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Classical 101

Twelfth Night concert features music by women from the convents of Italy

The Early Interval performing in St. Joseph Cathedral, Columbus
Andrew Weber
The Early interval
The Early Interval performing its Twelfth Night concert in January 2020

This year an annual Columbus holiday tradition brings to life exquisite music from an extraordinary time.

Columbus’ resident early music ensemble, The Early Interval, brings the holiday season to a close with a Twelfth Night concert featuring music composed by women in the convents of 16th- and 17th-century Italy.

The Early Interval will perform Ecstasy and Devotion: Twelfth Night from the Convents of Italy Fri. Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. in St. Joseph Cathedral on the Early Music in Columbus series. Early Interval Artistic Director Jim Bates will give a pre-concert talk at 7:30.

Bates says the focus of this year’s Twelfth Night concert on music by women is a new angle on the traditional festivities for the end of the Christmas season.

“It’s ecstatic music, it’s celebratory music and it enables us to present our ensemble in a completely new light this year,” Bates said.

The program features vocal and instrumental works by some of the most important women musicians of the Renaissance and Baroque. Most notable is Isabella Leonarda, a prolific composer who served as superior at the convent of Sant’Orsola in Novara, in northern Italy. Also on the program is music by the Benedictine abbess Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, the religious sisters Claudia Francesca Rusca, Bianca Maria Meda, Vittoria Aleotti and others.

Like many women of noble birth, Aleotti studied music during her younger years and entered the convent already an accomplished musician. She was 14 years old when she joined the community at Ferrara’s musically vibrant convent of San Vito to further her talents.

"If a woman wanted to seriously pursue music, that was really their only outlet to really be a performer, certainly to be a performer of any not," Bates said. "that was what was available to them."

Women entered convents for a variety of other reasons, as well. Some wished to pursue discerned religious callings. Women of modest birth could elevate their social status by taking the veil and rising through the ranks of the convent. Widows who had no means of support could find a way forward in the cloister. And daughters of noble families were sometimes sent to convents when their families were unable to pay the large dowries marriageable noble men could demand.

Having professed their vows, women composed and performed music within the convent walls, by ancient decree of the Church. In the mid-1500s, the Council of Trent renewed the Church’s rule that music made by women religious should be heard, not seen.

“There was an outer church that the public could come into and an inner wall behind which the women could sing. There would be a screened window and a veil over that, and the women themselves were, of course, veiled, and they did not leave the convent at all,” Bates said.

Though the women lived strictly cloistered lives, their music often brought them fame well beyond the convent. Some of Italy’s convents made such fine musical offerings that those religious communities won regional reputations for the cities in which they were located.

The women’s fame bespeaks the emotional power of their performances and the enduring quality of their music.

“These women composers and performers were very devoted to their musical art. They achieved really high levels of performance,” Bates said. “And the joyousness of much of this music and the beauty of the harmonies that they employ, the level of craftsmanship – all of this comes together to make a really splendid sonic performance.”

The Early Interval performs Ecstasy and Devotion: Twelfth Night from the Convents of Italy Fri. Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. in St. Joseph Cathedral, Downtown Columbus. Pre-concert talk at 7:30.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.