Musica Secreta’s previous CD of motets by Alessandro Grandi (dda 25062) was reviewed in The Consort vol. 65, Musica Secreta is a group of women performers, directed by Deborah Roberts and Laurie Stras, while Celestial Sirens is a larger vocal group, directed by Roberts. This new recording includes monodic chants for the feast of St. Agnes, and settings of Palestrina from the Mass Veni Sponsa Christi and the Lamentations of Jeremiah . A performance of Cipriano de Rore’s Magnificat Sexti Toni completes the selection. The music forms the sound track for Sarah Dunant’s novel entitled Sacred Hearts, which is set in a Benedictine convent in the city of Ferrara on the eve of the Tridentine reform of 1570.
Musica Secreta’s very accomplished performances on both CDs address the question of what music 16 th century nuns might have sung, since no polyphonic music composed by or for them survives until almost 1600. Musica Secreta offers a variety of answers to this question, taking existing 4-part compositions and transposing the music upwards, or using instruments for the lower parts, or sometimes transposing he lower parts up an octave, while also playing them at the lower pitch on an instrument. Older nuns had lower voices, which could hold tenor, or sometimes even bass, lines and Musica Secreta includes some older women too.
It is lovely to hear so many monodic settings for the feast of St. Agnes, who serves as an inspiration for nuns. The texts for her feast, 21 January, are ancient and beautiful; their chants vary from simple plainsong to more elaborate settings, closer to those which Hildegard of Bingen composed for her sisters in the 12 th century.
Musica Secreta’s performance of Palestrina’s Mass Veni Sponsa Christi (Come, bride of Christ , the Mass for Virgins) is equally beautiful, but it is perhaps more doubtful that this would have been sung in 4-part polyphony by nuns. Having spent four years myself as an enclosed Benedictine nun, I am aware that a normal women’s monastery follows St Benedict’s directive by chanting the 150 psalms weekly. Together with other sung prayers including antiphons, the Benedictus and Magnificat and chants for the Mass, this adds up to some five hours of chants daily. Most nuns have little spare voice, or time, to practise polyphony as well. Choir practices are generally to enable the less musically gifted to negotiate the trickier passages of plainchant or newly-composed monody to the coming week. For monks and nuns, chanting is work, Opus Dei , ‘the work of God’. Palestrina is therefore more likely to have been heard in princes’ chapels and bishops’ cathedrals. Nevertheless, the Palestrina settings on this CD are very effective, and Musica Secreta amply demonstrates that this music can be performed by women alone.