Sunday 16 April 2017

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter: Princess, nun and musician

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter
Leonora d'Este Musica quincum voce; Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, Deborah Roberts, Laurie Stras; Obsidian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 9 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A window into the mesmerising world of music in 16th century Italian convents

The motets on this disc, Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter: Princess, nun and musician, were published anonymously in Venice in 1543, and though still anonymous when republished in 1549, there is good reason to believe they are the work of Suor Leonora d'Este, the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia (yes, that Lucrezia Borgia) and Duke Alfonso I d'Este of Ferrara.

The disc, on the Obsidian label, supported by the Ambache Trust, presents motets by Suor Leonora d'Este performed by Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens, directed by Deborah Rogers and Laurie Stras. A selection of motets were performed at Brighton Early Music Festival in 2016, and on this disc we get the opportunity to hear 16 of the 23 motets, written in a style which is some of the most advanced of the period. We know little about Leonora, she was four when her mother died and she was placed in the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara (lacking a near female relative), she told her father (firmly) at eight that she wished to be a nun, was Abbess of Corpus Domini at 18. She was also very musical and from a musical family.

We also know little about music in convents at the time, except that the men of the church hierarchy distrusted convent polyphony saying it was morally dangerous for the nuns as it led to vanity.

Here we have motets written for voci pari - equal voices, in five parts. Some are sung one to a part, some two, using singers from Musica Secreta, and in others Musica Secreta is joined by Celestial Sirens, a non-professional women's ensemble directed by Deborah Roberts which specialises in music of this period.

The results are entrancing and mesmeric.
Leonora d'Este, assuming she is the composer, was very fond of imitation so that many of the motets have a hypnotic quality as voices imitate each other in repeated waves. In her booklet note Laurie Stras explains that they have come to this performing edition after many years performing these works so I am not clear how much the use of lower voices (in some the altos go very low) is editorial or Leonora d'Este. But clearly the nuns would have used these as source material just as Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens do.

The women of Musica Secreta have some lovely solo voices, and the smaller scale performances are recorded relatively closely giving us an intimate view of the texture of the pieces whilst the larger scale performances are recorded at more of a distance.

This is not simple, or simplistic, music and Leonora d'Este was not frightened of occasional semitone clash in the music arising from the imitation. But the sheer mesmeric nature of the pieces can get a bit much and this is a CD to dip into.

Thanks to Laurie Stras, Deborah Roberts, Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens we are able to glimpse into the world of convent music in the 16th century. There is an excellent CD booklet which introduced Leonora d'Este and her music as well as the background to Deborah Roberts and Laurie Stras' work on the motets and the attribution to Leonora d'Este.

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter
Suor Leonora d Este (1515-1575) - Musica quincum vocum motteta materna lingua vocata
Musica Secreta
Celestia Sirens
Laurie Stras & Deborah Robert (directors)
Recorded at Bishop Edward King Chapel, Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, 22-26 August 2016
OBSIDIAN CD717 1Cd [64.44]
Available from Amazon.
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