In 16th-century Italy – and across Europe – convents were the backbones of the economic and spiritual wellbeing of a city. At their core were expertly-run choirs of nuns, so talented and so popular that they were considered tourist attractions, talent scouts would hunt for voices and the Pope and other VIPs could attend private performances of non-liturgical repertoire.

During this vibrant yet under-explored chapter in Renaissance musical history, a princess nun was composing for her convent in Ferrara, and her anonymously-published motets lay unsung and unloved for 500 years.

Dr Laurie Stras
© Andrew Mason

To find out more, I spoke to Dr Laurie Stras, Professor of Music at the University of Huddersfield, author of the recently published book Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara, musicologist and co-director of two early music female-voice ensembles – Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens. She spent seven years bringing princess Leonora d’Este's motets back to life and is currently working to adapt another exceptional discovery: a complete setting of 19 Lamentations verses for Good Friday by Antoine Brumel.

In Renaissance Italy, bachelors were in shortage, as only one son could inherit the family wealth. As a result, over 20% of women were considered “surplus” – a figure that went up to 70% among the nobles. “Most families couldn’t afford to pay a marriage dowry for more than one daughter”, explains Stras. “Young people in the ruling classes who were going to get married were relatively few, so families who wanted the best for their daughter would get her into a convent with plenty of income. But a comfortable convent might have had quite a high dowry in itself, so one of the ways to get a reduction was by bringing a skill to it, such as music.”

Music was really profitable for convents: it brought in money from the community, donating to hear mass on their behalf, while a great musical reputation brought in girls of higher status and wealth. Music also kept the nuns entertained and helped develop and maintain community harmony. “The whole reason for the nuns being together in a community was the recitation of the Opus Dei: they sang all of the 150 psalms every week. Singing was the fundament of the Divine Office and nuns sang more than they slept!” says Stras.

Nuns would sing in the inner church, hidden from audiences in the outer church, inspiring images of angelic voices. “When you went to a new city, you would seek out the best convents, because they would have had the best music,” Stras tells me. “Marin Sanudo writes this into his guidebook for Venice in the 1520s, and when composer and nobleman Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa went to Ferrara at the end of the century, chronicles say that the first thing he did was going to listen to the nuns’ choir.” Members of the nobility, relatives or special guests could also be invited to attend other forms of musical entertainment featuring non-liturgical music – even plays. “When the Pope visited the Corpus Domini convent in Ferrara in 1598, before he said Mass he was given a private performance by someone who had been one of the singing ladies at the court of Ferrara before becoming a nun.”

This led some critics at the time to accuse the nuns of conceit – comparing them to “celestial sirens”. “Some would say that this was bringing glory to God, edifying people through music. Others would argue that they were just playing on their vanity. There are stories about convents in 17th-century Bologna where the bishop is bricking up the windows so that people will not hear the nuns singing, and the children are giving rocks to the nuns to throw at the workmen to stop them from doing so. The people of the cities wanted to hear this music! But there are also stories about a convent in Milan that had an older choir and a younger choir, competing and being really rather quite horrible at each other,” Stras laughs. “It’s not all sweetness and light. Nuns are just people, and a badly managed convent could turn into a place of horror.”

Convents were managed in a very business-like manner, almost like modern theatre companies. “Convents competed for musically-able young women, and mother superiors had talent scouts searching for young women who might be poor but talented. I found a letter written to the abbess at Le Murate in Florence where a woman is saying: I have this young girl in my household, she has 'venti voci', twenty notes – the gamut is supposed to be twenty-two notes, so she has this huge range – and a 'good bass'. This girl wouldn’t have brought financial benefit to the convent but she was going to be a very useful singer with those low notes,” says Stras. “There is also a record of a conversa, a servant nun, who was so musically able that her convent petitioned the Pope to have her elevated to the status of choir nun, and the Duchess of Urbino, Lucrezia d’Este, paid her dowry so that she could be added to the convent’s musical ensemble.”

Musica Secreta
© Musica Secreta

There was not the same sort of access to elite male choral singing. The choirs we know the most about – such as the Sistine Chapel, the chapel of Ercole I of Ferrara or the Medici chapel – were only accessible to nobles, while anyone could freely listen to convents’ choirs. Furthermore, men tended to move around from institution to institution, while women were limited by their enclosure status. “When Artusi, the composer and theorist from Bologna, talks about the ensemble at San Vito of Ferrara being the finest singing ensemble in Italy, he says it’s because they are a permanent choir. These are women who have sung together since they were young. Male institutions don’t have that: the best male singers audition and are being poached all the time, but anyone who sings in a choir will know that entrainment is something that happens over time, by learning about each other, understanding your music and rehearsing together.”

Music composed for convents would only be for the choirs’ consumption, so to find some published was unusual. Yet princess Leonora d'Este is strongly believed to be the author of 23 motets – that Stras has discovered and brought back into performing shape – now considered to be the earliest published polyphony intended for nuns that we know of. The motets have been recorded in an album, Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter by Stras’ ensembles, Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens.

Leonora D’Este was the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso I, the Duke of Ferrara. She became Mother Superior at Corpus Domini when she was 18 and several of her contemporaries write of her exceptional musical abilities. We know that her family supported her musical activities up to her death.

Despite the limitations of a life of enclosure, for many women life in a convent was a passport to freedom. “Some women chose a monastic life because they were creatively driven and felt that they had more space to develop as creative or intellectuals in the convent than they would outside. The Este family maintained their high status for two centuries by marrying off their daughters and sons to more prestigious families. Leonora was four when her mother died and eight when she decided to remain into the Corpus Domini convent. By then she would have known what the future held for her, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she had looked at her mother’s life – [she was married off three times and died of childbirth while having what was possibly her tenth child] – and said no, thank you.”

“Leonora sent these motets for publication to see them preserved for posterity. Hers are incredible works, so far beyond what was already in print in the 1540s. Technically they are an amazing achievement. All these motets are written for five, equal voices, “voci pari”, all of which are more or less in the same compass. You get some very interesting dissonance treatment when you have five parts moving in such a confined space, which adds to the sweetness and attractiveness of nuns singing. The sound of these fleeting dissonances, the voices moving in and out each other... it's mesmerising. One of the most outlandish pieces is a setting of the Mass Gradual for Easter Sunday, Haec dies, in which the voices imitate the sounds of all the bells of the city going off. But her name cannot appear for three reasons: she’s a woman, a princess and a nun.”

During the Napoleonic suppression, many Italian convents were destroyed. The rules of enclosure became less strict and joining a convent became more about vocation. Nuns took on a more active relationship with the community, sidelining their musical role. Leonora’s motets survived only because they were published, but equally astonishing treasures could still be found in manuscript records scattered across Europe.

It is important to bring this music back to choral ensembles today. “We know about the Sistine Chapel, we know about Palestrina and we know about Josquin des Prez only because of the way history has been written and the things that have been given value," says Stras. "By recovering this wonderful music, we bring the balance back. The English choral tradition has given prominence to boys voices as more appropriate for Renaissance music, but the sound of women singing is the sound of the Renaissance. It's not something that is unusual or that should be suppressed: this is part of our heritage.”