Not Mortals, But Angels: The Flowering of Convent Music

An entrancing introduction to the sound of the late medieval and early renaissance convent, with newly recovered music from the convents of Verona, Florence, and Ferrara. Anonymous works from convent manuscripts appear alongside works by the most illustrious composers of the age: Hildegard of Bingen, Binchois, Josquin des Prez, Suor Leonora d’Este, Cipriano de Rore, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestria, Suor Raffaella Aleotti, and Alessandro Grandi.

“Each maid who loves the Lord, come to the dance singing of love.” These words, from a popular devotional song, open an instruction book on how to live the spiritual life, written by the fifteenth century’s most musical nun, Caterina Vigri, or Saint Catherine of Bologna.

Catherine understood well the importance of music to nuns, and the importance of their music to the outside world. People came to convent churches to hear the ethereal harmonies but stayed to hear the liturgy. The sound of the convent was the sound of the Renaissance city: unlike the chapels of the great and the good, nuns’ singing was available to everyone, rich or poor. And yet, the history of convent music is the centuries-long history of inventive and tireless resistance against male authorities who would have silenced it.

The Church feared the seductive powers of the female voice, and many worried that singing would lead nuns into the mortal sin of pride: During the Renaissance, bishops often forbade music altogether in convents under their rule. But even in more lenient times, the prohibition of music could be used as an ultimate sanction. Even the convent of the great Saint Hildegard of Bingen, one of the earliest and most prolific medieval composers, suffered this punishment when the saint became too outspoken against her superiors.

Convents fulfilled many functions in medieval and Renaissance societies: they were the economic and spiritual heart of many communities, safe spaces for women at all stages of life and from all strata of society, and often places where women could thrive intellectually, practically, and creatively away from the intense scrutiny of male relatives. Women trained in music were particularly welcomed, because fine music could elevate a house’s reputation, which could then attract wealthy families to the convent to celebrate weddings and burials, and to provide the more permanent investment of daughters as novices.  But even more importantly, the nuns’ primary purpose was the Opus Dei, the recitation of all 150 biblical psalms over the course of the week; through this musical labour, they ensured the spiritual wellbeing of the entire city.

Music’s role in the convent was threefold – liturgical, devotional, and social – and nuns sang more than they did any other single activity, even sleeping. Their lives were regulated by the hours of the Divine Office, which they sang or chanted eight times per day. Convent music was at its most dazzling leading up to and during the principal feasts of the Christian calendar – Advent and Christmas Week, Holy Week and Easter – and at times of civic rejoicing, such as the celebration of royal weddings or military victories.

Musical dramas, like Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum, or plays with musical interludes were once a common feature of elaborate public celebrations on important feasts. During the Renaissance they became more private, although they still might be performed at important events in front of guests, particularly by the novices and noble girls educated at the convent. The line between sacred and secular was not as sharply delineated as it might appear now, and nuns knew how to draw on music from outside the cloister to enliven their spiritual recreations, by putting new words to popular melodies or even courtly songs that had filtered through to them.

But away from the chapel and the parlour, music was also a way that nuns could be brought closer together, and closer to God. Both Hildegard and Caterina Vigri used music for both private and collective devotion, teaching their sisters, especially those who could not read, Bible stories and theology through simple and repetitive song. Nuns, paradoxically, sang freely as women about sensual love much earlier than their secular counterparts, with special affection for the divine ecstasy of the Song of Songs. Their vows of chastity did not prevent them from expressing passion for the Body of Christ, their collective husband, so singing together served a greater spiritual purpose, by heightening their emotional responsiveness to the Sacraments.

For nuns with musical education, though, singing more advanced compositions was an even more immersive experience: the veil heightens the need to listen, and the mingling of multiple voices all in the same register requires acute concentration. In some convents, singing polyphony may have been closer to the spiritual practice of divine reading, the slow and deliberate reading aloud of scripture and meditative text, intended to help the reader internalise the meaning of the words. This intensity finds its ultimate expression in the motets attributed to Suor Leonora d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, who rejected life as a princess of Ferrara in favour of a life of contemplation, devoted to serious musical study at the highest level.

Nuns from the British Isles to Scandanavia, Iberia to the eastern Venetian Republic, found solace in music over centuries; but the threat of the Reformation deepened the Church’s anxieties regarding women, especially nuns, and the propriety of any engagement with the outside world. Even though their activities may have been hushed by the authorities and written out of histories by those with anxieties about the power of convent singing, there are traces in the musical manuscripts, in chronicles, in payment records, and even in print, that give us glimpses of just how glorious and rich the musical traditions of Europe’s convents were.

© Laurie Stras