Chiara Margarita Cozzolani in her World

2009 November 18
by Robert Kendrick

Listen to Cozzolani’s Music

In November 2002, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s birth, Magnificat hosted a conference on Women and Music in 17th Century Italy at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. In additions to two performances by Magnificat, four scholars presented papers on aspects of the role of women in musical life in Italy during the period. Robert Kendrick, whose research has contributed tremendously to our understanding of Cozzolani and the musical culture in Milan in general, contributed this article and has graciously granted permission to repost it here.

Robert Kendrick

Robert Kendrick

We are here to examine the diversity of nuns’ culture in early modern Italy, on the immediate occasion of roughly the 400th anniversary of one sister’s birth—that of the Milanese Benedictine Chiara Margarita Cozzolani—and of the performances of her music brought to you this weekend by Magnificat. If there is anything that we have learned over the past fifteen years of study, it is that the work of any single nun has to be informed by the conditions of family status, local and institutional history, and musical trends of the time. My other colleagues here present will give you some idea of the diverse traditions and problems of female monastic culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, and so I would like to place Cozzolani’s output in her world—familial, institutional, musical.

It is impossible, however, not to look for personal and individual traits in the production—musical or other—of nuns. In the case of Cozzolani, this is still a rather frustrating experience, precisely because of the lack of detailed information about her background, musical training and activity, and life trajectory. Other musical nuns of the century – Lucrezia Vizzana, Claudia Rusca, Maria Francesca Piccolomini – have left, directly or indirectly, far more documentation about their lives, public and personal.

Duomo and Santa Radegonda

The Duomo in Milan with the convent of Santa Radegonda on the left.

Central to the person she would become was her family. The most recent documentary fragments I have found in the Milanese archives testify to the presence of her family in Milan from the 15th century onwards, although they do not give us the exact trade or profession of family members.  What is clear, however, is that her ancestors were not members of the patrician nobility, and therefore they were excluded from the city’s Senate and other legislative bodies. It is most likely that they were well-off merchants or artisans at the very top of  their social class, rich enough to afford workshops in the center of town and to send their daughters—both in Chiara’s generation and the ones before and after her—into the high-class convent of S. Radegonda, where she would have rubbed shoulders with women of superior caste status. The so-called “spiritual dowry” necessary for the admission of a young woman into this house was at the most expensive levels of the time, and since Chiara had a older sister who professed her vows at the convent about four years earlier, the family would have had to come up with a good amount of money in a short time, between 1615 and 1619, the respective beginning of the novitiate year for the two sisters. 

This process would have been harder since her father died before she took her vows. Evidently her uncle and other family members pulled together in order to assure her profession of vows, but the experience could only have enhanced the attractiveness of a life at S. Radegonda for her, since two older women of the same family – probably aunts – are documented in the convent lists from the 1590s onwards.  They would have assured some kind of family bonds, not to mention affective ties, for the two 17-year-olds entering the house.

Later in her life, Cozzolani would achieve her fame as a composer. But this very status raises a number of other problems to which there seems to be no clear answer. Where did her musical training begin? Given her fairly large production later on, it seems unlikely that she had learned nothing before entering the convent, but any kind of domestic education is speculative (and I have speculated myself elsewhere that she may have had contact with the Rognoni family of instrumental virtuosi). The musical traditions of her house can be documented from her aunts’ generation onward, but not before—the first dedications of music to sister in S. Radegonda date to 1598. However, these inscriptions of individual pieces are of eight-voice, double-choir motets, and (although not every dedication to a nun can be taken as proof positive of musical activity on the part of the dedicatee) it seems likely that the Benedictines performed these large-scale pieces already in the 16th century. By way of comparison, some seven other institutions in Milan around 1600 seem to have been capable of double-choir music, only two of which seem to have done so on a regular basis.

Presumably, then, Cozzolani received further training inside the house. The pattern is a familiar one, with similar if not precisely corresponding evidence from convents in other Italian cities. But this moment in her life, between her profession of final vows in 1620 (after the year of novitiate) and the publication of her first edition in 1640, raises further questions. There is absolutely no evidence as to her musical role at the house—no dedications to her as a singer or organist, and remarkably little documentation of S. Radegonda’s musical activities as a whole. She simply appears on the scene with her first, now-lost, edition, the Primavera de’ fiori musicali of 1640. This print seems to have been published locally (by the Milanese printer Giorgio Rolla), and it is most likely to have been a collection of motets; it bears a fairly generic title (“Spring of Musical Flowers”) for an op. 1.

