Musica Secreta: Mother, Sister, Daughter

Mother, Sister, Daughter
Musica Secreta
, Laurie Stras
Kings Place, 10 June 2022

CD and download Lucky Music, LCKY001.

As part of their Voices Unwrapped series of concerts, Kings Place welcomed vocal group Musica Secreta and their director, Professor Laurie Stras in a CD launch programme celebrating “women’s spiritual relationships and the stories they tell” under the title of Mother, Sister, Daughter. The music revealed musically creative women from 15th and 16th-century communities of sisters, notably in the convents of Santa Lucia in Verona and San Matteo in Arcetri, Florence. It includes motets attributed to Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, Suor Leonora d’Este, and an Office of St Clare from the convent of Galileo’s illegitimate daughter, Suor Maria Celeste Galilei, together with music by Brumel, Maistre Jhan and anonymous (and possibly female) composers. It culminated in a newly commissioned work by Joanna Marsh.

The opening two pieces come from manuscripts in the Biblioteca Capitolare in Verona dating from c1495 and c1480. The opening Missa de Beata Virgine was sung by the six singers gathered on either side of a music desk, matching the illustration of St Lucy and nuns in the manuscript. It was followed by the Vespers of St Lucy, taking the form of a dialogue between St Lucy and St Agatha, with the inner verses sung as duets.

A group of pieces followed including Virgo Maria speciosissima attributed to Leonora d’Este. It incorporates the opening phrase of Brumel’s Mater patris et filia which was sung first. Leonora d’Este was the intended recipient of Maistre Jhan’s Ecce amica mea, a switched gender re-interpretation of the Song of Songs as Leonora peers from
behind the convent grille. Extracts from two solo vernacular songs followed, the first composed by Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, the second written by Martha Baerts for the daughter of her employer Lady Soutken van den Houte who, along with Martha Baerts was beheaded for their Anabaptist beliefs. Another solo was Mater Christe cooperto, setting new words to existing music to change the focus from David and Absalon to Mary and Jesus.

The Vespers of St Clare came from the elaborate 1560 Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript (BrusBR 27766, pictured above), which Laurie Stras has recently identified as coming from the “humble, rural” convent of San Matteo in Arcteri, Florence. This was the home of Sister Maria Celeste Galilei, the illegitimate daughter of the scientist Galileo Galilei. She entered the convent aged just thirteen and died there at the age of 34, shortly after her father returned to Arcetri, having been sentenced to house arrest and forced to recant his views on cosmology. Maria Celeste came from a musical family and towards the end of her life, taught chant and supervised the daily office.

The high point in the liturgical calendar of San Matteo was the Feast of St Clare, the founder of the order. A two-day ceremony reflected on the life of St Clare, and included two Vespers services, selections of the second of which were performed. The CD and download include more sections of the Vespers.

The concert finished with Musica Secreta’s first commission, The Veiled Sisters by British composer Joanna Marsh. This combines the words of contemporary Norfolk poet Esther Morgan and the 17th-century poet Alessandro Francucci, contrasting the moment a beautiful young singer enters a convent with the view of another woman looking out from a dark interior – reflecting “Suor Leonora, peering from behind the grille in Maistre Jhan’s work and Clare joyously entering her cloistered life”.

The singing was accompanied by various combinations of organ, Renaissance bass and treble viols and an attractively twangy harp. The three soloists were Victoria Couper, Hannah Ely and Katharine Hawnt. The singing was very effective in recreating the possible sound of a mixed group of nuns singing in their cloistered chapels, each voice having its own timbre but combining well.