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The secret music composed by medieval nuns

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), whose convent wrote and sang its own music

In the 15th century, nuns charted a new path for choral music. One bishop was so alarmed that he bricked up a convent

It’s an almost unbelievable statistic, but according to Professor Laurie Stras, an academic at Huddersfield University and noted authority on the subject, some 20 per cent of the female population of Catholic Europe in the 15th century lived in convents. If you limited the survey to women of noble birth, the figure rose to a still more astonishing 50 per cent. And what were all these women doing in their convents, beyond study, prayer and sleep? They sang around the clock – creating and performing a vast catalogue of music that, Stras complains, has been ignored by history.

The standard textbooks on the history of Western choral music certainly portray it as a largely male preserve, maintained by male composers writing works for men and boys to sing. The contribution of women gets acknowledged at the very start of things, when Hildegard of Bingen and her nuns were singing in the 12th century. But thereafter, women disappear from the narrative – unfairly, says Stras, when there was actually so much going on.

To prove the point, she has put her scholarship to practical use by co-founding an all-female vocal group, Musica Secreta, which exists to retrieve this convent music from oblivion. And the group performs next week at St Pancras Parish Church, London, as one of the opening events for a year of music by women which is the core theme of the 2019 programme at nearby Kings Place concert halls. A year that bears the title Venus Unwrapped.

The unwrapping that Stras has been engaged in is already quite remarkable. As she says, “this great wealth of music in convents was happening all over mainland Europe in the 15th century, especially in Italian cities like Verona, Bologna and Ferrara, but also in England where there were prominent musical establishments at Barking Abbey and Syon Abbey.

“But the problem is that when these convents got closed down – either at the Reformation or later on during the Napoleonic conquest of Europe – their libraries were scattered. The music manuscripts were lost or fragmented. And what survived was often in an ambiguous form with no named author and no clear indication as to whether it was intended for male or female voices. So the assumption tended to be that it was male and, what’s more, written by a man. But that assumption can no longer apply, because we know now that there were so many female establishments that excelled in music-making.”

The reason for advanced musicianship in medieval and Renaissance convents isn’t hard to understand. Music was important to the economy of the cloister. It attracted money from benefactors who wanted their weddings, requiems or other liturgical celebrations to be done with style and grandeur. And it made the convent more attractive to sophisticated women who found convent life a safe space for intellectual pursuits and – no less significant – were likely to arrive with handsome dowries.

Reciprocally, convents sought out novices with musical ability, sometimes waiving the dowry requirements if the woman came with particular talents – like the ability to sing a bass line or to play the bass viol in the consort of instruments that might accompany more elaborate polyphony. And it was polyphony that sometimes got the convent into trouble with the (needless to add, male) authorities.

Simple chanting of the Offices was unexceptionable, but the aural spectacle of complex, technically demanding music was an invitation to the sin of pride and stamped on from above, depending on the diocese. Complex music flourished in Siena and Milan; and for a while it flourished in Ferrara, where the bishop was supportive. But he died in 1590, to be replaced by someone of stricter temperament who then policed the convent music and enforced rules of rigorous enclosure – so that, whatever the nuns did, the laity wouldn’t have the chance to hear it.

Similar measures were taken in Bologna in the 1600s, where the bishop bricked up a convent to stop its music escaping to the general ear. Another fierce opponent of musical display was the Florentine Dominican preacher Savonarola, though he wasn’t always so forbidding. As a young man, he wrote a sonnet in praise of the aristocratic nun (and later saint) Catherine of Bologna, whose fame as a poet and musician extended throughout Italy. But he then became fanatically opposed to any kind of skilled music-making in the religious life, sanctioning nothing beyond simple community singing and launching specific attacks on the use of the organ – whose primary purpose was to support the lower voices in polyphonic elaboration.

Delving into the past, Hildegard herself was admonished for the musical and other intellectual ambitions of her convent. And it’s worth remembering that at the best of times the music-making in an average convent would be heard but never seen: the singing nuns would be behind a grille or screen, or (like a choir of angels) high up in a gallery referred to as the matrimonium. Keeping them apart, and chaste and modest.

What’s striking is that, for all the sustained efforts to silence them, these communities produced what are now known to be composers of worth. They tended to be in Augustinian or Benedictine houses because others, such as the Franciscan order of Poor Clares, had tighter rules about the ownership of property that made acquiring instruments a hard task. And if there’s one figure that Professor Stras thinks we should all have on our radars it’s Leonora d’Este, daughter of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia and born a princess of Ferrara, though she took the veil as a child and spent almost the entirety of her life in a convent.

“A lot of the received wisdom on Lucrezia Borgia is nonsense,” says Stras. “She wasn’t as bad as you think. And her daughter Leonora was a musician whose technical accomplishment was extraordinary. There’s scholarly dispute about what can be attributed to her, but I argue that she’s responsible for some outstanding motets written in five equal voices and staying within the boundaries of good polyphonic practice – which I can tell you is difficult.”

As you might expect, Leonora’s music will feature prominently in Musica Secreta’s programme next week, alongside work by Hildegard and (with a generous spirit of inclusion) music written for convent voices by male composers such as Palestrina and Josquin des Prez.

And should you wonder why this concert under the Kings Place banner is happening in a church, Professor Stras’s explanation is that “quite apart from offering a maybe more appropriate atmosphere, St Pancras will allow us to move around and give the audience something closer to the original experience of this music. Which means that some of the time the singers will be invisible, as the nuns would have been.”

As visual metaphors go, it neatly sums up what would be the fate of convent music for the next 500 or so years. But no more.

Not Mortals but Angels: the Flowering of Convent Music with Musica Secreta at St Pancras Parish Church on January 16, 7.30pm. Booking: