Tuesday 27 October 2015

Music of a 16th century nun - Lucrezia Borgia's daughter at BREMF

BRIGHTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL - BREMF 2015 Event 10: Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter @ St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens & Brighton Festival Youth Choir - photo Robert Piwko
Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter @ St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens
photo Robert Piwko
Lucrezia Borgia's daughter - music by Leonora d'Este & her contemporaries; Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Bartholomew's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 24 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Remarkable music written by a remarkable 16th century Italian nun

Leonora d'Este was the daughter of Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara and his wife Lucrezia (Borgia). Despite being the only legitimate daughter in the ducal family, Leonora became a nun against her father's wishes. A music lover, her convent of Clarissan nuns (Poor Clares) was highly musical. As part of this year's Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF), whose theme is women in music, they presented Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens  (directors Deborah Roberts and Laurie Stras) and Brighton Festival Youth Choir (director Esther Jones) at St. Bartholomew's Church on 24 October 2015 in a programme of music written for 16th century Italian nuns by Heinrich Isaac, Josquin des Prez, Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, Francesco della Viola and probably by Leonora d'Este herself.

The 'probably' arises because Leonora d'Este's music for her convent has left little physical trace, except for a book published anonymously. This is likely hers, but as an aristocrat and a nun it would have been unseemly to be seen to distribute her music. Much of the research into Leonora d'Este was done by Laurie Stras who co-directs, with Deborah Roberts (joint artistic director of BREMF), the vocal ensemble Musica Secreta and the Brighton-based amateur and student ensemble Celestial Sirens.

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter @ St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton -  Brighton Festival Youth Choir - photo Robert Piwko
Brighton Festival Youth Choir - photo Robert Piwko
We started with a group of Italian laude, vernacular sacred songs, from the century before Leonora d'Este's birth, sung by Brighton Festival Youth Choir conducted by Esther Jones. Gaude flore virginali, Madre che festi and O dilecto Ihesu, attractive, melodic pieces which were appealingly sung by the young choristers.

The youth choir also sang the Alleluia from a sequence from Missa plena de Beata Virgine possibly written by Heinrich Isaac (one of the slight frustrations of the concert was the Laurie Stras's excellent programme notes concentrated on Leonora d'Este and did not say much about the other music being performed). The youth choir was joined by Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens singing the attractively melodic Verse and Prose from the other end of the church. The remainder of the programme was then sung by Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens.

The soloists of Musica Secreta (Deborah Roberts, Yvonne Eddy, Katharine Hawnt, Nancy Cole and Caroline Trevor) performed some of the programme alone and some with Celestial Sirens accompanied by Alison Kinder on viol and Clare Williams on organ.

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter @ St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton -  Music Secreta and Celestial Sirens - photo Robert Piwko
Music Secreta and Celestial Sirens - photo Robert Piwko
We had music by Leonora d'Este's contemporaries and composers. From the previous generation there was Josquin des Prez's Alma redemptoris mater with its lovely textures. Three of the composers were ones who worked for her family. We heard the Ave regina coelorum and O cruz benedicta by Cipriano de Rore, who was Leonora d'Este's contemporary and maestro di musica in Ferra, Aspice Domine with its lovely flowing intertwining lines by Adrien Willaert with whom Leonora d'Este may have studied, and a Petrarch setting Talhor m'assale in mezzo, in which the two solo voices created a surprisingly rich texture, by Francesco della Viola who worked for her nephew.

These were the musics which surrounded Leonora d'Este but without a mother and with no close female relatives she grew up in a convent so her participation would have been limited. The music attributed to her has a very distinctive style. We heard ten pieces in all which varied from large scale multi-part works such as Angeli, Archangeli, Troni sung by Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens, to trios and four-part works such as Ave sanctissima Maria sung one to a part by Musica Secreta.

The music gave us a sense of a distinctive voice, the music flowing and almost florid but the multiple lines interweaving to create a single coherent mobile texture. I suspect that Leonora d'Este utilised a wide vocal range for her textures, as the writing seemed to go from Deborah Robert's high soprano to Caroline Trevor's low alto. The music was always seductive and often hypnotic, particularly the sound of all female polyphony, with a lovely clarity to some of the high voice parts. Leonora d'Este seems to have been very fond of canon and imitation with her works repeatedly conveying this sense.

Some of the pieces were clearly liturgical but others were probably written for private meditative prayer (the music to this purpose as something the Clarissans were keen on). Most of the music was accompanied by Alison Kinder and Claire Williams on viol and organ, the accompaniment varying from the discreet to the positively showy.

There was a lot of new and unfamiliar music in this concert, and we were treated to some striking discoveries. But there were also a lot of notes and there were one or two moments when the luxury of more rehearsal would have been desirable.

To add to the atmosphere the women were all dressed as nuns, which created a strange sense of anonymity which fitted with the music. Though there were complex solo lines, all were subsumed into the greater whole and it was the ensemble which counted.

Musica Secreta is planning to record the motets attributed to Leonora d'Este and they have a crowd funding campaign going at Crowdfunder, please do support them. The music is astonishing and we can only applaud the work and the scholarship which went into making the programme possible and letting us hear these remarkable piece.

Other BREMF reviews on Planet Hugill:

Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard von Bingen - Niamh Cusack, The Telling, Celestial Sirens

Elsewhere on this blog:

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