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Chiara Margarita Cozzolani: Celestial Siren

Listen to Cozzolani’s Music

The following biographical sketch of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani was adapted from notes provided by Prof. Robert Kendrick of the University of Chicago and a member of Magnificat’s Artistic Advisory Board. Kendrick’s exceptional scholarship on the music of Milan and convent music in Northern Italy has resulted in two books – Celestial Sirens and Sounds of Milan – that offer tremendous insight into a fascinating chapter of music history. Magnificat will perform Cozzolani’s Messa a 4, along with five of her motets on the weekend of December 4-6. The Mass is available on Magnificat’s recording Messa Paschale, released by Musica Omnia.

Cloistered NunChiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c.1677) was a sister at the musically famous convent of Santa Radegonda, located in the seventeenth century across the street from Milan Cathedral. Santa Radegonda was famous for its sisters’ music-making on such feast-days, as visitors from all over Europe crowded into the half of its church open to the public (the chiesa esteriore), where they could hear the voices of the nuns while the monastic singers remained invisible in their half of the church (chiesa interiore), separated by a three-quarters-high wall. For the celebration of Mass, which unlike the services of the Divine Office, requires the participation of a priest, the celebrant and any attending clergy would likewise have remained in the exterior church.

Like her sister, aunt, and nieces, Cozzolani took her vows at the house in 1620, while 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. She entered a foundation, however, whose nun musicians had already been praised for a generation, and whose population (around 100 sisters) provided a large pool of young women who could be trained as singers and instrumentalists.

Her four musical publications appeared between 1640 and 1650; later, she served as prioress and abbess at Santa Radegonda. She helped guide the house through more difficult times in the 1660’s, when it came under attack by the strict Archbishop Alfonso Litta, who was concerned to limit the nuns’ practice of music and other “irregular” contact with the outside world. She disappears from the convent’s membership lists between 1676 and 1678, and thus we may presume she died in her mid-seventies.

The fame of Cozzolani and her house 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.

Of Cozzolani’s four publications, only two survive complete. On our December program the setting of the mass ordinary and the motets Ecce annuntio vobis and O dulcis Jesu are drawn from the first of these two extant collections, entitled Concerti sacri and published in Venice in 1642 with a dedication to Prince Matthias de’ Medici (a cadet member of the ruling family of Florence). It is known that Matthias, who, in the family tradition, was a patron of music (including early opera), had visited Milan in the winter of 1640-41 and it is likely that he heard performances of music later included in Cozzolani’s collection during his stay. The motets Quis audivit unquam tale? and Gloria in altissimis are taken from her collection of psalms and motets (Salmi a otto concertati, published in Venice in 1650).

Sadly, the one part book from her first publication of motets Primavera di fiori musicali (1640) that survived into the 20th Century was destroyed in 1945 along with the entire Berlin Singakademie library. However, in the case of her collection of solo motets Scherzi di Sacra Melodia … (1648), we still have the soprano part book, though the basso continuo part book has been lost. Over the past decade that Magnificat has been performing and recording Cozzolani’s music, there have been three previous programs on which we have performed motets from the Scherzi with newly “re-composed” continuo parts. For this program Catherine Webster will sing the Christmas motet O præclara dies from the 1648 collection in what will most likely be a modern premiere. In addition to it’s Christmas subject, O præclara dies shares many features with the other solo motet on our program, Ecce annuntio vobis, which will be sung by Jennifer Ellis Kampani as she did in Magnificat’s first performances of Cozzolani’s music in 1999.

Part of the fascination of the sisters’ music was clearly its timbral uniqueness. In the case of Santa Radegonda, we have no records of men ever singing together with the nuns, or even collaborating from the chiesa esteriore, so the vocal and instrumental ensembles that attracted such renown must have been all-female. With such a large pool of possible singers, convents seemed to have used women with unusually low voices to sing tenor lines at their written pitch, and either to have sung bass lines at pitch or to have transposed them up an octave into alto range, with the instrumental basso continuo providing a bass line in the appropriate low register.

A good deal of Cozzolani’s music, in its surviving printed form, demands the normal set of mixed voices (various combinations of SATB), as this format was clearly more attractive on the printing market. But in order to recreate something of the original, “angelic” timbre which was heard in Italian convent churches, and which reminded listeners of a kind of Heavenly Jerusalem with its “celestial” voices, Magnificat will use only female singers for our concerts in December (Catherine Webster, Meg Bragle, Jennifer Ellis Kampani and Kristen Dubenion-Smith), transposing both tenor and bass lines up an octave. The parts of the mass reserved for priests (the prayers and readings, and the intonations for the Gloria and Credo) will be sung by baritone Hugh Davies as on our recording Messa Paschale.

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