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Program Notes for Cozzolani Easter Vespers

This evening’s program allows us to experience again some of the repertory produced by seventeenth-century Italian cloistered women. Thanks not least to groups like Magnificat, over the last decade the sacred music heard in their institutions throughout the peninsula has made the leap from printed page to a real presence on recordings and in concert. In addition, the work of several SSCM members on sacred music outside convent walls—ranging from problems of tonal organization to those of liturgical use—helps provide a better context in which to understand nuns’ repertory.

The basics of tonight’s concert are fairly well-known: music by the Benedictine nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c.1677), a sister at the musically famous convent of Santa Radegonda, located across the street from Milan Cathedral. Cozzolani’s psalms and motet are here presented as they would have been first heard, in the context of her order’s liturgy for Easter Vespers. S. Radegonda was famous for its sisters’ music-making on such feast-days, as visitors from all over Europe crowded into its half-church open to the public (chiesa esteriore). We hear the major musical items, in polyphony and chant, for such a Vespers, using largely Cozzolani’s music and reflecting the convent’s repertory around 1650; the psalms and Magnificat are scored for eight voices plus basso continuo, while the intervening motets are for smaller forces. The psalms and canticle come from her Salmi a otto voci concertati, op. 3 (Venice, 1650), published as a result of the 1649 visit to Milan of the Austrian Habsburg princess Maria Anna, a young woman soon to be married to her cousin Philip IV of Spain. Four of the five motets appeared in Cozzolani’s Concerti sacri, op. 2 (Venice, 1642; only the Mary Magdalen motet is found in the 1650 book). As a whole, the music reflects S. Radegonda’s festal liturgy at the time of Maria Anna’s visit, and could have been heard by the princess during her stay in the city, a sojourn which both reaffirmed Milan’s place in the Habsburg domains and linked the two branches of the House of Habsburg.

Like her sister, aunt, and nieces, Cozzolani took her vows at the house in her late teens. She had been born into a well-off family in Milan, and might have received her early musical training from members of the well-known Rognoni family, instrumental and vocal teachers in the city. Her four musical publications appeared between 1640 and 1650; later, she served as prioress and abbess at S. Radegonda, helping to guide the house through troubled times in the 1660’s, as it came under attack by the strict Archbishop Alfonso Litta, concerned to limit nuns’ practice of music, along with other “irregular” contact with the outside world. She disappears from the convent’s lists between 1676 and 1678.

The fame of Cozzolani and her house during her lifetime is evident in a passage from her contemporary Filippo Picinelli’s urban panegyric, the Ateneo dei letterati milanesi (Milan, 1670): “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 [the order of] St. Benedict, but (under their black garb) they seem to any listener to be white and melodious swans, who fill hearts with wonder, and enrapture tongues in their praise. Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise, Chiara [literally, ‘clear’, Cozzolani’s religious name] in name but even more so in merit, and Margarita [literally, ‘a pearl’] for her unusual and excellent nobility of [musical] invention…”. She was of course only one of over a dozen nuns in seventeenth-century Italy who published their music, but the ongoing tributes to her and to the musical culture of her house are remarkable on any count.

The canonical Hour begins with the versicle and response Deus in adiutorium meum, of which Cozzolani set the latter part (“Domine ad adiuvandum me festina”). Although this is normally a fairly straightforward text, the composer signaled the formal innovations to come in her psalm settings by rearranging various parts of the liturgical text (‘festina, Domine’ and the ‘Gloria Patri’) and troping them into earlier sections of the response. As per Benedictine Use in the seventeenth century, the four psalms (not five, as in the secular Use familiar from Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610) and the ensuing Magnificat are each flanked by a chant antiphon and, substituting for the antiphon’s normal repetition after the psalm, a motet. The hymn sung before the Magnificat is here given in an alternatim (i.e., alternate stanzas divided between Gregorian chant and organ versets) version from the standard contemporary publication for such practice, G. B. Fasolo’s Annuale (Venice, 1645).

