Music in the convent

By Douglas MacMillan

I suppose that the twenty-first century concept of nuns is of a body of perhaps somewhat unusual women, living in a more-or-less strict religious community, with their lives primarily dedicated to prayer. Some orders are enclosed, whereas others engage in teaching, nursing, and missionary work. There are not, in comparison with the past, that many convents around.

In the Middle Ages, however, things were very different: there were many huge religious communities of both men and women, and it has been estimated – particularly in Italy  ̶ that 20% of unmarried women in Europe were nuns. Indeed, about 50% of those of noble birth lived in convents – and of course they brought substantial dowries with them. In sixteenth century Italy it was considered that a woman should have either a husband or a wall (i.e. a convent enclosure) – and only one daughter should have a husband, the rest, a wall. One just wonders where religious vocation came into this (some women were apparently accepted into convents for their musical ability or the possession of a substantial dowry) but at least in a convent (or, for that matter, a monastery) people were housed, fed, and clothed. Although Italy was perhaps the main power-house of music in the convent, such practice applied throughout Europe, but there is insufficient time at present to go into detail about the differences between the various nations. What is particularly important in view of our concert tonight is that nunneries were the source of an enormous amount of music with many nuns became significant composers and performers – as well as theologians and philosophers. The convent provided a safe, secure environment not only for these women to live, but also to indulge in highly cultured activities. Many convents had huge libraries, but much material was lost during the Reformation and during the Napoleonic conquest of Europe. In England (and other countries where the protestant reformation took hold) one just wonders how this large number of religious men and women fared when their monasteries and convents were dissolved: there is a large humanitarian social side to this, apart from the loss of the music.

So, what about the music? When the music was unearthed in the libraries it was found that, with due religious modesty, the name of the composer was seldom given. In a fine example of male chauvinism, it was immediately assumed that this high-quality music had been composed not by nuns, but by monks… History, fortunately, has revealed otherwise.

The prime purpose of conventual music is to sing the praise of God: traditionally, Christian liturgy should be sung and our modern spoken liturgies are a perversion: Jubilate Deo omnis terra: cantate, et exultate, et psallite. However, access to good quality music and singing provided by nuns was much valued by the upper classes for weddings and funerals – and it should be recalled that many of them sent their younger daughters into convents, often with substantial dowries. It is important to see that the prime function of this music was liturgical – to lift the heart and mind to God. It was not fundamentally an end in itself, for music in the church is the servant of the liturgy. That said, however, the sound of unaccompanied female voices singing polyphonic music – or indeed monophonic music such as plainchant – can lend a mystical air to the Mass and even contribute to ecstasy within the cloister. Apropos of polyphony, I should add that the bass line in four-part music was sometimes played instrumentally on a bass viol or even a trombone. The choir was often hidden (at least from the lay congregation) and this surely contributed to the idea of an ethereal choir of angels. Some bishops, however, were wary of the conventual composers and singers, thinking that complex (and successful) mass settings could risk the composer and performer falling into the cardinal sin of pride.

There is little doubt that many opposed to conventual singing considered that the nuns could almost be equated with the sirens of Greek mythology who, by their singing, lured sailors to death on the rocks of their island: the lure in the case of conventual singing was presumably that it could provoke inappropriate sexual thoughts.  It is interesting to note that nuns sang freely of sensual love, being particularly devoted to that most erotic of biblical books, the Song of Songs. In the process of contributing to the path that leads to ecstasy, did they also lead themselves into the cardinal sin of lust? 

As the years moved from the Renaissance to the Baroque, music continued to flourish in convents and monasteries and in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Vienna convents supplied orchestral music, oratorios and even feste teatricale for visitors from the Imperial family. Venetian nuns put on theatrical performances and sacred dramas within the cloister – but no male dress was permitted! These large-scale performances in convents may largely be a thing of the past, but one only has to see an episode of Call the Midwife to realise that the centuries-old custom of religious sisters singing the praise of God is far from being eclipsed.

So much for generalities: let us look now at some examples of conventual composers and performers over the past millennium, beginning (inevitably) with Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine nun, born in 1098 and who lived a remarkably long life of 81 years. She was a veritable polymath, being a writer, composer, philosopher and religious mystic. She set 77 of her own poems to music: at this period, of course, much music was mostly monophonic as the art of harmony was just beginning to develop. If you get a chance to hear Hildegard’s music, listen carefully: it is absolutely haunting, ethereal and timeless.