In this decade of the 1640s, however, Cozzolani’s output would turn out to be astonishingly large and large-scale. She published more music than anyone else working in Milan, including the prolific cathedral organist Michelangelo Grancini and the one (other) composer of the city with a claim to renown outside Lombardy, the organist Francesco della Porta. Again, why this should have been the case is not immediately evident. Who funded the editions? Her family? This is possible, but one of her brothers had become a cleric and hence not acquired a wife’s dowry, and the general economic trend in the city around mid-century was downward. It is conceivable that the house itself was responsible for the editions, although the parlous financial state of even the wealthiest convents calls this idea into question, as well.  Furthermore, the three editions which do survive—the motets for 1-4 voices of 1642, the solo pieces of 1648, and the extremely large eight-voice psalms and mixed motets of 1650—came out at the prestigious, and expensive Venetian firm of Alessandro Vincenti, the normal publisher for music written by male monks of Cozzolani’s Cassinese Benedictine congregation.

In light of the lack of testimonials as to Cozzolani’s motives and aims in getting so much music—much of it of high quality—published, the dedications of the four prints take on a certain weight. Still, this was a highly formalized and public format, and so the inscriptions have to be read with caution. The 1640 book was evidently dedicated to Cardinal Cesare Monti, Milan’s archbishop, and in so doing Cozzolani would have had the precedent, a decade earlier, of the only other Milanese nun to publish her own edition, Sister Claudia Rusca of S. Caterina in Brera, who had dedicated her motets of 1630 to the well-known supporter of nuns’ music, Archbishop Federigo Borromeo. Monti was a moderately more conservative figure than Borromeo, and a number of restrictions on sisters’ music would emerge later in the decade from his curia. But he was obviously no reactionary, and the dedication seems to have been a fairly logical if somewhat defensive move.

The remaining dedications, which do survive, reveal some other details. The Concerti sacri of 1642 are inscribed to the single most important patron of singers in northern Italy, Prince Matthias de’ Medici, who seems to have heard Cozzolani’s pieces in winter 1641 while on a stay in the city (“quando si degnò con orecchio cortese dar a quegli ricetto fuggitivi nelle mie voci”, i.e. “when you deigned to listen with courteous ear to the fugitive sounds in my voci”) [presumably her compositions and not her singing].  This is the only dedication of sacred music to Matthias, and it seems to be an effort to get her music known outside of Milan, an idea supported by the place of publication (Venice) and the presentation of her volume to the prince after his return to Florence.

The solo motets present a somewhat different case. Their dedication is to Claudio Benedetti, the president of the Cassinese Benedictine congregation. Although he had been the dedicatee of other musical editions, the male Benedictines had always had a mixed attitude towards the female houses, and Cozzolani’s gesture seems to link her house, about whose actual membership in the congregation there continues to be some doubt, to the status and relative immunity from episcopal censure typical of the male branch of the order. Cozzolani’s language is fairly formal, and makes no reference to Benedetti’s actual involvement with the music-making of her convent. The book is also somewhat unusual in that it was issued in two formats: a part for voice only (this is the only one that survives) and a full score, a new publishing convention with which Alessandro Vincenti had begun to experiment in the 1640s, evidently presuming a buying public of whom some performers would be only singers.
Cozzolani’s final dedication raised other ties, albeit of a somewhat unexpected nature. The large-scale edition of 1650, from which Magnificat’s performances of the psalms at Vespers are taken, was inscribed to Alberto Badoer, the bishop of the small Venetian city of Crema not far from Milan. Badoer had fallen afoul of the Vatican, partially because of his independence from Roman decrees, a trait which would condemn him to a fifty-year tenure in his poor and isolated see. Some of the music in this volume seems to date from the 1649 Milanese visit of the new Queen of Spain, Maria Anna of Austria, and the fact that Cozzolani would choose such a relatively minor figure seems to show her seeking other points of support outside the traditional channels of Rome, Milan, and the Holy Roman Empire.

Badoer, however, was by no means unmusical, as he had been the dedicatee of one of the more idiosyncratic editions of the 1640s, Giovanni Antonio Grossi’s Messa, e salmi bizarri (i.e. “witty”, almost Marinist psalms); Grossi himself would write motets for S. Radegonda’s singers, probably in the 1660s. As a whole, the dedications show her as cultivating various sides of her own world: the local bishop, noble patrons of singers, her Benedictine congregation, and sympathetic prelates in Milan’s musical – but not political – watershed.

