Program Notes

Our program includes music by several of the greatest Italian composers of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Palestrina is often pointed to as the most perfect representative of what was essentially the last style of Renaissance polyphony and the epitome of the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. It is Palestrina’s style that we know as the Ars Perfecta; the “perfect” refinement of the musical art of the Renaissance. The composers Raffaella Aleotti, Maddalena Casulana, Sulpitia Cesis, and the noblewoman Leonora d’Este, however, are not as well known- composers from a time when women’s unique musical compositions begin to emerge in print.  As you will hear, their music makes it clear why people eagerly visited convents to hear it and why we need to incorporate their contributions into our own understanding of late Renaissance and early Baroque music. We are pleased to provide notes on these women composers by Barbara Eichner, followed by comments from Robert Eisenstein on Palestrina, Monteverdi, and the instrumental selections.

“Did women have a Renaissance?” American historian Joan Kelly famously asked in 1977, answering that the era of optimistic self-discovery and classical learning largely bypassed women, whose legal rights and economic opportunities appeared, if anything, to deteriorate in the 15th and 16th centuries. Music, however, bucked the trend. Not only do we find the first female composers who speak to us with distinct artistic voices, women were also more visibly active as publishers, purchasers, and patrons of music. Italian princesses like Isabella d’Este led the trend by employing first-rate performers and commissioning new music. Women who acted as regents for under-age rulers or who were sovereigns in their own right had even more opportunities to shape the cultural life of court and country. Whereas a married princess or queen consort only controlled her own household (that often included professional musicians or gifted noblewomen), normally the “official” court chapel for sacred and secular music came under the remit of her husband. A female ruler, however, could command all the musical resources at her court, sacred and secular, public and private.

If it is difficult to see whether or how Maddalena Casulana made a “career” in music, there is no doubt that musical training opened many doors in 16th-century Italy. Musical skills were indispensable for a young lady who aimed for a position at court, but they also helped girls to gain entry into prestigious convents, where the highlights of the daily liturgy were celebrated with polyphonic music. Leonora d’Este (1515-1575), the daughter of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara and Lucrezia Borgia, was sent to the Clarissan convent of Corpus Domini at age four, when she had lost her mother. Against the will of her father she decided to take the veil and later became the convent’s abbess, retaining her active interest in music and music theory. Music historian Laurie Stras has convincingly identified Suor Leonora as the author of an anonymous motet collection printed in Venice in 1543. Not only are the five-part pieces scored consistently for high voices suitable for an all-female ensemble, several were also directly relevant to the Ferrarese convent: The text of Sicut lilium inter spinas belonged to a special Franciscan devotion to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, whilst the joyful Veni sponsa Christi is suitable for a service admitting new members into the convent. Several motets of the collection reference the Eucharist, as would be fitting for a religious house named “Corpus Domini,” and O salutaris hostia additionally uses a chant melody from an office for St. Clare. All three compositions share a preference for floating, frequently crossing melodic lines whose slow-moving harmonies create an otherworldly effect.

The comparison of nuns’ voices with angels came naturally to the many visitors who flocked to Italian nunneries in the late 16th and 17th centuries. The invisibility of the singers, performing from the walled-up inner church, added to their mysterious aura. But there was also civic pride in the musical prowess of the nuns, who usually came from local upper-class families, such as Raffaella Aleotti (1575-after 1646), the daughter of the Ferrarese court architect. She entered the Augustinian convent San Vito in 1589 and published a collection of motets for five, seven, eight, and ten voices in 1593—the earliest publication by a nun and the first pieces of sacred music credited publicly to a woman. In contrast to those by Suor Leonora, her motets are scored for mixed voices, possibly to reach a wider buying public. But the lower parts could easily have been performed by an organ or even viols, and sometimes the bass was transposed to the upper octave. The top voices are also singled out in imaginative ways, for example when the sopranos act as narrator for the angel’s announcement in the Christmas motet Angelus ad pastores ait. Aleotti approaches the text with an ear for rhetorical flourish when she switches to triple meter for the expression of great joy (gaudium magnum) or when she slows down the declamation for the despondent contristatus sum in Exaudi Deus orationem meam. Aleotti herself was the dedicatee of two publications of sacred music, attesting to her recognition among her male colleagues.

