Angelic Voices of Cappella Artemisia Revive Unheard History

By Amanda Ortscheid

UC Irvine may be the fourth stop on Cappella Artemisia’s 2017 North American tour, “Invincible! 17th-Century Italian Nuns Sing of Virgins and Martyrs,” but last Wednesday’s performance didn’t suggest that the ensemble’s musicians are halfway through a fast-paced tour: it was fresh, tight and passionate.

The aim of the concert wasn’t just to entertain, though. After all, it was supported by Illuminations, so it also educated. An intimate lunchtime lecture and preview preceded the concert itself, where UCI Department of Music Professor Colleen Reardon, Director of Cappella Artemisia Candace Smith and the musicians themselves provided the context necessary to understand not only the historical background of the pieces, but also why this music was so important to the cloistered nuns who composed and performed it.

As it turns out, an enormous amount of music was written by and for Italian nuns in the 16th and 17th centuries. As Professor Reardon explained in her lecture, music was special to these women because “even though [their] bodies could not leave the convent, their voices could.” And many of them did wish to leave the convent, if only metaphorically, because oftentimes they took their vows unwillingly. To be a nun was a choice their families made for them, because they couldn’t afford to pay marriage dowries for all their daughters and it was difficult for women in Italy at the time to support themselves. While families still had to pay dowries for their daughters to enter into convents, these dowries were much less expensive than any they would have had to pay for a marriage. Because of this, frequently only one — lucky or unlucky, depending on your point of view — daughter would be married off, in order to solidify political and economic ties, and her sisters would be cloistered.

For these women, who might have been separated from their families as early as the tender young age of seven, performing music provided a way for them to contact the outside world. Cloistered nuns’ churches were divided by grates into two sections: the internal section inside the convent, where the nuns would perform and the external section outside the convent, where an adoring public would crowd. Because the performers were hidden to the audience, many listeners felt that the “disembodied voices” they heard were indeed holy — or more precisely, “angelic.”

Unfortunately, the Church was not always supportive of the nuns’ musical endeavors. Sometimes a musically-talented young woman might be given a discount on her dowry; other times, even more restrictions would be placed on what music the nuns could perform.

When restrictions increased, it was often because a few too many people were gathering at the convent to hear the music, making it seem as though “people were going to church for all the wrong reasons,” as Smith joked in-between songs.

The only Italian word I know is pizza, so as I sat in the audience listening to the concert, I was glad I made it to the lecture so that I could appreciate the meanings of the songs to a degree.  But my newfound knowledge was a double-edged sword, because all of a sudden, my head was full of wild historical fictions: as Cappella Artemisia began a rendition of Bianca Maria Meda’s “Anime belle” (“Beautiful Souls”), I thought not of the Virgin with a capital “V” the song urged me to rejoice in, but of those other consecrated virgins: the first nuns to perform the piece. I imagined them rehearsing, a flood of “angelic” voices rising up above the walls of a convent, crashing down into the musical scene and the wider history of Italy.