If the inscriptions are somewhat unsatisfying as personal documents, for all that they reveal about her strategic choices, the remainder of the documentary evidence is hardly more helpful. Whatever her musical role in the house at mid-century, the leadership of what can be documented from the 1660s as the convent’s two ensembles passed within a decade of her last print to singers younger by two generations, women such as Maria Domitilla Ceva (c. 1640-c. 1720). Instead, Cozzolani was elected to high administrative positions at the house, and as abbess had to confront the major scandal of mid-century in any Milanese convent, the flight of Sister Maria Palomera from the convent.  For much of the 1660s, she was reduced to carrying out damage control, both in Milan and Rome, and our only autograph letter is owed to this scandal.  Re-elected abbess in the early 1670’s, she responded, again defensively, to the largely pro-forma questions of her male Benedictine superiors during their annual visitations. But neither she nor the convent’s supporters were able to have revoked the formal interdict imposed on the house by Rome at the behest of the strict Archbishop Alfonso Litta in the 1660s. Evidently, her last decade and a half was marked by struggle, shadow, and conflict.

It is perhaps all the more, then, that her music makes demands on our attention. We often look at three features – the character of the texts set, the aesthetics of a collection, and the relation to surrounding musical styles – as indicative both of a composer’s own personality as well as the traditions of a given institution.  In Cozzolani’s case, the evidence is more suggestive than the documentary materials, but far from conclusive on any of these counts.  In their centonate freedom, and the sometimes (but not always) graphic if not personalized tone, the motet texts are not strikingly different from the contemporary works of a della Porta or a Grossi. Some of them, especially in the 1650 book, seem to relate to the devotional or congregational traditions of the house (especially the Mary Magdalen dialogue, Maria Magdalene stabat plorans, which would have resonated with S. Radegonda’s place as the only Milanese church to house a relic of the penitent saint). But many others ring changes on the overall devotional themes of mid-century, Marian devotion and Christological intimacy.

In that sense, it is perhaps striking that Cozzolani’s best-known motet (for good musical reasons), the Double Intercession (i.e. Mary and Jesus) piece O quam bonus es should feature a text differing only slightly from versions set contemporaneously by della Porta and evidently slightly later by Grossi.  All three used quite different musical strategies in their settings, and this seems simply to reflect the different reactions on the part of three sensitive composers to the highly charged language of the piece.  That the text should have circulated this way, however, suggests that each of the composers knew the other’s work, although again the priority between della Porta and Cozzolani is by no means clear.

The aesthetics of Cozzolani’s editions is also thrown into relief by her surroundings. The 1642 book seems to reflect rather different moments in her own development, some pieces being clearly more tied to the world of the 1620s than are others.  On the other hand, the highly virtuosic and structurally extensive solo motets of 1648 seem far more cut from the same cloth, evidently some kind of reflection of the rise of solo singing at the moment of the Elevation at Mass or at some point in Vespers which must have taken place around 1640. The bipartite nature of the last collection is also striking. The psalms, scored in the long tradition of eight-voice settings, are only intermittently in standard antiphonal double-choir format. Rather, they break their text up into separated verses, tied to an overall affect expressed in additive and repetitive gestures, with kaleidoscopically changing scorings generated by the local affect of the verse. The motets, on the other hand, are even longer than their counterparts in the 1642 volume, and mark a turn away from the practice of the earlier book by their lessened use of goal-directed bass lines which generate musical periods. In that sense, the motets of the books do seem to testify to Cozzolani’s development as a composer during the 1640’s, while the psalms seem to reflect different moments in the festal musical life of the house.

The issue of musical influence combines text and musical structure. I was once struck by a colleague’s remark upon the issue of the first recording of Cozzolani’s Vespers by Bologna’s Cappella Artemisia some years ago, as the person in question told me that they had taken the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 off their teaching syllabus in favor of Cozzolani’s work. On the one hand, it seems better to avoid these kind of zero-sum oppositions; on the other, it also seems that we might gauge the soundscape of mid-century sacred music more accurately if we realize that, on the basis of the musical evidence, there is little suggestion for any kind of knowledge by Cozzolani of Monteverdi’s music, whereas (based on textual borrowings in motets) she seems to have known well the production of two of his deputies, Alessandro Grandi and Giovanni Rovetta. It was not the music which today we consider canonical that was central for Cozzolani; rather, it was the style that took Italian sacred music as a whole by storm in the 1620s and 1630s – that is to say, after her entry into the cloister – that was a point of departure for her.

The goal of these considerations is far from attempting to relativize Cozzolani’s often striking musical output.  Its presence on Vincenti’s stock-lists, and the copying of one of her pieces (the smaller, four-voice Laudate pueri) in a somewhat rewritten version in a time and place as distant as the Jesuit reducciones in South America in the early 18th century, underscore the real appeal of the work of this cloistered sister to her time and to ours. Rather, I should like to suggest that understanding all the complexities – her own identity as an upper-class Milanese, family member, Benedictine, and musician; the waves of musical experiences that washed over northern Italy in the early 17th century, and the shifting devotional and micropolitical world of patrician convents, all help us gain an even more nuanced sense of her music, an acquisition that owes much to the passionately committed performances that are on sonic display this weekend in San Francisco.

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