As the Renaissance waned in the sixteenth century, Italy stood at the forefront of European musical culture. Major Italian cities, through their nobility and church hierarchy, fostered an unparalleled wealth of composers, performers, and theorists. Italian expatriates disseminated the latest innovations to courts and chapels throughout Europe, and many leading musicians from abroad traveled to Italy to study with the great masters. It was in Italy that the rediscovery of interest in classical Greek and Roman literature and rhetoric led to the birth of a new style of music focusing on text rather than on melodic line. A new genre was born – the monody – which consisted of a solo vocal part accompanied by a chordal bass, usually performed on a plucked string or keyboard instrument. A curious mixture of cutting- edge harmonic freedom and attempts to recreate the declamatory style of the Greek epic poets, Italian monody, or stile recitativo, would play a major role in European music for the next two centuries. While the monodic song originated as a secular art form, it was quickly appropriated – as were many musical trends – into the realm of the sacred, albeit not without its share of controversy.
In the seventeenth century just as today, the Roman Catholic Church was known for its social and cultural conservatism, and its attitudes toward music were no exception. Composers who held positions in both sacred and secular spheres would often reserve their more adventurous work for the stage and court while reverting to older forms, harmonies, and musical language favored by church officials for their sacred music. The duality between sacred and secular compositional styles eventually broke down for the most part, due to the ubiquity of the cantata and the increasing popularity of opera. By the first decades of the 18th century, the only real differences between cantata versus motet and oratorio versus opera were in the choice of texts and performance venues.
A very interesting venue indeed was the Italian convent. During the 17th century it became a common practice for noble families to force their younger daughters into becoming nuns, often to avoid having to pay the exorbitant dowries that noble marriages demanded. Despite this serious injustice, the cloistered life did offer some privileges, including the opportunity for education and advancement within the order, more accessible to women from prosperous families and often denied to those of lesser means. The Catholic Church, through several harshly worded papal edicts, tried with varying degrees of enforcement to curtail music making by nuns and by women in general. However, convents continued to be dynamic centers of musical performance into the 18th century, attracting the attention of music-loving nobility who would come from afar to hear the nuns sing and play during Mass and the Divine Offices. Despite unwelcome attention from church officials who would, from time to time, attempt to eliminate the practice entirely, convents continued to cultivate music performance and composition during a time where women were, with few exceptions, prevented from pursuing musical careers with increasing intensity.
In his Catalogue des livres de musique, the French composer, book collector, and encyclopedist Sebastien de Brossard wrote of Isabella Leonarda: “All the works of the illustrious and incomparable Isabelle Léonard [sic] are so beautiful, so gracious, so brilliant, and at once so knowledgeable and learned that my greatest regret is in not having them all.” Very little is known about Leonarda except what was written in civic records and what she herself included in the prefatory and dedicatory writings published with her compositions. She was born Anna Isabella Leonarda in Novara on 6 September 1620, the daughter of Giantonio Leonardi, a lawyer and a member of the minor nobility, who held several civic posts in the city. Her death was recorded as occurring on 25 February 1704. All three of her brothers held important religious or civic posts, and her nephew Nicolò Leonardi, a poet who in addition to furnishing a prefatory sonnet to Isabella’s collection of solo motets published as Op. 12 (1686), also wrote the libretto to Domenico Freschi’s opera L’amante muto loquace, which was performed in Venice in 1680.
In 1636, the sixteen-year-old Isabella Leonarda entered the Collegio di Sant’Orsola, an Ursuline convent in the parish of Santa Eufemia in Novara. The Ursulines are a teaching order, and judging by the name of the convent it is assumed that it was a school for girls. In her youth, Leonarda most probably studied with the Novarese organist and composer Gasparo Casati (ca. 1610-1641), who included two of her motets for two voices and basso continuo in his Terzo libro de sacri concenti (1640). In addition to the religious and administrative duties required of a nun in her position, she managed to publish twenty volumes of music, over 250 compositions in all, over a sixty-year period. Evidence of Leonarda’s rise through the ranks can be gleaned from the title pages of her publications. By 1676 (Op. 6) she is madre, by 1686 (Op. 12) she is identified as superiora, in 1693 (Op. 16) she is madre vicaria, and in her final publication, Opus 20, of 1700, she calls herself Consigliera.
