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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 3 (1997) No. 1

Celestial Sirens: Nuns and Their Music in Early Modern
. By Robert L. Kendrick.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
[xxii, 556 pp. ISBN 0-19-816408-4. $95.00.]

Reviewed by Steven Saunders*

1. Overview

2. Controlling Ideas

3. Musical Questions

4. Conclusion


1. Overview

1.1 In the opening pages of this extraordinary book, Robert L. Kendrick succeeds in allaying any fears about the potential significance of his project, a study of the musical repertoires written and cultivated by nuns in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Milan. Celestial Sirens is not merely a study of an overlooked repertoire from yet another provincial enclave, but rather a major contribution to the literature on musical life in the Seicento. It provides a window onto a host of issues, including the function of music in civic life, seventeenth-century spirituality and devotional practice, women’s place in early modern Italian culture, the complex and often antagonistic relationship between episcopal authority and the rich musical traditions of the female monasteries, and the manifold meanings that this music assumed for contemporary listeners.

1.2 The structure of the book is, appropriately, chiastic: the first six chapters deal with various aspects of the context against which the works themselves are examined. A central chapter considers the practical problems surrounding the creation and performance of the music, including the transmission of the repertoire, the training of the musicians, and the vexed question of performance practice. The final four chapters are devoted to analyses of pieces written by or dedicated to Milanese nuns; a short conclusion and no fewer than six appendices round out the volume.

2. Controlling Ideas

2.1 This straightforward description of the book’s structure, however, belies its subtlety and complexity: ideas spread out, tendril-like through the volume, first surfacing, later expanding and acquiring new significance, and then reappearing with still fuller connotations. For example, two of the recurrent themes of the book are the fundamentally patrician nature of music making in many of the female monasteries, and the role that nuns’ music played in projecting the civic pride and prestige of Milan’s patrician families. These ideas first surface in Chapter One, linked to a discussion of urban panegyric literature and the political fortunes of Milan’s most eminent families. In Chapter Two, these notions are further refined as Kendrick neatly delineates a sort of monastic caste-system that includes five types of female monastery, from the essentially patrician, contemplative, and predominantly Benedictine houses to the more humble mendicant and reformed orders. In Chapter Four, he reveals how the renowned performances by the sisters at one of the premier Benedictine houses successfully projected Milanese civic pride, thereby attracting unwanted attention from episcopal authorities. (note 1) In Chapter Six, the themes of patrician orientation and the projection of civic pride receive a further development, as Kendrick traces particular brands of ritual devotion that served to display simultaneously both the affluence and spirituality of the urban elite. Finally, he is able to show how individual compositions served these same ends, for example, by ingeniously and quite plausibly linking Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s opulent Salmi a otto concertati (1650) with the royal visit to Milan of Maria Anna of Austria in 1649.

2.2 Even as he develops a powerful insight, however, Kendrick resists the temptation to simplify complex situations to accord more smoothly with his theses. He notes for example that the Milanese patriciate was no monolithic formation, providing ample supporting evidence, and he carefully delineates differences between various female monastic traditions.

2.3 Another feature that contributes to this book’s richly nuanced texture is the striking facility, even virtuosity, with which Kendrick handles the literature from a variety of disciplines. The six chapters dealing with contextual issues are informed by ideas from fields as far-flung as feminist theory, ethnomusicology, architectural history, ethnography, and sociology. Moreover, the details that support many of the book’s bolder ideas are based on what seems to be an astonishing command of local history, sanctoral iconography, the intricacies of the Ambrosian, monastic, and Roman rites, music-theoretical traditions from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and the holdings of relevant archives. What is more, when Kendrick draws on constructs from other fields, his borrowing never seems forced or merely trendy. When he suggests that Oestreich’s concept of Sozialdisziplinierung provides a cogent model for understanding Carlo Borromeo’s efforts to curtail musical activities within the monasteries, the idea is developed in a way that seems natural and entirely convincing. Nor is Kendrick uncritical in his treatment of ideas from other disciplines. Indeed, he is often able to point out ways in which the evidence from nuns’ music cuts against the prevailing wisdom in other fields. In one telling passage, for example, he challenges the notion that the Renaissance necessarily represented a setback in women’s nondomestic roles.

