Home page
Back to this CD
CD index

Composers and Historical Notes

Baroque for the Mass
Ursuline Composers of the 17th Century

(The Ursulines are a Catholic Order, but are not nuns.)
Psalm 68:11 The Lord gave the word; great was the company of women that published the tidings.

Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) and Maria Xaveria Peruchona (ca.1652-after 1709) were but two of many northern Italian women composers who published music during the 17th century. They lived just a few miles from one another in towns situated northwest of Milan. Both composed music in the Baroque style, using liturgical texts as well as original texts drawn from the spiritual and devotional language of the time. Both belonged to religious organizations called Collegio di Sant'Orsola, foundations of a new non-monastic style of religious life which attracted large numbers of women in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Leonarda published over 200 musical works in the course of her long lifetime, making her one of the most prolific women composers of her age. Peruchona, like many other women composers of the century, published a single opus, hers containing eighteen pieces. Both composers lived at a time of great musical activity, when more women emerged in Italy as composers than at any previous period in Western music history. Largely ignored in the centuries that followed, the music of these women is being rediscovered only in our time. Not only is the artistic merit of their work finding renewed appreciation, but so too is its ability to find a response in the human spirit.

Collegio Sant'Orsola:
There is very little information on the life and activities of the particular religious organizations to which Leonarda and Peruchona belonged. Whatever records there may have been are either unknown to us or perhaps did not survive the general suppression of religious foundations by Napoleon in 1811 in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

However, a good body of information exists on the life and activity of similar religious organizations in other northern Italian cities and towns. What is notable is that these groups dedicated to St. Ursula (later called Ursulines) were not monastic communities. The members did not make public profession of vows; they were not subject to the rules of monastic enclosure; they did not wear a nun's veil. The norm of life called for the members to make a commitment to a life of virginity, to continue to live with their families, to live lives of virtue and devotion and good works, to wear simple dress that often had some identifying aspect. In 17th century Italy communal living was not the rule for Ursulines, but the exception.

Isabella Leonarda became a member of the Collegio Sant'Orsola in Novara in 1636. About 30 years later Maria Xaveria Peruchona became a member of the Collegio Sant'Orsola in Galliate, a town near Novara. Whether Collegio refers to the organization as a whole or whether it refers to a place where they lived, we do not know for sure. At least two authors of the seventeenth century stated that Ursulines living together in a community life was scarcely known in Italy.1

Although the Ursulines in France had adopted a modified monastic rule early in the 17th century, the foundations in Italy remained closer to the rule of the Company of St. Ursula, as it was established in Brescia by St. Angela Merici in 1535. Not until the 18th Century was living in community a widespread or normative way of living Ursuline life in Italy.

In several biographical notes accompanying the published works of Isabella Leonarda, there is mention of her religious duties and titles. She was madre (mother) by 1686, madre vicaria in 1693, and consigliera (councilor) in her last years. Following the rule of St. Angela Merici, the government of the Company of St. Ursula was entrusted to widows or to older members (called madre) who had the responsibility to guide the younger members, to visit them, to look after their spiritual and temporal well-being and to gather the Company from time to time.2

The way of life in the Company of St. Ursula responded to needs of the time. For the members, many who were unable or not inclined to enter monastic life, it provided a new life choice and an approved means for living a religious life. The benefit for church and society was their devotion, their example, and their works of charity and instruction, in the midst of family life. For this reason, the Company was recognized as an important means to help carry out the reformation of church and society. The performance of religious music, composed in the new Baroque polyphonic style, would contribute to this end by inspiring belief and religious devotion.

Isbella Leonarda (1620-1704) was born September 6, 1620 in Novara. Her father was a member of the minor nobility and a Doctor of Law. Two of her brothers were canons of the Novara cathedral, and at least two sisters also were members of the Collegio Sant'Orsola. Her oldest brother inherited the family title and was a civic official in Novara. His descendants still live in the city and the family archives include much information about Isabella, including a representation of her on a family tree (shown in the accompanying CD booklet). Leonarda joined the Collegio di Sant'Orsola at the age of sixteen. Just four years later her first published music appeared in a collection by the Maestro de Capella at the Novara cathedral, Gasparo Casati, who may have been her teacher.

Leonarda published 20 volumes of music during her life, of which two have been lost. The surviving volumes contain more than 200 pieces of music. One is entirely instrumental ­11 trio sonatas and a sonata for solo violin and organ continuo. The vocal works include psalms, magnificats, responsories, litanies, four masses, and many works with non-biblical texts (including four in Italian) which are usually labeled motets. The choral music is for soprano (canto), alto, tenor, and bass. All of the music, including the instrumental sonatas, would have been appropriate for liturgical use, but no records survive to tell us for what occasions her music was written or used, or even where it was performed. Leonarda's works are found in widely scattered locations, however, often with parts missing, indicating that they had been used.

In Italy, her music is found in Bergamo, Siena, Bologna, Como, and Pistoia. Her music is also in Benedictine libraries in Einsiedein (Switzerland), Bueron, and Ottbeuren (Germany). Other works are located in national museums in England and the United States, in Munich, and at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Brossard owned several of her works, which he esteemed highly and which are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. [Brossard's collection of manuscripts was acquired by Louis XV in 1724, and became the nucleus of the music collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale.] No manuscripts survive, only published music. Perhaps works were composed and published in quick succession, but it is more likely that Leonarda selected music for her published volumes from among her manuscripts. Isabella Leonarda died February 25, 1704.

