Professor Laurie Stras writes:
Musica Secreta’s new CD – out in 2017 on Obsidian Records
It’s always difficult to keep things a secret when you are excited about them. I have known for months that my ensemble Musica Secreta’s new CD, Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter, was signed up for release on Obsidian Records, but have had to wait until this week to tell anyone.
It’s been doubly difficult because this project has been part of my life for at least eight years. What started as a casual flick through a list of sixteenth-century music books has become a major undertaking, creating the recording, many concerts, lots of workshops and rehearsals, and several publications. The project and recording have been funded from a variety of sources, including Arts Council England, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, the Ambache Musical Trust, and crowdfunding appeal that raised over £4000.
Over the past eight years, Musica Secreta and our superb amateur sister ensemble, Celestial Sirens have been investigating the performance of early sixteenth-century polyphony, but only using female voices and simple instrumental accompaniment – the way it was performed in Renaissance convents. By all accounts (and there aren’t many), this kind of performance was commonplace but it’s been unknown, until we started this work, exactly what kind of music the nuns sang.
This project has been able to establish the earliest identifiable repertoire especially for nuns, published in a book called Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata, published in 1543. Although all the motets in the book are anonymous, we’ve also been able to propose that at least some of them could have been written for or by Suor Leonora d’Este (1515-1575), Lucrezia Borgia’s only surviving daughter, who was the abbess of the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara. Our new CD is of motets taken from this book.
The recording was made this summer in the wonderful Bishop Edward King Chapel at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, home to the Cuddesdon Sisters, a small group of Anglican nuns. We were warmly welcomed by everyone there, and the whole week felt more like a holiday retreat – with beautiful gardens and communal meals – even though we worked incredibly hard! It also felt like a mini Southampton reunion, with graduates Rosie Taylor, Victoria Bawtree, and a current postgraduate student, Kate Hawnt, all singing, and another graduate, David Lefeber, as our brilliant producer and engineer.
We had a tremendous amount of fun, not least because the music is both intricate and, well, odd. While it is often searingly beautiful it can be surprisingly dissonant, too. In fact, we got involved in a little chord-off with our friends, the American madrigal group Les Canards Chantants, to see who could come up with the wackiest chord. We think we won with Chordageddon.
I’ve been a co-director, with Deborah Roberts, of Musica Secreta for over twenty years, but this is by far the most exciting and musically rewarding things we’ve done. It has been particularly special to be able to work with a tremendous group of very talented women: some – like Sally Dunkley, Caroline Trevor, Kate Hawnt, Yvonne Eddy, and Kim Porter – with decades of experience singing Renaissance polyphony with groups like the Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen; others – like Nancy Cole, Hannah Ely, Beth Horak-Hallett, and Katherine Carson – either still studying or just emerging from their postgraduate studies. Celestial Sirens, too, is very diverse – with women ranging in age and experience from an A-level student to retired teachers and midwives – just as a choir in a convent would be. Our wonderful organist Claire Williams and viol player Alison Kinder completed the ensemble.
We can’t wait for the world to hear this mysterious music and to get to know a bit more about Suor Leonora. We’ll have to wait until early next year, but we will be updating everyone on musicasecreta.com, with sneak previews as the mixes come in.