3. Musical Questions

3.1 If Kendrick’s historiographic methods in the opening six chapters are sophisticated, so too are the approaches he adopts for dealing with more directly musical questions in the second half of the book. Chapter Seven provides a fascinating examination of performance practice, in particular the complex problem of how works with parts notated in the bass and tenor ranges might have been realized. Again Kendrick’s conclusions are ingenious and never oversimple. He shows that the solutions varied according to the repertoires and resources of particular houses. The performance options included performance at the notated pitch (some of the ensembles clearly had singers with extensive vocal tessituras), several types of transposition, keyboard reductions of the lower parts, and melodic bass instruments to double or replace the lower lines.

3.2 The treatment of the musical repertoire is divided among four chapters. Chapter Eight covers the period from the 1590s until about 1630; though devoted primarily to pieces dedicated to nuns, it also considers the motets of Claudia Rusca’s Sacri concerti (1630). Chapters Nine and Ten are devoted principally to the works of one of the most important and prolific nun-composers of the seventeenth-century, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, and Chapter Eleven considers solo motets from the second half of the century, including Cozzolani’s Scherzi di sacra melodia a voce sola (1648), the Motetti a voce sola (1684) of Rosa Giacinta Badalla, and numerous solo motets with dedications to nuns. Kendrick’s decision to define the repertoire broadly by including not only music written by nuns, but also music dedicated or inscribed to nuns is commendable. Nevertheless, I wish that he had dealt in somewhat more detail with the ways in which the categories “inscribed to,” “written for,” and “performed by,” may (or may not) have intersected.

3.3 The musical analyses, however, are always keenly attuned to contemporaneous musical thought. Thus, the treatments of works from the late sixteenth-century draw upon the eight-mode system, particularly as it was described by theorists with close connections to Milan, especially Pietro Pontio. The discussion of these early pieces also draws heavily on theories of rhetorical figures, above all as codified in Burmeister’s Musica poetica. For works of the early Seicento, however, the analytical models shift to Banchieri’s system of twelve modes or toni, and the description of figures in Bernhard’s Tractatus compositionis augmentatus and Kircher’s Musurgia universalis. A sample from one of Kendrick’s analyses, drawn from his discussion of Cozzolani’s *Colligite, pueri, flores, conveys his attention to the structure and meaning of the verbal text, as well as his concern for both large-scale modal structure and local rhetorical detail. While none of the elements of Kendrick’s analytical approach is entirely new, they have never been integrated and applied in such a unified and systematic way to the intractable repertoire of Seicento sacred composition. Kendrick’s method provides a cogent and potentially fruitful way of grappling with this music, one that could profitably be applied to other seventeenth-century repertoires.

3.4 The analyses are also sensitive to the ways in which chant continued to influence polyphonic composition, even in works not overtly based on a cantus firmus. For instance, a setting of Laudate pueri by Costanzo Antegnati, from a collection dedicated to female Benedictine house, emerges as a polyphonic projection of the psalm tone, both in its large-scale organization and in its local details.

3.5 Particularly impressive is Kendrick’s treatment of Aquilino Coppini’s Il secondo libro della musica di Claudio Monteverde . . . fatta spirituale (1608), a collection of sacred contrafacta on madrigals by Monteverdi and others. Kendrick shows that one piece from this collection, dedicated to a Milanese nun, Bianca Taverna, was reworked for her monastery, S. Marta, since it refers to all three saints who were particularly venerated at her house. He goes on to show how these same saints were commemorated in the altar-piece for the chiesa esteriore, and suggests that Coppini’s contrafacta “should be considered not as a ‘chastened’ version of salacious madrigals, but rather as a rereading, a dramatic reinterpretation in sacred terms of an entire work of art” (pp. 229-33). Equally important is his trenchant description of the new style of Lombard motet cultivated in the 1640s (pp. 280-83).