Messa Prima, Op. 18 (First Mass)
Leonarda set only three sections of the Ordinary in her masses: Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo. This is in accord with the North Italian practice in the late seventeenth century of setting either a Kyrie-Gloria pair or the three-movement group. The masses of her regional contemporaries, especially those of Maurizio Cazzati (not related to the Novara Casati) from the famous musical establishment at San Petronio in Bologna, are very much in the same style as her works.

Opus 18, which includes Messa Prima (First Mass), was published in 1696 by Pier-Maria Monti in Bologna. The opus includes three masses, each followed by a motet. All the works in the volume are scored for four voices, two violins, violone or theorbo, and organ continuo. In this recording, cello has been used for the violone part.

Solo is marked only for the solo portions of the Kyrie, although Leonarda evidently wanted solo sections to be used in the rest of the work. In the preface to another volume of music, she specified that duet passages should be una sol parte (one on a part). The sections illustrating the spirit and meaning of each phrase of text are sometimes separated by instrumental sinfonias for strings which use the same material as a preceding or following vocal section.

The formal structure of the mass is very sectional. Like her Bolognese contemporaries, Leonarda produces diversity through contrast of solo and tutti, chordal and fugal textures in short passages, changes of tempo or character, and use of non-repeating melodic materials. Her use of tonality is almost major and minor, although the transitional character of seventeenth century use of accidentals is frequently heard. The Messa Prima is almost entirely in D major and A major, with only brief modulations to other keys. Leonarda's harmonies are triadic, with almost no use of seventh chords. One very striking use of cross-relations occurs in the Confiteor section, where the text, I confess one baptism for the remission of sins, is ecstatically treated with third-related chords, a modulation to F# major-minor, and a confident cadence in A major.

There are many examples of text-painting, especially in the Credo. Descendit de caelis (came down from heaven) has typical descending scales. There are marked tempo changes from Adagio (slow) for three measures of Crucifixus (crucified) to sudden spiritoso for etiam pro nobis (also for us.) The slow mournful treatment of Crucifixus is quite a typical device, but her sudden joyful treatment of etiam pro nobis is distinctly her own. Static harmonies with passages like peals of bells are used for the Gloria and, in the Credo, for the first Et resurrexit (and rose again). Words like mortuos (dead) or peccatorum (sins) call for expressive treatment, and the phrase cum gloria iudicare vivos, et mortuos (with glory to judge the living and the dead) is expressed with brilliant melismas for gloria, an immediate Adagio with long notes for iudicare, two beats of quick notes for vivos, and two measures of long notes marked piano (soft) for mortuos. These passages do not have the air of mere illustrative formulas, but convey a quite intense response to the text. Her use of text repetitions, as in the way she repeats Credo, credo, credo, at the beginning of the creed also seems to go beyond traditional formulas to a quite personal statement ­ I believe, I believe, I believe!

Maria Xaveria Peruchona was born about 1652 and died sometime after 1709. Her name is spelled here as it was in her only publication, but her parents' names were found as Carlo and Margarita Parruchono in the visitation records in the diocese of Novara. Lazaro Agostino Cotta, in his Museo Novares (1872), says that she was sixteen when she joined the Collegio di Sant'Orsola in Galliate, and that she studied with Francesco Beria and Antonio Grosso.

According to Cotta, Peruchona was a fine singer, and well taught in playing (organ?) and singing. Although visitation reports of 1678, 1690, and 1709 mention her presence, they do not speak of her music further. In 1678 she was reported to be in poor health. In the visitation report of that same year, six members of the Collegio were noted as being familiar with polyphonic music (including Maria Xaveria Peruchona).3

In 1675, Francesco Vigone in Milan published Peruchona's only volume of music, Sacri concerti de amoretti a una, due, tre, e quattro voci, parte con violini, e parte senza. It was dedicated to Donna Anna Cattarina della Cerdi, wife of the governor of Novara, of whom she remarked in the Preface that as rulers of Novara, the dedicatee and her husband had provided "the blessed Government, by which your Grand Consort and Your Excellency make certain that my happy country enjoys an age of gold in this century of iron." Anna Cattarina had apparently also been a generous patroness of Sant'Orsola.

NOTES: Madeline Welch, OSU (the Ursulines) Barbara Garvey Jackson (composers) Marnie Hall (performers)

1 Teresa Ledochowska, OSU, Angela Merici and the Company of Saint Ursula, Vol II (Ancora: Rome, 1967) p. 181.

2 Regola della Compagnia di Sant'Orsola, in Saint Angela Merici: Writings, (Ursulines of the Roman Union: Rome, 1995), Chapter XI, pp. 46-55 (in Italian and English translation).

3 information on the visitation records has been gathered by Jane Bowers, "Maria Xaveria Peruchona," Women Composers: Music Through the Ages, Vol. II, p. 225-226, G. K. Hall & Co., New York, 1996.




Links to alphabetical list of composers
Bios and links to their recordings at this site

 A   B  C-E F-G H-I J-K  L   M  N-Q  R   S  T-V W-Z