Her contemporary Sulpitia Cesis (born in 1577) even helped to put her native Modena, a musical backwater until the turn of the century, on the musical map. She took her vows at the Augustinian convent of San Geminiano in 1593 and published a volume of Motetti spirituali in 1619. A Modenese chronicler recalls the musical excellence of the convent, where the nuns were versed “in all sorts of musical instruments, having Sister Faustina Borghi, a young woman of 22 and a fine virtuoso in counterpoint, who plays cornett and organ, and Sister Sulpita, daughter of the most illustrious Signor Count Cesis, who plays the lute excellently.” It was quite unusual for women to play wind instruments, but in a convent the invisibility of the performers and the strict prohibition of playing with male musicians created opportunities for developing these skills. Two motets from Cesis’s collection explicitly call for trombones, violones, arciviolone, and cornett, possibly reflecting the choice of instruments at San Geminiano. In contrast, Ascendo ad Patrem and Cantemus Domino are scored for eight vocal parts divided into two choirs which are contrasted effectively, sometimes bouncing short phrases or even individual words from one group to the other before breaking into festive, joyful triple meter for the final exultation.                                                                               

--Barbara Eichner


The music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) has probably been more revered than that of any other 16th-century musician, a trend which started in his own lifetime. Palestrina was from the town of that name, near Rome, and stayed for almost his entire career in the service of the great and ancient churches of Rome and his hometown, including St. Peter's. He was certainly in tune with the musical ideals of the Counter-Reformation—chiefly that the words be made more intelligible than in earlier polyphonic practice. As early as 1607 the story was told (satisfying but probably not at all true) of his Missa Papa Marcellus convincing the assembled Cardinals of the Council of Trent that it was not necessary to completely ban polyphony from the Church. And a project that occupied considerable amounts of his time in 1577 and 1578 was the revision of the chants of the Roman Church, purging them of "superfluities...barbarisms and obscurities," according to Pope Gregory XIII. This work culminated in the Editio Medicaea of 1614, which remained current until the later revisions of the Solesmes monks in the early 21st century. Palestrina's style is indeed one of great clarity and sophistication.  Although he is an absolute master of counterpoint, he never allows pure virtuosic display to intrude. The words are always set sensitively and clearly. The music has a smooth-flowing quality, owing to the fairly regular alternation of strong and weak beats, smooth, mostly stepwise melodic movement, and careful control of dissonance. It is music wholly and wonderfully suited to its purpose, with a tremendous amount of appeal, both in terms of its luscious purely surface beauty and its masterful setting of the texts.

We present two of his motets in eight parts, the Marian antiphon Regina coeli and the 13th-century hymn Stabat Mater, performed as they could not have been in the Sistine Chapel, since no instruments were allowed to participate there. Still, the style of these grand motets in two choirs lends itself to a more Venetian performance with brass, organ, and our other instruments. We also include an instrumental performance of Palestrina’s most famous madrigal, Vestiva i colli. The composer confessed as an older man that he “blushed and grieved” to have composed such lascivious pieces in his youth. We will also have diminutions on his motet Pulchra es amica mea, from the Song of Songs.

Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1555-1612), one of the most important Venetian composers of his generation, was possibly brought up by his uncle Andrea, and both men served at the court of Duke Albrecht V in Munich while Lassus directed the music there. When Claudio Merulo died, Giovanni became the organist at San Marco where he remained until his death. Gabrieli composed mostly concerted music for the church, along with compositions for organ and various instrumental ensembles. He never published a collection of madrigals, although he did write some for various occasions. His instrumental music, like the two canzonas we perform this evening, was intended for use in San Marco during mass and vespers services. San Marco had many instrumentalists in service, including the virtuoso cornetto players Girolamo Dalla Casa and Giovanni Bassano, and their influence is often apparent in Gabrieli’s concerted music. 

