Music Before 1800: Stile Antico

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Program: #20-34   Air Date: Aug 10, 2020

Yet another live concert from our friends at Music Before 1800, with a varied program of Renaissance masterworks by the English ensemble (and frequent guests on the program).

MB1800, a NYC institution, is the city’s longest-running series devoted exclusively to early music. Since the series’ inception, concerts have been presented at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights, giving audiences a uniquely satisfying experience.

Louise Basbas is the founder and director of the series. The New Yorker praised MB1800, calling it “the essential series.” Time Out New York remarked: “The resonant acoustics of Corpus Christi Church will deliver you into your own personal solitude.... Few other venues can claim this fusion of strong programming and quality auditory surroundings.”

Music Before 1800 is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. MB1800 is also supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

NOTE:  All of the music from this concert features the vocal ensemble Stile Antico. For more information about this ensemble:

Stile Antico – Early Music Vocal Ensemble


“Did women have a Renaissance?”, American historian Joan Kelly famously asked in 1977, answering that the era of optimistic self-discovery and classical learning largely bypassed women, whose legal rights and economic opportunities appeared, if anything, to deteriorate in the 15th and 16th centuries. Music, however, bucked the trend. Not only did the first female composers appear who speak to us with distinct artistic voices, women were also more visibly active as publishers, purchasers, and patrons of music. Italian princesses like Isabella d’Este led the trend by employing first-rate performers and commissioning new music. Women who acted as regents for underage rulers, or who were sovereigns in their own right, had even more opportunities to shape the cultural life of court and country. Whereas a married princess or queen consort only controlled her own household (which often included professional musicians or gifted noblewomen), normally the “official” court chapel for sacred and secular music came under the remit of their husbands. A female ruler, however, could command all the musical resources at her court, sacred and secular, public and private.

Margaret of Austria (1480-1530) was the first in a line of formidable Habsburg women who ruled the Duchy of Burgundy. The daughter of Emperor Maximilian I had received a first-rate education, so that a Burgundian chronicler praised her excellence “not only in the female arts of embroidery, but in vocal and instrumental music, in painting and French and Spanish rhetoric.” From 1507 until 1530 she acted as regent for her nephew Charles and used her independent status to turn Brussels and Mechelen into international meeting places of scholars and artists. She had inherited one of the grandest court chapels in Europe from her father and brother, which included renowned composers such as Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452-1518). His motet Absalon fili uses extreme musical means to project King David’s excessive sorrow for the death of his son: the overall scoring is for low male voices, and the use of flat key signatures and accidentals pushes the tonality at “non vivam ultra” (I won’t live any longer) towards D-flat Major, breaking the boundaries of the tonal system. The motet probably commemorates the untimely death of Margaret’s brother Philip in 1506, which also triggered a more personal response in the form of the three-part chanson Se je souspire. The Latin text in its lowest voice opens with the sigh “Again, a new pain” and invokes “frater mi Philippe” in the second part. The text—and possibly the music—was thus written by Margaret herself, and she had the chanson entered in a book of songs prepared specifically for her in the 1520s. The mournful tone of these pieces is not accidental: Margaret, rejected by her first fiancé on political grounds and widowed twice after short marriages, stylized her public and private image as an unfortunate woman, deepening the already dark hue of Burgundian court culture.

When Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of King Henry VIII, took over the governance of England and Ireland in 1553, she not only had to combat the usual reservations against a female ruler, but also to manage a complete reversal of the religious politics of her father and brother. She declared Catholicism the only legal form of worship and reintroduced the rites and services abolished by the Protestant King Edward VI. This meant that the Chapel Royal had to rebuild its repertory of liturgical music, and John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558), who had joined Mary’s chapel in 1553, set himself to the task. His motet Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria is a respond for the feast of the Purification of Mary, popularly known as Candlemas, but beyond its liturgical function the grandiose proportions of the piece can be heard as a compliment to the namesake of the Virgin, Queen Mary. The tenor part sings the traditional plainchant in equal note values, while the other five voices weave a dense web of polyphony around it. The Pentecost respond Loquebantur variis linguis by Sheppard’s senior colleague Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) similarly scaffolds the leap and bounds of the voice parts, particularly the frequently crossing trebles around the plainchant, resulting in a joyful babble not unlike the apostles speaking in tongues. Both in their use of Sarum Rite melodies and the dense textures, these motets look back to the early Tudor era as in the sound world of the Eton choirbook.

