Musica Secreta are returning to recording and concerts in 2022 with new personnel and new repertoire. Mother Sister Daughter celebrates women’s spiritual relationships and the stories they tell, with music honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary and communities of sisters in early modern Europe, and a new work by Joanna Marsh on a poem by Norfolk poet, Esther Morgan. Its other highlights are motets attributed to Suor Leonora d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, and an Office of St Clare from the convent of Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste Galilei.
The lives of Renaissance women were bound on all sides by family. Married women’s duty was to bear children: and since most families could afford only one dowry, the eldest daughter’s duty was to marry according to her family’s wishes. Her younger sisters’ duty was most often to embrace life in a convent, which meant severing ties with their birth families outside the convent walls. Nonetheless, they joined a spiritual family established over generations in which they could live out their days safely and were often placed in convents where they could form family groups with aunts and cousins.
All women could model their relationships and attitudes on the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who dutifully married and bore a child, but who had also consecrated her virginity to God. Mary’s relationship with God – as mother, daughter, and bride – were part of daily worship throughout Catholic Europe, but her relationships with women were also part of the liturgy, not just in a direct relationship with earthly communities, but also highlighted in motets to her mother St Anne, and by the inclusion of her sisters in the Easter story. The familial bond between sisters is also celebrated in the Office of St Clare, which tells of Clare’s passage into religion and her transitus through death, and of her sister Agnes, who follows her to heaven. Non-conformist and dissenting women also characterised their relationships through familial terms, referring to each other as “sister” and “mother.”
Women also speak in the repertoire sung by Renaissance women: Mary weeps for her dead son; Marguerite of Navarre tells her daughter a bedtime story; Leonora d’Este speaks from behind the convent shutters. The Vespers antiphons of St Lucy relate one of the few conversations in the Divine Office that would pass the Bechdel test: St Lucy, praying to St Agatha to heal her mother’s haemorrhagic illness.
Our new programme retells these stories: drawn from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sources, many with links to convents, it features motets attributed to Suor Leonora d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter; an anonymous Office of St Lucy from a fifteenth-century Veronese manuscript; and a recently identified Office of St Clare from the convent of Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste Galilei. These core works are newly edited and have not been recorded before.
The programme is rounded out with works by Brumel, Maistre Jhan and anonymous (potentially female) composers; alongside songs by dissenting women – both humble and noble – in early sixteenth-century northern Europe. A feature of the programme is the number of works that use existing melodies or even whole settings, transforming the texts so that they become relevant to the lives of their female singers.
The one relationship that has no trace in music is that between a nun and her secular sisters: in this programme, that relationship is illustrated by a new commission (and a new direction) for Musica Secreta, to be composed by Joanna Marsh on the poem “Half-Sister,” by Norfolk poet Esther Morgan. The poem relates the emotions and thoughts of a woman who lives constrained in the dark, but who can watch her half-sister in the sunshine outside, invoking strong images of dark and light, isolation and freedom. The text is intertwined with a seventeenth-century sonnet honouring a singer who is about to enter the convent, leaving behind the secular world. Marsh’s setting is for six female voices, with accompaniment on organ and viol.
Releasing recordings is an expensive undertaking for most classical/early music ensembles. Only a small proportion, if any, of production costs are funded by record companies so most of the cost lands on the artists themselves. Streaming and the decline of physical CD sales have made the economics of recording even more complicated, with ever less return through royalties reaching us. We have decided that the best way for us to maintain control over our “investment” is to release the CD ourselves – using online resources for a digital release and distributing physical CDs only through our website and at concerts.
what money we need, and how we will spend it
We have been extremely fortunate to receive partial funding for this project from the Leche Trust, the Ambache Charitable Trust, Angel Early Music, and the University of Huddersfield, as well as support in kind (and a travel grant) from Stapleford Granary, but we still have a shortfall in the recording budget of just over £10,000. We are asking our supporters to help us raise £6000 of this, which will go towards paying for artist fees (both musical and creative). Any stretch funding we are able to attract will go towards up-front production costs, such as venue hire and organ hire and tuning.
who we are
Musica Secreta is the most established female-voice early music ensemble in the UK. For over thirty years, we have performed, taught, and recorded music written by and for women from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. We have made nine CDs, four of which are of music exclusively by historic women composers (Barbara Strozzi, Lucrezia Vizzana, Margarita Cozzolani, Leonora d’Este). All of our recordings have received critical acclaim, and our concerts have drawn capacity audiences.
Our musicians, all women, have performed with major ensembles including the Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, Tenebrae, Magnificat, Siglo d’Oro, Ensemble Plus Ultra, the BBC Singers, Joglaresa, and the Rose Consort. Our founder Deborah Roberts and director Laurie Stras are leaders in discovering and promoting the work of historic women composers and musicians. Roberts is artistic director of the Brighton Early Music Festival; Stras is Professor Emerita of Music at the University of Southampton, and Research Professor of Music at the University of Huddersfield.
some practical notes
UK supporters: many of these rewards qualify for Gift Aid, so if you pay tax at least at the basic rate, you can choose to check the Gift Aid box - this makes your donation worth an additional 25% to us. Note that the retail value of any physical/digital rewards can only be 25% (+5% of anything over £100) of the donation.
Delivery for physical rewards: We only use services that provide tracking for your package. UK delivery is included in the reward donation. If your reward requires overseas delivery, you can choose to add to your donation to help us cover the cost.