4. Conclusion

4.1 Celestial Sirens is not an easy read; the narrative is often not linear, with several ideas sometimes developing simultaneously. In addition, Kendrick is able to deal fluently with so many different literatures that he sometimes presents materials in ways that are not invariably congenial to the less erudite reader. Although he thoughtfully includes a “Glossary of Ecclesiastical Terminology” at the beginning of the book, some readers will long for additional glossaries of terms concerning liturgy, rhetorical figures, Seicento music theory, and even French post-structuralist thought. At times, one also needs to turn to the appendices to find out the date of a particular publication or its precise relationship to Milanese nuns, and there is little hint in the footnotes or bibliography that many of the treatises he mentions are available in English translations. These, however, are only minor reservations about a brilliant book that richly repays a detailed engagement. One comes away from this book impressed, above all, by the polyvalence of Milanese nuns’ music, which was simultaneously an emblem of urban pride and piety, an earthly incarnation of the heavenly choirs, and a part of the compositional mainstream of Seicento Lombardy, the strictures of clausura notwithstanding.

4.2 Perhaps most movingly, Celestial Sirens is able to convey a more fundamental insight—that this music was more than spiritual recreation or a lyric articulation of some tenets of nuns’ belief system. For the nuns themselves, it provided the embodiment of their entire being. This truth is summed up in a remarkable series of letters that Kendrick has unearthed, written by the Milanese nun Angela Confaloniera to the sympathetic archbishop Federigo Borromeo. In a typical passage, Confaloniera writes:

One recent Sunday after supper, many of my companions were walking along, and meeting me, asked me to accompany them. And as I was there, I began to sing, and sang a motet by heart, while they rested from their weariness, and while I sang, I felt my heart catch on fire, so that it seemed to the others as if I were mad (p. 427).

4.3 Confaloniera’s letters recall the texts of much of the mid-century motet repertoire, simultaneously invoking the fierce immediacy of divine love; the nuns’ close, quasi-physical identification with the Virgin; their identification with angelic music-making; and the transfiguring sweetness of music itself. It is Robert Kendrick’s great achievement in Celestial Sirens to open a window onto the world of these remarkable women and their music. Return to beginning


*Steven Saunders (sesaunde@colby.edu) is Associate Professor of Music at Colby College. His research interests include sacred music in the early 17th century and 19th-century popular song. Return to beginning

1. A recurring motif of Kendrick’s book is that female monastic music, precisely because of its elevated status and its projection beyond the walled off chiesa interiore, remained intensely problematic for episcopal authority throughout the early modern era. In 1665, the archbishop actually prohibited the performance of polyphony at S. Radegonda, owing to a series of supposed scandals involving the nuns’ polyphony. These offenses arose when foreign cavalieri stayed at the monastery to fraternize with the nuns after “going to the church of these nuns, under the pretext of entering to hear the music,” and when the Benedictine sisters performed a lavish polyphonic Mass and Vespers for the Protestant Duke and Duchess of Brunswick. Return to text

Sample: Kendrick, Celestial Sirens, pp. 294-6: “The motet sets the typical floral Eucharistic conceit, this time with specific reference to Corpus Christi. Indeed, its opening imperatives invoke the most public and famous activities of nuns: ‘Servants [of the Lord], collect your flowers, cover the ground with flowers; servants, strike up your song, sing to the citharas; virgins strike the cymbals’ . . . The motet begins with a triple-time solo, firmly based on the finalis G, which introduces two motifs to become of great importance later on (Ex. 9.16). Cozzolani crafted her melodic periods carefully: the first sixteen bars outline the modal fifth, rounded off with an idea (bars 12-14) that recalls the earlier descents, and a bass transitional phrase. This recurs at the end of the second idea (‘floribus sternite terram’), with a cadence now on the lower d’, providing another musical end-rhyme. The entire period is concluded by the statement of ‘sternite’ a second higher (bars 33-5), finally cadencing on the g’ finalis after the previous breaks on the mediant (b. 14) and the repercussio (b. 24) of the tono; again a symmetry whose balance is obscured but real. Another parallel textual construction, again referring to music (‘Inducite, pueri, cantus’), evoked a metabasis, bringing in the second voice as an unusual surprise (bars 36 ff.).” Return to text

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