When Mary’s younger half-sister Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1558, her return to Protestantism ushered in a more austere era for church music. At least the Royal Injunctions of 1559 allowed in morning and evening services “a hymn or suchlike song to the praise of God to be sung, in the best sort of melody and music that may be conveniently devised, having respect that the sentence of the hymn may be understood and perceived.” William Byrd’s (c. 1540-1623) anthem O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth demonstrates this more text-conscious approach in the perorations opening each of the two parts. He probably wrote this piece while serving as organist at Lincoln Cathedral, one of the few religious establishments in the country that still maintained a good-sized choir, which allowed Byrd to score this anthem for six voices. In 1572 Byrd joined the Chapel Royal and became the leading composer of Elizabeth’s reign, despite his increasingly outspoken deviation from state religion. John Taverner (c. 1490-1545), in contrast, belongs to an earlier generation, but his motet Christe Jesu, pastor bone—originally praising St William of York—was in the 1580s adapted to

include a plea to “save Elizabeth, Queen of England, and watch over the Church.” Elizabeth’s court, however, was led by a musically gifted Queen and became famous not only for its church music but also for secular singing, dancing and playing, which made the Spanish Ambassador remark in 1576, “In all my travel of France, Italy and Spain, I never heard the like of a concert of music, so excellent and sweet as cannot be expressed.” The dedication of a collection of madrigals, entitled The Triumphes of Oriana (1601), must have seemed as a particularly apposite gift to the editor Thomas Morley. The pieces were written by twenty-three composers and show considerable stylistic variety—like the examples by the otherwise little known John Bennet (fl. 1599-1614) and Robert Carlton (c. 1558-c. 1638)—but all are set in a pastoral idyll populated by amorous shepherds and nymphs, and they end in the joyful exclamation: “long live fair Oriana!”

Little touches of word painting such as Bennet’s “hovering” birds or Carlton’s dancing nymphs and satyrs are often called “madrigalisms” and would not have been out of place in their Italian models. It was with a collection of madrigals, the Primo libro de madrigali a quattro voci that the first female composer made her debut in print in 1568. Maddalena Casulana (fl. 1566-1583) was a skilled lutenist and singer; her dedication to Isabella de’Medici Orsini (herself a noted patron and musical amateur) confidently wants “to show to the world the foolish error of men who so greatly believe themselves to be the masters of high intellectual gifts and that these gifts cannot, it seems to them, be equally common among women.” Her talents went by no means unrecognized, for in the same year she was invited to contribute music to the ducal wedding in Munich, and she performed for the learned societies springing up in many Italian cities. The sombre O notte, o ciel, o mar offers an effective contrast between the invocation of the landscape in long note values and lively, dancelike cross rhythms. Vagh’amorosi augelli is more light-hearted and well suited to performance by a solo singer accompanying herself, not least because it is a song about singing.

If it is difficult to see whether or how Maddalena Casulana made a “career” in music, there is no doubt that musical training opened many doors in 16th-century Italy. Musical skills were indispensable for a young lady who aimed for a position at court, but they also helped girls to gain entry into prestigious convents, where the highlights of the daily liturgy were celebrated with polyphonic music. Leonora d’Este (1515-1575), the daughter of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara and Lucrezia Borgia, was sent to the Clarissan convent of Corpus Domini at age four, when she had lost her mother. Against the will of her father she decided to take the veil and later became the convent’s abbess, retaining her active interest in music and music theory. Music historian Laurie Stras has convincingly identified Suor Leonora as the author of an anonymous motet collection printed in Venice in 1543. Not only are the five-part pieces scored consistently for high voices suitable for an all-female ensemble, several were also directly relevant to the Ferrarese convent: The text of Sicut lilium inter spinas belonged to a special Franciscan devotion to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, whilst the joyful Veni sponsa Christi is suitable for a service admitting new members into the convent. Several motets of the collection reference the Eucharist, as would be fitting for a religious house named Corpus Domini, and O salutaris hostia additionally uses a chant melody from an office for St. Clare. All three compositions share a preference for floating, frequently crossing melodic lines whose slow-moving harmonies create an otherworldly effect.

