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Nuns who published sacred songs, but not without experiencing problems

Lucretia and the many other nuns who were musicians

 Lucrezia e le molte  altre monache musiciste  DCM-007
01 July 2023

She was eight years old when she entered the Camaldolese monastery of St Christine of the Fondazza in Bologna. Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (her name can be found spelt in different ways) took her vows at 16. Born on July 3, 1590, into a wealthy Bolognese family, she entered the sacred walls probably following her mother’s death. Here she found three aunts, their names were Flaminia, Hortensia and Camilla. The latter, an abbess and an organist, accompanied her in the study of music.

Craig A. Monson, a scholar and professor of musicology writes in the book Incorporeal Voices, “No later than the early XVII century, that of St Christine had become Bologna’s best-known convent for its music. For sixty-five years it also housed the only composer nun in the city to have published her works, Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana.” (Bononia University Press, 2009).

Lucrezia Orsina’s story opens the door wide to the musical production of monasteries. On those voices of nuns “without a visible body,” enclosed in the cloister, on those harmonies created to accompany liturgical celebrations and the search for infinity.

Women’s convent music developed particularly after the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

In the seventeenth century, there were very few women musicians, for they either belonged to noble and bourgeois families or were religious. This is a time when the study of music was not considered suitable for women.

In the essay Musiciste e compositrici - Storia e storie (autori vari, a cura di Luca Aversano, Orietta Caianiello, Milena Gammaitoni, Società Editrice di Musicologia) [Women Musicians and Composers - History and Stories] (various authors, edited by Luca Aversano, Orietta Caianiello, Milena Gammaitoni, Società Editrice di Musicologia) it is pointed out that European conservatories “began to admit women into orchestral rehearsal and composition classes only from 1870”.

Yet, musical practice in women’s religious institutions, in addition to representing the link with the liturgy, also took on a sign of cultural relevance and social prestige of the monasteries and the nuns’ own families.

Monson points out, “Thousands of female organists, singers and composers can be traced in the records of Italian monasteries in the post-Tridentine period. In the XVI and XVII centuries , the cloister was probably the most suitable environment, for young women educated in music, in which to practice as musicians”.

Instead, in the society of the time, musical exercise was seen as a sphere that was not always honorable for girls.

The poet Fulvio Testi, in a letter dated 1633, advised Duke Francesco d’Este of Modena thus about women singing in Rome: “If Your Highness seeks perfect honesty in female singers, do not turn to this heaven”.

And yet, the compositions of nuns used during liturgies are aimed to heaven, especially solemn ones, and intended to be performed in monasteries by other sisters. Spiritual are the Componimenti musicali di Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana [Musical Compositions by Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana], a collection of her works, composed precisely 400 years ago; and hymns to the faith, the twenty pieces in Latin, are the Sacred Concerts of Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), an Ursuline in Novara (her name is also often spelled in different ways).

Isabella, who was from an aristocratic family, entered the college of St Ursula in 1636 and was musically trained there. She sang, played the violin, and composed, including instrumental music. She published many works and was particularly appreciated to the point of becoming a celebrity of her time. Today, Isabella is considered almost a star among religious-musicians and her compositions are often included in various concerts.

Another important musical stage-city during this period was Milan. It was here that other nuns published their works. This is where Rosa Giacinta Badalla (1660-1710), a Benedictine, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-1678), a Benedictine nun from the monastery of St Radegonda, Claudia Francesca Rusca (1593-1676) from the monastery of St Catherine in Brera, made a name for themselves.

“Between 1566 and 1700, as many as twenty-three Italian women musicians saw their compositions published. This was a record that no other “nationality” was able to achieve in the same period,” notes Valeria Palumbo, a journalist and writer in the book Musicians and Women Composers - History and Stories.

However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Church authorities put in place a number of prohibitions on women’s monasteries, partly to counter rivalries attributed to the nuns’ own musical activity. For example, a decree dated May 4, 1686, issued by Innocent XI, forbade outsiders from entering monasteries to teach singing or to play instruments; some of them were considered unsuitable for nuns. Yet, there was no shortage of exceptions. In the San Vito in Ferrara monastery, the Concerto grande was established, which was made up of twenty-three nuns who sang and played many instruments. The Ursuline Order of Novara also enjoyed a certain freedom from the laws of enclosure.

“The link between women’s monasteries and music is a revealing theme in the history of this discipline. But in-depth studies are needed to fully consider its significance and make its importance known,” says Eliana Cabrera, a Spanish musicologist who also authored a lecture-concert, a performance dedicated to Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana and Isabella Leonarda. The scholar, in addition to recounting the artistic and personal stories of the two nuns, performs certain pieces from their production on the harpsichord. 

Hildegard von Bingen, the German nun of the Order of St Benedict, who was born in 1098 and died in 1179, and was declared a Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Benedict XVI, occupies a pivotal role in the history of musician nuns. Her thought and work Ordo virtutum also inspired Italian musician Angelo Branduardi, in 2019 with the album Il cammino dell’ anima [The Path of the Soul].

Eliana Cabrera, who in Italy, after her doctorate at the University of Bologna, participated in educational initiatives organized by the association Toponomastica femminile founded by Maria Pia Ercolini, states, “The Norton Anthology of Western Music, which is an academically recognized landmark anthology of musical pieces, mentions only Hildegard von Bingen, a figure of unquestionable relevance. Yet, at the textbook level, even she sometimes does not find adequate space.” Regarding religious women musicians much has yet to be written. Monson points out in the words of scholar Elissa Weaver, “Among nuns only saints have been remembered.” And she concludes her essay Incorporeal Voices with a reflection-exhortation.

“Perhaps today Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana, who four centuries ago turned her back on the world and entered the walls of Via Fondazza, can once again speak to a wider audience through the music she left behind. The eloquence of her voice sweeter than honey and honeycomb, which in the 17th century reached Bologna from within the concavity of the walls, can address a new generation, reaffirming the value of its fragile and hidden past.”

In Lucrezia Orsina’s life, alongside melody, madness was also a constant.

Today, the ancient monastic complex of St Christine of the Fondazza, which dates back to 1251, houses departments of the Alma Mater Studiorum University and also the Italian Women’s Library. The church has preserved its history as a temple of music by hosting concerts. Its single-nave construction has seen it be considered a kind of architectural musical instrument.

Here the disembodied voices of nuns hidden from the world sought the sounds of harmony and spiritual depth. Here Lucrezia Orsina died on May 7, 1662, unwell and without having become an abbess.

Instead, the role of abbess was filled by sister star Isabella Leonarda in the Ursuline convent in Novara (which is now a hotel). In a document dating from 1658 she is referred to as “magistra musicae”. She who addressed Our Lady with these words, “If these musical compositions do not please the world, it will be enough for me that they please You, who please the heart more than intellect”.

A Journalist with the Italian magazine, “Oggi”