Isabella Trombetti, Bologna, (late C16): wrote not only vocal music but also instrumental music for strings and keyboard. Musical family: father was a cornett player. She was an organist and trombonist. Chiara Maria Cozzolani, Milan, (1602-77): Benedictine nun, singer and composer who became abbess. This put an end to her career as a composer! Donna Maria Christina Cavazza, Bologna, (early C18): she was a fine singer and was so desperate to see opera that she somehow acquired an abbot’s habit and fled the convent to visit the opera house on several occasions. Jeanne-Paule Marie Decker, Belgium (1933-85): a Dominican, she was well-known in the early 1960’s as ‘The Singing Nun’, particularly with her recording ‘Dominique, nique, nique’ the sales of which brought in a huge amount of money to her convent. Whether she was aware that the French ‘nique’ can have sexual implications is not known… She became a rather controversial figure, protesting about implications of the Second Vatican Council and wrote ‘Glory be to God for the Golden Pill’ as a commentary on the papal encyclical Humanae vitae’. She became rather a sad character and took her own life in 1985. As a final (and relatively contemporary) nun, I should mention Sr. Rosalina Abejo (1922-91), a Philippino composer who taught composition in seminaries and at Kansas University. She was a composer not only of masses, but also of orchestral works and operettas.

In conclusion, never let it be said that those who live in convents are out of touch with the world outside! This very brief survey of music in the convent does, I hope, emphasise that female religious orders were not entirely dependant on male composers for their liturgical music, and that there is probably still a vast amount of conventual music awaiting discovery and, of course, performance. The breadth of this music – written as it was over almost a thousand years  ̶ also shows us something of the personalities of those who inhabit convents. The traditional image of a cloistered nun in a starched white wimple and a black dress with an enormous rosary dangling from her girdle suggests that nuns were a group of people who were totally suppressed in any form of intellectual freedom and artistic self-expression. The music, however, shows that these women had intellectual pursuits, deep human emotions, and – believe it or not ̶ sexuality.

I hope you enjoy this evening’s performance given by the Oxonian celestial sirens of the Korrigan consort. 

Music from the English Benedictine Convents and the Augustinian Convent at Louvain

By Caroline Lesemann-Elliott

Some may ask an ensemble primarily concerned with all things natural and pagan, why convent music? Well, before anything else, nuns and their lives are just too cool. They wrote a lot of music and literature, made a lot of art, and debated as and with the top-tier theologians of their time. Before the Reformation, they performed crucial functions for their communities and held political and cultural power. After the Reformation, they facilitated the survival of Roman Catholicism in England and occupied a politically important space, heavily impacting the Counter-Reformation with their cultural products. More importantly, they made music is also a good way of understanding our own performance practice within KC, namely, our emphasis on collaboration, exploration, and valuing individual cults and icons as a way of synthesizing sacred and secular traditions.  The latter has not been an easy task, but convent music has offered one option for us to experiment with to find our own way. We do, after all, reside in a country with an established Church! We cannot avoid the sacred tradition, nor do we want to. We simply want to carve a space out within it where we belong.

So with this in mind, I’m going to give a brief overview on some of the music we’ll be singing that I’ve been working on in my Master’s and PhD. Wilton Abbey was the premiere women’s school in England for more than 500 years. The Abbess at Wilton retained powers that posited her as essentially the equivalent of a baron, with the same rights and responsibilities. According to the main expert on this item, Alison Altstatt, the Wilton Processional was once a “small, portable book containing 165 folios of texts, music, and instructional rubrics for the processions, stational liturgies, and dramatic rituals that the Wilton nuns performed throughout the liturgical year.” Finished in approximately 1265, the physical size of this book indicates it was likely used to read from during ceremonies, rather than as a guide for memorisation. The Processional has lots of music particularly dedicated to Rogationtide, in which processions involved the nuns moving beyond the convent walls to bless crops, forest, and livestock in processions (known in old English as gangdagas and bendagas). The items we’ll be singing feature as part of an Eastertide drama, in which the nuns sing a setting of the poem by Venatius Fortunatus “Ad felicem episcopum de pascha.”

