“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman”
Virginia Woolf’s above remark was illustrated well in ‘Breaking the Habit’, Stile Antico’s presentation of vocal works written by and for by Renaissance women, part of the Kings Place ‘Venus Unwrapped’ series. Although the history of the 15th and 16th centuries provides examples of a few women of power, by and large, authorship of the works of ordinary female intellectuals and creatrices is difficult to pin down with certainty, and usually (as with Leonora d’Este, the educated a musically gifted abbess, from whose convent polyphonic motets for women’s voices emerged) female composers of works are identified on a best-guess basis.
Stile Antico, though, with their usual effortless, self-directed excellence, gave us a fascinating programme of generally unknown works by Leonora d’Este, Raffaella Aleotti, Sulpita Cesis and Maddalena Casulana (the latter being the only one of these composers to be clearly identified through her named publications), as well as pieces by more well-known men of the age, written for three female rulers: Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Burgundy, and Mary I and Elizabeth I of England.
Contrasts abounded in the programme, including: sacred against secular (d’Este’s devotional Veni sponsa Christi against Casulana’s expressively flirty madrigal Vagh’ amorosi augelli); Italian against English (Cesis’ eight-part Venetian polychoral writing in Ascendo at patrem against the false relations engendered by Thomas Tallis in Loquebantur variis linguis); music for a Protestant ruler as opposed to a Catholic (the close part-writing and attention to text in William Byrd’s O Lord Make thy Servant Elizabeth versus the older English style of John Sheppard’s Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria with its plainsong interpolations and slow-moving soprano and bass parts enveloping complex melismas in the inner parts).
As ever, Stile Antico’s presentations were subtly styled and beautifully blended, whether they were singing eight-part works with all voices (as for the Sheppard), or with five one-to-a-part female voices (as for the two devotional works by d’Este). Particularly enjoyable was the alternation between more solid devotional works (and the odd doom-laden madrigal) and some of the nimbler secular items; these latter pieces included contributions by John Bennet, Richard Carlton and John Wilbye to The Triumphs of Oriana – Morley’s 1601 collection of pieces in praise of Elizabeth I by the best madrigalists of the age. Perhaps the only cavil is that the Burgundian items (including Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon fili mi and Alexander Agricola’s Dulces exuviae) seemed to pay less attention to ‘authentic’ pronunciation than the English and Italian works. Research has revealed some fairly odd pronunciations from the period and region, and these make for interesting listening. The three-voice Se jous souspire/Ecce iterum, possibly by Margaret of Austria herself, had the feeling of a much earlier polyphonic style, and some unusual vowels and consonants would have imbued the piece with more character.
As a finale, the group presented a special commission for the concert, Joanna Marsh’s witty and engaging 12-part Dialogo and Quodlibet. The women – initially with their backs to the men – sang, in cleverly-crafted polyphonic homage, quotations from Casulana (including the splendid “the vain error of men that they alone possess the intellectual gifts, and who appear to believe that the same gifts are not possible for women”), while a huddle of tenors and basses homophonically mansplained to each other the music’s shortcomings. The two groups finally met – although without genuine communication – in a hodge-podge of modernist harmonies, neatly summing up one of the messages of the concert – and, indeed, of the ‘Venus unwrapped’ season.