three soprano parts which are given special prominence. By using instruments to play the lower voice parts, and by adding ornamentation to the sung parts, it was possible to create accompanied duets and trios out of five-voice madrigals. In December 1999 the ensemble (Deborah Roberts and Tessa Bonner, sopranos; Catherine King, mezzo-soprano; Mary Nichols, alto; David Miller, lute/theorbo; John Toll, harpsichord), in collaboration with Dr Laurie Stras of the University of Southampton, were given substantial funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Board to explore this idea further over a two-year period. They will now be looking at Italian madrigals from the earliest period of ‘singing ladies’, joined by a number of guest artists, including Richard Wistreich and Frances Kelly. With a combination of archival and editorial work, scholarly publications, developmental workshops, public concerts and recordings, they hope to pave the way for a more flexible approach to performing this vast, but largely ignored repertoire.


Written by Laurie Stras.

Last updated 22 April, 2002.

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