The organ virtuoso Claudio Merulo was born Claudio Merlotti in Correggio in 1533, and died in Parma in 1604. He may have studied with Adrian Willaert in Venice, and in 1557, at the age of 24, he won a competition (besting Andrea Gabrieli among others) to become second organist at San Marco. During this time he became prolific as a composer of vocal music, both sacred and secular, and instrumental works as well.  According to a contemporary, he was “embraced by the Venetian patriciate,” and composed for private and civic celebrations as well as the church.  He was also involved with instrument craftsmen and owned shares in a company that produced organ parts. 

Giovanni Bassano was a wind player and composer. As a “very young man” he was appointed in 1576 one of the “pifferidei doge,” six wind players directly under the authority of the doge. He may also have been the “Zanetto” who was a boy chorister at San Marco.  He became the head of the instrumental ensemble at the basilica in 1601 and held that post until his death.  Like that of most Renaissance instrumentalists, Bassano’s stock in trade was improvisation, often based on ornamenting the lines of polyphonic compositions. In 1585 he printed an instruction book and examples of embellished pieces by Willaert, Cypriano de Rore, and others.  These kinds of virtuoso embellishments show up in some of Giovanni Gabrieli’s large concerted pieces and were probably written for Bassano to play. 

The most intricate and virtuosic of these diminutions, however, are by Riccardo Rognoni, a Milanese violinist who published his Passaggi per potersi esercitare nel diminuire in 1592. It is, like a few other such 16th-century works, a how-to book on making your own improvised decorations for songs, with some wonderful examples. We include here his son Francesco Rognoni’s diminutions on Palestrina’s Song of Songs motet Pulchra es amica mea.

Lodovico Grossi (c. 1560-1627) was from the town of Viadana near Parma and took the name of his birthplace when he entered a religious order. He was one of the first composers to include a real basso continuo with his sacred vocal music, which constitutes most of his output. He did publish a book of eight-part instrumental pieces, and composed a few other instrumental pieces, like the Canzon Francese we perform here.  

Vestiva i colli was Palestrina’s most popular madrigal, reprinted many times during the 16th century, and it became the basis for embellished versions for instruments like the one by Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde.  Salaverde was an early 17th-century Augustinian friar, composer, and bassoonist. His father may have been employed by the royal chapel in Madrid as an instrumentalist, but Bartolomé was employed the Archduke Leopold in Innsbruck for a time, and probably stayed in the German-speaking areas. His one surviving publication dates from 1638 and shows him to be an excellent composer in the new virtuoso instrumental style of the early Baroque period.

Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was, after Monteverdi, the most important composer of opera in mid-17th-century Venice. He sang soprano at San Marco as a boy, became organist, and in 1668 became maestro di cappella, the position held earlier by Monteverdi. Although he primarily composed operas and sacred music, he did write some instrumental music like the Canzon performed here.  

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), of course, is one of the true giants of our musical past and stands on the cusp of the transition to Baroque style. He embraced the revolutionary techniques of the monodists and was instrumental in bringing the new developments in secular music to church forms. But an important aspect of his genius was his ability to write in the old style as well, and to combine elements of the old style and the new in a synthesis all his own. He did all this every bit as effectively as he crafted brilliant examples of the new monodic style. 

The 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine is in every respect one of the towering masterpieces of the Baroque era. It is daring and grand in conception and structure and represents the very best of all the musical styles current in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century. The title page of the original print of 1610 states that it includes “A Mass of the most holy Virgin for six voices and Vespers to be sung by more voices, with a few sacred songs suitable for the chapels or chambers of princes; a work by Claudio Monteverdi recently composed and dedicated to the most holy Pope Paul V.” This print consists of eight partbooks, only one of which (the bassus generalis, also marked Partitura del Monte verde) has the heading after the Mass “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin in the concerto style composed on plainchant.” There is chant enough in the texture of the psalms, Ave Maris Stella, and the Magnificat, and what seems to have been one of Monteverdi’s main goals in this composition was to present us with a meditation on all the ways of treating the age-old chant. In the five psalms, the ever-present plainsong receives kaleidoscopic treatment, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes buried in the texture, sometimes freely varied.  In the hymn Ave Maris Stella, the chant becomes a beautiful Baroque melody and is sung complete for each verse in the highest voice with interpolated instrumental ritornelli. 

--Robert Eisenstein