The years 1684-1687 were some of Leonarda’s most productive. As Mother Superior, she was most likely relieved of some of the administrative duties that occupied her younger years, and could devote her energy to not only composition, but also the publication of her earlier output. In this four-year span, she oversaw the printing of five volumes of music. Quam Dulcis Es, originally scored for soprano, two violins, and basso continuo and here transposed down a minor third for alto, comes from her collection of motets for 1-3 voices published as Op. 13 (1687.) This piece retains elements of Leonarda’s older style, with more use of recitative and a more conservative harmonic palette. It concludes with a brilliant Amen, moving away from the swinging triple meters of the earlier arias and building to an intensely emotional climax.
Many 18th century composers, most notably George Frederick Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, have left us surviving examples of revision, adaptation, and re-composition, including earlier versions of many of Bach’s organ chorale preludes and multiple versions of aria’s from Handel’s Messiah. Surviving 17th century examples are much fewer in number. Fortunately, Leonarda has provided us with a fascinating glimpse into how she updated and revised her works in keeping with changing musical styles over her almost 60-year compositional career. O Maria, quam dulcis, quam cara was first published in 1677 as part of Op. 7, scored for alto, two violins, and basso continuo (Organo). 23 years later, she included a new setting of the piece in her final publication, Op. 20 collection of solo motets, which the 80-year-old composer published in 1700. Starting in 1693 with the publication of her instrumental sonatas, the bowed bass instrument was given its own partbook, separate from the basso continuo. This allows Leonarda to write functionally antiphonal music, with the voice, organ, and plucked instrument in one choir and the three bowed strings in the other, and she makes good use of this technique in her new O Maria, a bright and vivacious piece mostly in arietta, that is, without recitative. Metric modulations and harmonic surprises build energy from one section to the next, and the motet concludes with a breezy, spirited Amen.
Leonarda’s first version of Venite, laetantes, set for soprano and basso continuo, was published as part of Op. 14 in 1687. The second version, from Op. 20 (1700), is rescored for alto, with significant changes to the bass line and the addition of a wonderful Alleluia. Theologically, the text (probably written by Leonarda herself) is quite interesting, being one of a very small number of first-person Marian lyrics from the 17th century. As with most of her solo motets, Venite, laetantes was most probably written to be performed either at the elevation of the Host during the Mass or, more likely, outside of the church as “sacred recreation,” - a thinly-veiled excuse for a semi-public concert, a practice that courageously flaunted the church’s decrees against nuns’ performing outside of the divine liturgy. While much of Leonarda’s liturgical choral music, including the magnificent Vespers of 1698, tended towards a more conservative style, her solo motets and other smaller-scale non-liturgical works are as a rule more experimental and more dramatic, drawing more brazenly from the conventions found in contemporary secular cantatas.
In 1693, Leonarda published a collection of twelve instrumental sonatas, mostly for two violins, bowed bass, and basso continuo. This volume is one of only two extant collections of purely instrumental music published by female composers in 17th-century Italy, the other being a book of dance pieces by the Venetian noblewoman Marieta Morosina Priuli dating from 1667. Overall rather conservative in form (Corelli had already published three collections of trio sonatas by this time), Leonarda’s sonatas are still organized in a series of contrasting sections set apart by changes of meter and affect, instead of being made up of independent movements, suggesting that their composition may have predated their publication by some time. Sonata Quarta is the most extroverted and cheerful of the collection, set in the celebratory key of D Major. Its quick sections are lively dances, full of infectious rhythms and spirited dialogue between the violins, offset with more introspective recitatives. Unlike some of the other sonatas in the volume, the bowed bass (marked violone) is not independent of the basso continuo. Leonarda only gives it one place to stretch its wings, a brief solo recitative that gives the performer an improvisational opportunity. The sonata closes on a wistful note, with a gentle, singing Adagio.
Sonata Duodecima, the final piece in the collection, is Leonarda’s only known composition for solo violin and continuo (and the seventeenth century’s only such composition by a woman). It opens with a fine example of instrumental recitative, in which Leonarda captures the spirit of the monodic style and transfers it very successfully to the violin’s idiom. The sections that follow are full of spirit, vitality, and richness of melody, including a very tender slow aria reminiscent of the finest bel canto.
Sonata Prima is the longest and in some ways the most developed of all the trio sonatas. After a brisk opening, the piece blooms with a lovely, singing aria that showcases Leonarda’s gift for melody at its finest. An introspective adagio leads into a vigorous fugue, full of surprising twists and unexpected turns of phrase. Unlike the controlled and concise recitatives in her Sonata Quarta, Leonarda gives each instrument a more elaborate soliloquy before rounding off the sonata with a lively romp of a Vivace.
- Henry Lebedinsky
Translations by Fr. Edward Vodoklys, SJ
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