The comparison of nuns’ voices with angels was obvious to the many visitors who flocked to Italian nunneries in the late 16th and 17th centuries. The invisibility of the singers, performing from the walled-up inner church, added to their mysterious aura. But there was also civic pride in the musical prowess of the nuns, who usually came from local upper-class families, such as Raffaella Aleotti (1575-after 1646), the daughter of the Ferrarese court architect. She entered the Augustinian convent San Vito in 1589 and published a collection of motets for five, seven, eight and ten voices in 1593— the earliest publication by a nun—and the first pieces of sacred music credited publicly to a woman. In contrast to Suor Leonora, her motets are scored for mixed voices, possibly to reach a wider buying public, but the lower parts could easily have been performed by an organ or even viols, and sometimes the bass was transposed to the upper octave. The top voices are also singled out in imaginative ways, for example when the sopranos act as narrator for the angel’s announcement in the Christmas motet Angelus ad pastores ait. Aleotti approaches the text with an ear for rhetorical flourish, for example when she switches to triple meter for the expression of great joy, “gaudium magnum,” or when she slows down the declamation for the despondent “contristatus sum” in Exaudi Deus orationem meam. Aleotti herself was the dedicatee of two publications of sacred music, attesting to her recognition among her male colleagues.

Her contemporary Sulpitia Cesis (born in 1577) even helped to put her native Modena, a musical backwater until the turn of the century, on the musical map. She took her vows at the Augustinian convent of San Geminiano in 1593 and published a volume of Motetti spirituale in 1619. A Modenese chronicler recalls the musical excellence of the convent where the nuns were versed “in all sorts of musical instruments, having Sister Faustina Borghi, a young woman of 22 and a fine virtuoso in counterpoint, who plays cornett and organ, and Sister Sulpitia, daughter of the most illustrious Signor

Count Cesis, who plays the lute excellently.” It was quite unusual for women to play wind instruments, but in a convent the invisibility of the performers and the strict prohibition of playing with male musicians created opportunities for developing these skills. Two motets from Cesis’s collection explicitly call for trombones, violones, arciviolone and cornett, possibly reflecting the choice of instruments at San Geminiano. In contrast, Ascendo ad Patrem and Cantemus Domino are scored for eight vocal parts divided into two choirs, which are contrasted effectively, sometimes bouncing short phrases or even individual words from one group to the other before breaking into festive, joyful triple meter for the final exultation.

—Barbara Eichner 



Louise Basbas, director

Stile Antico

Breaking the Habit
Music by and for Renaissance Women

Rebecca Hickey, Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, sopranos; Emma Ashby, Katie Schofield, Luthien Brackett, altos Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas, Jonathan Hanley, tenors; James Arthur, Will Dawes, Nathan Harrison, basses

Exaudi Deus orationem meam

Cantemus Domino O notte, O ciel, O mar

Music for Margaret of Austria

Absalon fili mi
Se je souspire/Ecce iterum

Sicut lilium inter spinas

Music for Queen Mary I

Loquebantur variis linguis Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo

Veni Sponsa Christi

Ascendo ad patrem Vagh’ amorosi augelli

Music for Queen Elizabeth I

O Lord, make thy servant

Christe Jesu, pastor bone

All creatures now are merry minded Calm was the air

O salutaris hostia Angelus ad pastores ait

Dialogo and Quodlibet (2019)


Raffaella Aleotti (c. 1575 - after 1646) Sulpitia Cesis (1577 - after 1619)

Maddalena Casulana (fl. 1566 - 1583) Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452 - 1518)

Anon., possibly Margaret of Austria Leonora d’Este (1515 - 1575)

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 - 1585) John Sheppard (c. 1515 - 1558)

Leonora d’Este

Sulpitia Cesis Maddalena Casulana

William Byrd (c. 1540 - 1623) John Taverner (c. 1490 - 1545) John Bennet (fl. 1599 - 1614) Richard Carlton (c. 1558 - c. 1638)

Leonora d’Este Raffaella Aleotti




Composer Info

Raffaella Aleotti (c. 1575 - after 1646), Sulpitia Cesis (1577 - after 1619), Maddalena Casulana (fl. 1566 - 1583), Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452 - 1518), Leonora d’Este (1515 - 1575), Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 - 1585) John Sheppard (c. 1515 - 1558), William Byrd (c. 1540 - 1623) John Taverner (c. 1490 - 1545) John Bennet (fl. 1599 - 1614) Richard Carlton (c. 1558 - c. 1638)