The vocal resources of S. Radegonda allowed Cozzolani to apportion a wide variety of textures to the verses of the eight-voice items. The psalms use this kind of kaleidoscopically changing scorings in order to differentiate verses and half-verses, often responding to the imagery of each with a directly representative gesture. The troping found in Domine ad adiuvandum is also evident in the opening psalm Dixit Dominus, in which the three members of the doxology (one for each of the Trinity) are inserted ‘prematurely’ among the verses. The martial affect of the ‘Gloria’ motive, repeated throughout the first half, heightens the victorious tone of the psalm, and to render the setting even more festive. Although refrains do occur in contemporary Vespers of composers working elsewhere in Italy—those of Monteverdi, Giovanni Rovetta, Gasparo Casati and Orazio Tarditi—such a use of the ‘Gloria Patri’ displaced to various parts of the psalm seems to occur only in Cozzolani’s psalms. For a Milanese audience of the 1640s, unused to refrains in psalm settings, the effect must have been uncommon, even ‘witty’. While Dixit tropes the doxology into the verses, Laudate pueri reverses the process, by troping the initial refrain into later sections, including the doxology. Another notable feature is the apportioning of solos to the first-choir alto, a favorite voice-type (?perhaps her own) for Cozzolani.

Dixit Dominus, with its unusual refrain, constantly varying textures, and martial affect represents one side of the 1650 collection; the second psalm, Confitebor tibi Domine (Ps 110) displays another. The concertato duet and trio writing found in Dixit Dominus are present here as well, as are the tutti declamatory, martial, and antiphonal sections. The difference begins on the structural level: there are no refrains in the strict sense. Instead the common pun of the return of the opening at ‘Sicut erat’ is employed. However, one feature distinguishes Confitebor tibi: the return of this opening’s ‘walking’ bass at two points: in a triple-time form at verse 7, ‘Ut det illis’ and at the soprano duet ‘Redemptionem misit’. Thus Confitebor represents a more subtle recurrence of the refrain idea that characterizes almost all of Cozzolani’s eight-voice settings. Second are smaller-scale features: the declamation in the tuttis is rather quicker than in Dixit; and there is more interest in local solo-tutti contrast (‘Fidelia omnia’). The relative brevity and economy of this setting marks it as closer to the subgenre of the salmo corrente, a more declamatory psalm setting with little or no internal textual repetition.

The pervasive influence of the dialogue made itself felt in Cozzolani’s setting of Beatus vir, sub-titled “in forma di Dialogo”. The ‘dialogic’ influence functions on both the small-scale level (the verses are largely multi-voice concertato passages), and on the larger overall structure. For the psalm in interspersed with two interlocking refrains, one on ‘Beatus vir’ and one on ‘Jocundus homo’. The print supplies question marks for non-interrogative clauses in the text of the psalm verse (e.g. ‘qui habitabit?’), normally allotted to a solo voice or pair of voices. These ‘forced’ interrogatives are then followed by another set of voices (or by the whole ensemble), giving the whole text (verse or half-verse) as an answer. It is this characteristic that seems to impart a ‘dialogic’ trait to the piece. Although the idea may seem constructivist, Cozzolani uses the structure to reinforce certain qualities of the ‘blessed man’, in what may be a reference to a venerated saint or possibly even a (deceased) religious superior (in his edition of this piece, Jeffrey Kurtzman has noted Cozzolani’s sensitivity to textual semantics). This structural feature doubles the length of the text as sung, in addition to the musical echoes provided by the dialogue of voices, and the unpredictable returns of the two refrains; Beatus vir is one of the more extended and individually reworked psalms in the mid-century north Italian repertory.

The Magnificat primo (there are two in the 1650 edition) also tropes the rearranged first verse (‘anima mea magnificat’, here used as a kind of emblem of the overall affect of the piece) into various places of the canticle. But it also repeats parts of adjacent verses in the interest of local binary contrast, textual and musical, as in the case of the forceful ‘dispersit superbos’ followed immediately by the humble ‘respexit humilitatatem ancillae suae’ from an earlier verse. The entire declamation then becomes: ‘dispersit . . . [interspersed contrast:] respexit . . . mente cordis sui’. This setting also uses direct antiphony between the two groups of four voices (‘a progenie in progenies’), a procedure that is somewhat rare in the collection.

