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Volume 11, no. 1:

Holy Concord within Sacred Walls: Nuns and Music in Siena, 1575–1700. By Colleen Reardon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. [viii, 289 pp. ISBN 0-19-513295-5. $65.]

Reviewed by Kimberlyn Montford*

1. Overview

2. Organization

3. Music, Nuns, and Community

4. Artistic Expression of the Monastic Condition

5. Conclusion

References

1. Overview

1.1 The social, religious, and musical environment of female monastics in post-Tridentine Italy has attracted a significant amount of research in recent years. Witness the publication of books on nuns in Bologna and Milan, as well as dissertations on nuns in Rome and Castile.1 Witness also the modern editions of publications by Isabella Leonarda and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani,2 and performances and recordings by Ars Femina, Cappella Artemisia, Musica Secreta, and Magnificat. Such activity bespeaks the growing awareness that nuns were not “marginal” figures in early modern Europe, but were vitally contributing members of the musical milieu.

1.2 Colleen Reardon’s Holy Concord within Sacred Walls reveals another facet of this growing picture of early modern female religious life. Her setting, the city of Siena, has been the subject of other recent research, placing its music, art, and religious practice within the context of the political and social conditions of Siena.3 Reardon’s newest publication further refines and documents the emerging picture of this city by adding a perceptive study of the role of Sienese nuns in their civic landscape.

1.3 That role reminds one of the apocryphal mother’s cry: “Remember that you are unique, just like everyone else!” As we delve further into post-Tridentine monasticism, what is striking is the lack of the very uniformity desired by the prelates and clerics of the period. Cloister—with its attendant regulations regarding musical performance as well as liturgical and devotional practices—was implemented differently in Milan, Bologna, Rome, and Siena. Nuns in Sienese convents not only escaped many of the painful throes of the reinstatement of cloister, but apparently used music freely in their liturgy and devotions, both to maintain their connections with families, and as a marker of status. Throughout this book, the reader is regaled with rich, often idiosyncratic tales of the vibrant musical life created and enjoyed by these women.

2. Organization

2.1 Reardon’s primary sources of information are documents found in the archives of the most important institutions for study of the period and locale: the state archives of Siena and Florence, and the Sienese episcopal, conventual, municipal, and cathedral archives. As with most archival sources, there are often distressing gaps among the most illustrative and informative types of material that document a convent’s liturgical, devotional, and recreational practices. This situation, coupled with the fact that none of Siena’s nuns published any music, presented the author with both a challenge and an opportunity.

2.2 Reardon rises to the challenge by painstakingly tracing monastic financial account books, administrative diaries, and letters, along with “cultural products created for nuns” (p. 4) to create a richly evocative series of chapters in the form of separate essays, each treating a particular part of musical life in Sienese convents. Yet, the choice to eschew a traditional narrative format allows Reardon the opportunity to construct a multi-faceted account of intense musical activity.

2.3 The essays are introduced by two chapters providing an overview of the city, its convents, and the musical activities of the convents. The third chapter (the first topical essay) is a discussion of the lavish rituals and music that accompanied the ceremonies celebrating a new nun’s entry into the convent. It is in this essay that the reader is first introduced to the various literary and musical tropes that function as meaningful symbols for the cloistered life. These tropes permeate the “operina sacra” and a collection of motets written for nuns by Alessandro Della Ciaia that are the subject of Chapters 6 and 7. Chapters 4 and 5 examine the importance of music in theatrical productions in the convent and in the image of two musical nuns revealed in their published biographies.

2.4 Reardon, in her Introduction, states that her book, while primarily musicological, is written to be useful to scholars in all disciplines. To make the book more user-friendly, there is a description and illustration of convent architecture as well as a glossary that defines musical and religious terms. On the one hand, the interlocking, yet discrete, structure of separate essays facilitates utilizing the most appropriate parts of the work for the reader’s research without intimidation. On the other hand, the author’s structure challenges the reader to tie the essays together, as Reardon provides no final summary chapter.

3. Music, Nuns, and Community

3.1 Nevertheless, while the author does not sum up her points formally, there are several threads that form an underlying narrative to the work. The first and most important is the dynamism of musical activities in Sienese convents and the connection between that music making and the status of the sisters in the community. In the first chapter, a table (p. 15) demonstrates that nine of the twenty-one female monasteries in existence during the seventeenth century maintained permanent vocal-instrumental ensembles. Not coincidentally, those institutions were the oldest and most respected and drew their members from the families of the Sienese ruling elite. Indeed, one convent began training its members in music immediately upon establishing a solid financial footing, essentially declaring its rise in economic and social position.

