Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter

Music by Isaac, Josquin, Willaert, de Rore, Francesco della Viola, with anonymous 15th-century laude – and introducing the anonymous motets of the Musica…materna lingua vocata (1543), which we thing were composed by Suor Leonora d’Este, daughter of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, and his second wife, the famous Lucrezia Borgia.

This programme brings the audience into the world of the early sixteenth-century Ferrarese convent, Corpus Domini.  Its most famous daughter of the fifteenth century, Caterina Vigri, bequeathed to the convent a musical heritage, in which song was an essential means through which to access the Divine.  Its most famous abbess of the sixteenth century, Leonora d’Este, was an accomplished musician. The equal-voice materna lingua motets are music of astonishing quality and turbulent beauty, something apart from the accustomed sound world of sixteenth-century polyphony.  From a vivid programmatic evocation of the cacophony of Easter morning bells to the serenity of Vespers for the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, this music will transport the listener.

Programme Notes from the concert at Brighton Early Music Festival, 24 October 2015:

This year, 2015, early music festivals all over Europe have been celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the sixteenth century’s greatest composers, Cipriano de Rore, maestro di musica at the court of Duke Ercole II of Ferrara. But in 1515, another musician was born in Ferrara,
with all the advantages of wealth, but with a singular obstacle to forging a reputation as a composer: she was a princess, Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter.

On 24 June 1519 Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara and daughter of Pope Alexander VI, died, ten days after giving birth to her ninth child. She was buried in the Clarissan convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, dressed in her habit of a Franciscan tertiary. She left her grieving husband, Duke Alfonso I, and five surviving children, including two daughters, the newborn Isabella and the four-year-old Eleonora, or Leonora.

As Isabella did not survive her mother for long, Leonora was left the only legitimate Este woman in Ferrara while she was only a small girl. With no senior female family member into whose household she could have been placed, it is likely that Leonora was brought up in the convent where her mother lay interred. She formally entered Corpus Domini in 1523, at the age of eight, and became its abbess by the age of nineteen. It is clear that her vocation was also her decision, and she vigorously defended her choice against the displeasure of her father. Alfonso would, of course, have preferred to use her as collateral in the complex web of political marriages that sustained fragile alliances between the ruling families of the Italian peninsula.

Like all her family, Suor Leonora was a melomane, and throughout her relatively long life her musical needs were met financially by her father, brothers, and nephews – the dukes and cardinals of Ferrara. Many payments for keyboard instruments and their decoration, music copying, and music paper remain in the ducal accounts. It could well be that one of the reasons Suor Leonora chose to enter Corpus Domini was that it offered her the opportunity to concentrate on her musical activities, relieved of the responsibilities of marriage and procreation borne by a secular princess. But she was not completely shut off from the outside world. She was friends with the greatest musical theorist of her age, Gioseffo Zarlino, who credited her as the inspiration for his last monumental treatise, the Sopplimenti musicali. She was admired by other illustrious musicians, including Nicola Vicentino, who praised her knowledge and practice of esoteric music theory, and her nephew’s maestro di cappella Francesco della Viola, who dedicated his first and only book of madrigals to her. We have yet to fully appreciate her role as an advisor to her brothers and nephews, although it is clear that they held her in high esteem, and drew on her wisdom and influence: it was to her that her brother Ercole II turned to care for his own daughters during family crises.

The convent of Corpus Domini already had a musical heritage, bequeathed to it by one of its Clarissan founders, Caterina Vigri, who became St Catherine of Bologna. Vigri believed that singing and playing could be meditative practices that brought the heart and mind closer to God. As mistress of the novices at Corpus Domini in Ferrara, and then again in Bologna, Vigri used song as a medium for the spiritual instruction of her young pupils. She was passionate about the recitation of the Office, and if she saw any of the girls flagging during the night-time chanting of Matins, she would revive them with dried cherries and raisins that she kept in a little bag by her side. Vigri lived her life accompanied by the music of the soul and of the heavens, and as she lay dying, her novices gathered around her, and sang laude to say farewell.

Suor Leonora, then, lived in a community where music was an integral, essential part of daily life, and her interest was also fed by the musical activities of her brothers’, nephews’, and even nieces’ households. From very early on in her tenure, she ensured that an organ was placed in the convent chapel, suggesting that polyphony was used, particularly in the monthly bello offitio said in memory of her father. Near the end of her life she was concerned to ensure that Corpus Domini’s musical establishment was secure, and persuaded her brother Cardinal Ippolito II to commit, by contract, the rental income from city property for the upkeep of the convent’s chapel organ. It perhaps seems strange that no witness record of Corpus Domini’s music survives. Nor does any trace of Suor Leonora’s compositions, but this could be explained by her noble status. Both Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, and Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, declined to own their compositions in print because it was unseemly for them to be seen to be entering into the commercial world; how much more unseemly, then, for a noble nun to distribute her music in any fashion.

In 1543, the Venetian printer Girolamo Scotto issued a volume of five-voice motets, the Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata. There are no composers attributed at all in the print – which makes it one of the vanishingly small number of completely anonymous music publications from the sixteenth century (Gonzaga’s and Gesualdo’s among them). It is entirely possible that the book’s anonymity conceals a noble and nunly origin: the motets it contains are clearly intended for nuns’ use, and appear to have originated in a Clarissan convent. While some of its motets are imminently suitably for liturgical use, the materna lingua book contains others that could only have been used as private meditative prayer, perhaps inspired by Caterina Vigri’s musical devotion. And although there is no definitive proof, the book’s music suggests that its composer had access to the music composed by musicians in the Ferrarese ducal chapel, including the reuse of material that we otherwise know was composed for the private use of Suor Leonora’s brother.

While the evidence is strong, we cannot be incontrovertibly sure the materna lingua motets are by Suor Leonora. And yet, this is extraordinary in its own right. Clearly technically very accomplished, the music nonetheless has a distinct character, full of surprising dissonances and extraordinary sonorities. Suor Leonora would have been able to study the music of her father’s and brothers’ maestri, and possibly even to have studied with one of them, Willaert; but she is unlikely ever to have heard their music performed by the singers of the chapel. This may be why the soundscape of the materna lingua book is so startling and so original.

Suor Leonora outlived her brothers Duke Ercole and Cardinal Ippolito; she survived the catastrophic earthquakes that decimated Ferrara in 1570 and 1571, and oversaw the refurbishment of Corpus Domini before dying just after her sixtieth birthday in July 1575. This concert marks the five hundredth anniversary of her birth, and the first at which we have attempted a comprehensive sample of the motets we believe were the product of her learning and piety.

© Laurie Stras