Few pre-20th century female composers appear
in books on music history. It is notable that most of them lived
and worked in Italy in the 17th century. The most famous of them
all is Barbara Strozzi, whose oeuvre has been frequently recorded.
Most other female composers were nuns, and in the main composed
music for the liturgical needs of their own convent. The fact
that some of their compositions have been printed testifies to
their quality as they were apparently considered good enough to
appeal to the musical world at large.
One of the most remarkable of these musical nuns was Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. She was born into a well-off family in Milan and probably received some musical education before professing her final vows at Santa Radegonda around 1620. Several members of her family also lived in this convent, and here she remained the rest of her life, in due course moving up to the positions of prioress and abbess. At that time she was involved in a conflict with archbishop Alfonso Litta, who was not amused by departures from what was considered appropriate in a women's convent. Part of what he disliked was the musical practice in the convent, and in particular the use of instruments.
The music of Cozzolani has been recorded before. In the year 2000 the German Orlando di Lasso Ensemble recorded a kind of reconstruction of Vespers with music by Cozzolani (Thorofon CTH 2461/2). Another disc was released in 2005 by Linn Records, with motets performed by the ensemble Musica Secreta (Linn CKD 113). Only recently the Hanover Girl's Choir and the Hannoversche Hofkapelle recorded a disc with music from Italian women's convents, which included several pieces by Cozzolani (Rondeau ROP6020). Her oeuvre which has come down to us is not particularly large: two collections have been preserved completely and one fragmentary. Her first opus has been lost. What is remarkable, though, is that these four collections were all printed within a period of just ten years. It shows that her music was in high demand.
The collection of 1650 which is recorded here in its entirety contains a number of Psalms for eight voices, and sacred concertos for one to five voices with basso continuo, some of them with additional parts for two violins. The scoring of the Psalms for eight voices suggests an antiphonal character, with a division of the ensemble into two groups. But that is not entirely the case, as Cozzolani uses the solo voices and tutti in various combinations.
There is one feature of these Psalm settings which is particularly notable. Sections of a verse are repeated later on in the Psalm, partly in order to increase its inner coherence. There is also a connection with the text. In Beatus vir
(Psalm 111/112) the opening verse - "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord" - is repeated several times during the Psalm. It is especially telling that it is repeated after the verse which says: "The wicked shall see and shall be angry", thus creating a strong opposition between 'the man who fears the Lord' and 'the wicked'. Cozzolani follows the same procedure in the Magnificat I
: after 'Fecit potentiam' - "He hath scattered the proud" - she returns to 'Quia respexit': "He regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden". This way the humility of the Virgin Mary and the haughtiness of 'the proud' are sharply juxtaposed.
In her Psalms Cozzolani proves to be well aware of the style of her time. In regard to text expression she uses every means composers of her time had at their disposal. That is also the case in the sacred concertos. These are written in the monodic style which was common in her time. Many of them have a highly emotional content, and are about saints and especially the Virgin Mary. Some are outright mystical, particularly O quam bonus es
, in which the blood of Jesus and the milk of the Virgin are presented as the means of salvation: "His blood saves me, her milk purifies me, his blood revives me, her milk restores me." The collection also contains some dialogues, another popular form in Cozzolani's time. Maria Magdalena stabat
is a dialogue for Easter about Mary Magdalene looking for Jesus. The piece begins with a part for a testo
, a role typical in Italian oratorios, and then we hear Mary Magdalene in dialogue with two angels. There are also two Psalms which are not for eight voices: Laudate pueri II
is for four sopranos - divided into two groups - with two violins and bc, whereas Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
is a solo concerto for soprano, two violins and bc.
Cozzolani's collection was printed for general use which means that the scoring had to be adapted to common practice. The vocal parts are for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. But as there is no evidence of male participation in liturgical practice in the convent, these four parts were sung by women. It is known that some women were able to sing tenor parts. The bass parts were probably either transposed or played by an instrument. And as in Cozzolani's convent instruments were used this could well have happened there as well. In this recording all parts are also sung by women only, some going into the tenor range. Bass parts are usually transposed and in some cases the whole piece has been transposed. Unfortunately the liner-notes don't go into detail about this subject.
These two discs contain the complete collection of 1650 which means that it isn't a duplication of the recording by the Orlando di Lasso Ensemble. The latter also contains several pieces from another collection, and there the lower parts are sung by men. So this production is a real addition to the catalogue. Unfortunately the performances are rather uneven.
Admirable as it is that all parts are sung by women, some of the tenor parts aren't sung that well. Sometimes a singer has to move so far down that the volume is insufficient, and the sound is too weak. Too many voices have a kind of nervous tremolo, which is not very nice to listen to and is in particular damaging in the ensembles and tutti. Dynamics are particularly problematic, especially in the concertos where soloists are expected to use the messa di voce
, a crescendo on a single note, immediately followed by a diminuendo. The ecstasy which is a feature of O quam bonus es
- with many phrases beginning with "o" (o how good, o how soft, o how joyful) - hardly comes off in the performance by Magnificat. Repertoire like this also requires a much more speech-like treatment of the text. And now and then the pronunciation, in particular of some vowels, is a bit suspect.
These are not bad performances, and the importance of the repertoire is such that those who have a special interest in Italian music of the 17th century would want to hear these discs. But it is unfortunate that the interpretation doesn't explore the character of Cozzolani's oeuvre to the full. The booklet contains an essay by Robert L. Kendrick, who has edited several pieces by Cozzolani. His text has been badly edited, though. All lyrics are printed with an English translation.
Johan van Veen