3.2 Continuing this thread, we read in the second chapter that control over the music programs of the convents gave nuns the means to develop and maintain networks among the members of the outside communities: “Music, like food, was a resource that [the nuns of Siena] could control; by using it to ‘nourish’ their families, friends, and patrons, they created bonds of loyalty that helped to assure their survival” (p. 47). The sacred relics of various saints housed in the monasteries and the services devoted to those saints, combined with the musical offerings of holy women renowned for their talent, resulted in powerful musical-religious experiences. Those special liturgies ensured the attendance of the Sienese populace on those occasions, and also ensured the reflected glory of the convent on the families and patrons with whom it was associated.

3.3 Similarly, the fascinating tradition of convent drama also played an important part in the cultural life of Siena, drawing members of the community, nuns’ families, and such great personages as Catherine Medici Gonzaga, governor of Siena, to the productions. It appears that the dramas not only accompanied clothing ceremonies and special feast days, but were a more thoughtful, sober element of the Sienese Carnival revelry.

3.4 In the relatively disparate chapter that focuses on the tradition of vite (hagiographies), Reardon recounts the various cures that a local relic—a statue of the Madonna of the Manger—performed on a young nun, Suor Maria Francesca Piccolomini. What ties this essay neatly into Reardon’s thesis is the context of the cures. Many of them happened “just in the nick of time” to allow the young musicians to participate in some performance at the convent of Ognissanti. It was as if the Virgin Mary herself supported and promoted the musical activities of the monastery. Imagine the prestige accruing to the convent, community, and city, when the holy Virgin herself thought their music so important as to intervene on its behalf!

4. Artistic Expression of the Monastic Condition

4.1 A second notion that undergirds this book is the many ways in which musical expression operated in female monasteries: most of the musical works had varying combinations of didactic, homiletic, and celebratory elements that functioned to reinforce the purpose of nuns’ lives. In Chapter 3, Reardon discusses a 1666 motet by Alessandro Della Ciaia written for rites accompanying the investiture ceremony. The motet, for five voices, with sections for solo soprano and soprano duet, uses passages from the Song of Songs as the basis of the text. The changes made to the source text made it appropriate not only for the rejoicing of the religious community upon the entrance of a new member, but supported the overall sense of community among the sisters, their biological aunts, cousins, and sisters, and among musical, aristocratic, and civic relationships that comprised the Sienese community at large.

4.2 Such rejoicing hearkens to the many allusions of convent choirs to the heavenly choirs of angels. Many of the texts stress such monastic virtues as other worldliness, obedience, prayer, and devotion. Yet, the discussion of the operina in Chapter 6 and the motet collection in Chapter 7 demonstrates the acquaintance of these holy women with the musical styles of their day. They sang polyphony, and although there was still a great deal of prestige associated with that elaborate type of music, they also utilized recitative, aria, and emerging instrumental idioms as parts of their musical programs. The many theatrical works written for monastic performance abound with scenes requiring vocal and instrumental music. In fact, the nuns were not above using secular music in support of their artistic endeavors.4 Imagine then, the power of such musical performances for their audiences and performers, harnessing such a variety of styles of musical expression to emphasize, gloss, and/or bolster the meaning of the texts for the convent’s “spiritual fun.”

5. Conclusion

5.1 A third thread that runs throughout this book is the author’s meticulous detective work to tie a considerable quantity of disparate sources into her theme: though neglected by musicologists because of the lack of musical “products,” the convents of Siena were an integral part of the life of the city. They functioned as an emblem of the religious, musical, and cultural vitality of an early modern city while serving as an alternative community for many of its female members. Reardon’s scrupulous research and compelling prose create a sensitive, convincing portrait that is well served by her multivalent approach, one which takes into account not only how outsiders viewed convent artistic programs, but the meaning that may be ascribed to those programs by the authors, composers, and performers themselves. Holy Concord within Sacred Walls is an insightful, penetrating inquiry that itself serves as an impressive emblem of early modern studies.

References

* Kimberlyn Montford (kimberlyn.montford@trinity.edu) teaches music history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

1 Craig Monson, Disembodied Voices: Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Robert Kendrick, Celestial Sirens: Nuns and their Music in Early Modern Milan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Kimberlyn Montford, “Music in the Convents of Counter-Reformation Rome” (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 1999); and Colleen Baade, “Music and Music-making in Female Monasteries in Seventeenth-Century Castile” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2001).

2 Stewart Carter, ed., Isabella Leonarda: Twelve Sonatas, opus 16 (Middleton, Wisc; A-R Editions, 2001); and Robert Kendrick, ed., Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, Motets (Madison, Wisc: A-R Editions, 1998).

3 Frank D’Accone, The Civic Muse: Music and Musicians in Siena during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Colleen Reardon, Agostino Agazzari and Music at Siena Cathedral, 1597–1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); Diana Norman, Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena (1260–1555) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003); and Gerald Parsons, Siena, Civil Religion and the Sienese (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004).

4 See the discussion of secular music in theatrical productions in Chapter 4.


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