Moving on to the 17th century, Ms 785 is a tiny book, dating from 1686, found at Douai Abbey in berkshire. It was most likely for personal use (recreation, composing, keeping notes, etc.). While Peter Leech and Maurice Whitehead (the only two scholars who have even glanced at it) proposed it as belonging to a Jesuit, most of the evidence points to female ownership (and indeed, ownership by a nun or lay sister). In terms of general musical cultures of Early Modern English convents, Caroline Bowden’s research shows that when the Sepulchrines of Liège were in their workroom, “they were allowed the entertainment of hearing someone read from a pious book or telling them about a profitable example, or they could sing ‘a devout motetto,” while in 1671 one John Walker writes of hearing “a most harmonious consort of viols and violins with the organ. Then a ravishing voice of a nun singing in Italian a treble part alone, with the rest now and then keeping the chorus.” Any and all of the items found in Ms 785 would be suitable for such times in some way. For example, in the one hour before and after dinner supposedly allocated “for conversation and mirth” at the Dunkirk Benedictine convent, the song “Three Merry Singers Stoode All in a Row” (another song featured in our repertoire tonight) would be ideal for casual merrymaking. As it is one of the few items in the book notated in G-clef (a clef frequently more accessible to amateur musicians), it would be ideal for all sisters to partake in the jollities. 

Two specific pieces in Ms 785 were dedicated to specific nuns. The piece “Hail Basilinda” is listed as made for Dame Ignatia Warner, while “Anter Tumultuantis” is listed as composed for Dame Cecilia Tasburgh. The former is likely some kind of recreational song, while the latter could easily be used as a substitute for an antiphon or communion motet in the liturgy, a part of worship in which polyphonic music was often used in recusant household services. The value and meaning of these pieces is interesting to examine. The opening line of “Hail Basilinda” (Basilinda meaning “sovreign”) begs the question of who is being addressed. Is the “Basilinda” Ignatia herself, being celebrated in her ascension to some new level of  virtue in her profession? Perhaps it refers to King James II, who had recently acquired the English throne, thus indicating the item could be a part of celebrating her profession in 1686 partly by giving thanks for a new sovereign more sympathetic to the Catholic cause. The text certainly evokes a trope of a rebirth of a “golden age” after a period of tempestuousness, and implies a certain amount of secular, more politicized power in its mentions of “endlesse wars” Basilinda’s subjects shall cease to engage in, or the “countries” that might have peace under a new sovereign. 

Meanwhile, the text of “Anter tumultuantis” features post-tempest reflections on the unknown future and appeals for peace and strength in the face of adversity. Within the text, the maritime connotations in the opening recitative call to mind the Monmouth Rebellion (in which the Earl of Argyll sailed from Holland to Scotland to incite an ultimately unsuccessful coup). The text also fits with an interpretation of the “troubled soul” as the nuns themselves, having crossed the channel to the Low Countries by boat to begin life anew in the convent. In both cases, while “peace” has been restored, the future of the individual in times of such political turmoil is far from certain. The concept of being “born to mourn” for the son of Mary has further implications for the relationship of Catholic domestic spheres and identities of the women within these familIes. As most English exiled nuns came from Catholic families (and generally wealthy ones), the sense of having an obligation to serve as a result of one’s bloodline comes through in this poem.

Moving forward, two other items of English convent music (“Adoro Te” and “Jesu Piisime”) come from a collection of music left over from the English Augustinian Canonesses at St Monica’s in Louvain, Belgium. I’ve picked two pieces that have been repeatedly re-notated and re-copied into different forms, indicating performance near constantly from 1712 to 1808 (the year in which the nuns settled at Spetisbury in Dorset). What’s more, “Jesu Piisime” appears in a collection of blue books that I have reason to believe were created as gifts (given the illustrations you can see within the programme). For whom is as yet uncertain. The illustrations depict what appears to be a nun giving books to some lay men. One printer-cum-musician in Louvain by the name of S.G. van Ham was ejected from the city during the Brabant Revolution of 1786, and forced to flee to Liege. Van Ham’s name appears both as (incorrectly) attributed as composer in later editions of music from St Monica’s, but also in re-iterations of older music that have clearly been printed. There is also a great deal of printed items in the collection the nuns likely would not have been able to afford, considering their financial suffering in the 18th century. I therefore believe that the gifts were possibly created as a gift to van Ham upon his escape, based on various dating issues that make it impossible to be the reverse case scenario. It is equally possible that the images, rather than reflecting gift giving from the nuns to the men, simply depict memories of happy occasions at St Monica’s. The books were gifts from the group of nuns who stayed at Amesbury (the nuns’ initial place of refuge upon fleeing Louvain) to the nuns who went ahead to Spetisbury to prepare the Priory for usage. 

There is so much more to say on this topic, but for the sake of leaving some time over for the music, I shall conclude with this: there is more power in this music than just liturgical propriety. English convents held a socially and politically liminal position, and had a strong effect on English domestic religious cultures as a result. I hope this talk has helped offer some insight and personal connection to the music we’ll be singing tonight. I’m happy to answer any questions at the drinks reception at the end of this evening. In the meantime, I hope you all enjoy the concert, and thank you again!

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