There is an association between the monastic lifestyle of cloistered nuns, and piety, complacency and simplicity. This association, however, is in direct contrast to the women inhabiting the convents of Italy during the 17th century, as these convents were the gathering place of highly educated, fiercely independent and creative women.

These cloistered women used singing and composition to communicate their identity and their devotion beyond the convent walls, all the while developing their social and financial independence. Their musical practices made the nuns both controversial and alluring to the outside world, and as such, were routinely under attack by various Archbishops for drawing too much attention to themselves.

Our programme focuses on the music for continuo and voce sola from two of most infamously rebellious nuns – Lucretia Orsina Vizana and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. These women went against the authority of the men that tried to control them and limit their musical expression and became famous for their insubordination.

Born in Bologna, Lucretia Vizana (1590 – 1662) was taught music by the sisters of the Camaldolese convent Santa Cristina della Fondazza and in 1623 published Componimenti musicali de motetti concertati (Venice), making her one of the first women to publish her own music.  Any woman publishing music at this time would have caused quite a stir, but as a cloistered nun, her music was seen as radical and almost sacrilegious. In the years that followed, the Vatican sent troops to Santa Cristina to bring order to the unruly nuns and after a standoff between the church authorities and the women, the convent was shut down. Vizana was allowed to remain a nun, but was forbidden from writing music and eventually, was declared insane.

Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602 – c. 1676-78) took her vows into the Benedictine convent of Santa Radegonda, Milan – a convent famous for the singing and musical activities of the sisters cloistered within its walls – where she would eventually became Abbess. Her huge output of compositions received a great deal attention and as Abbess, she fiercely defended the sisters’ right to music making against Archbishops who wished to limit them. In defense of the nuns’ music, Filippo Picinelli said “the nuns of Santa Radegonda of Milan are gifted with such rare and exquisite talents in music that they are acknowledged to be the best singers of Italy. They wear the Cassinese habits of St. Benedict, but they seem to any listener to be white and melodious swans, who fill hearts with wonder, and spirit away tongues in their praise. Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise, Chiara in name but even more so in merit, and Margarita for her unusual and excellent nobility of invention…”.

This rarely performed music will be brought into the context of the regions where Vizana and Cozzolani were born by the inclusion of liturgical chant, performed in the manner with which it would have been sung in these convents at the time these women were writing their music. Our programme will shed light on a portion of the enormous musical outpouring from cloistered women, with all the devotion, spirituality and radicalisms these intimate divas spun into their composition.

Composers: Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602 – c. 1676-78), Lucrezia Orsini Vizana (1590 – 1662)