The printed version of the canticle setting also highlights issues of performance practice: at ‘Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae’, the Basso II voice descends to a low D# (i.e. below the bass staff), for obvious mimetic reasons. Similarly, in Confitebor at “Magna opera Domini”, the Basso I, the only voice declaming the text, descends to low F. Indeed, in these settings as in the rest of Cozzolani’s music, the vocal ranges are entirely normal (even extended) by seventeenth-century standards, and so the problem of how the music was performed by the all-female ensembles of S. Radegonda is directly posed. There is some evidence that, given the large numbers of women in the house along with a tradition of female singers named as ‘bassi’ in the archival records, convent ensembles must have had women who could sing tenor lines, at least, at pitch. Bass parts might then have been transposed up an octave; alternately, entire pieces might have been transposed up a fourth or fifth. Since the conditions of convent performance are not reproducible today (without major social engineering), tonight’s concert offers a solution in which both tenor and bass parts are taken up an octave, so as to give something of the ethereal, ‘celestial’ sonority of nuns’ ensembles that so impressed contemporary listeners.

As scholars from Stephen Bonta onwards have pointed out, it was common Italian practice to replace the antiphons with motets. We have chosen five: one for solo voice, three for two voices, and one for four voices, based either on their direct suitability for Easter or on their general Christological traits appropriate for this highest of feasts of Christ. The motet O quam bonum, O quam jocundum, for solo soprano, alternates quick triple meter sections with more declamatory writing. Its text adumbrates the healing effects of the Eucharist, and it switches between addressing Christ and the urban public listening in the external church of the convent. It invites the listeners to enter the “Lord’s gate”, namely the wound in Christ’s side, the door to salvation. The repetition of the motet’s opening section halfway through is balanced by its conclusion, featuring ornamental dissonance in the voice part over long pedals in the basso continuo, an appropriate climax to the setting of an intense text.

Three duets show other aspects of Cozzolani’s style. The soprano/alto motet Ave mater dilectissima sets a dialogue between Mary and the Risen Christ, appropriate for the feast. In its modal stability, and gradually expanding range of the vocal lines, this dialogue exemplifies the traditional side of Cozzolani’s writing. The duet for two canti, Bone Jesu, fons amoris, is a setting of a late-medieval text addressed to Christ. With its opening ostinato section and two imitative periods at the end (“fac habere premium” and “ut cantemus”), this motet displays the rhythmic drive and intensity of the new musical styles in northern Italy around 1640. O dulcis Jesu, whose text, scoring, and musical procedures recall those of Bone Jesu, fons amoris, was reprinted by the German Lutheran organist Ambrosius Profe in his anthology of 1649, Corollarium geistlicher collectaneorum (copies of which survive in various Lutheran collections), while the piece also circulated in Bohemian manuscript copies with violin parts added later (one other piece from Cozzolani’s 1650 book, not performed here, has been found by Bernardo Illari and T. Frank Kennedy in the musical archive of the Jesuit reduction in Concepción, Bolivia). Thus the Christological piety—and up-to-date musical traits—of O dulcis Jesu seem to have appealed to a wide (confessional) variety of singers and listeners.

As the substitute for the Magnificat antiphon we hear the motet Maria Magdalena stabat, a dramatic setting of Mary Magdalen’s encounter with the angels at Christ’s tomb on Easter morning. This text would have had special meaning for Cozzolani, the other nuns, and S. Radegonda’s public, for the convent was the only church in Milan to house a relic of the penitent saint. Even more importantly, she was used as a model for nuns in particular, and for Christians (as sinners) more generally. The first half of the piece is a dialogue between the Magdalen and the angels, in which the saint expresses her desire to find the missing Christ, using language taken from the Song of Songs and featuring musical periods of gradually increasing length, complexity, and dissonance (its climax being “Dilectus meus, amor meus…crucifixus est”). This adumbration of grief and longing for Jesus, an example of what an individual nun and Christian would have felt when contemplating the mystery of the empty Tomb on Easter morning, is then balanced by a long conclusion (beginning at “Dicamus ergo gaudentes”), three sentences each ending with “alleluia”, unified by a recurring cadential figure. In its combination of specifically female spirituality with the universal joy of believers at the Resurrection, the dialogue sums up the devotional and musical themes present in much of Cozzolani’s output.

The variety and “meraviglia” of Cozzolani’s musical invention are well on display in these selections. Three and a half centuries later, this music has lost none of its power to attract and impress listeners, and its restoration to the liturgical context in which it was originally heard only reinforces the power of the music.

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