Sacred Music from the Convents of Seventeenth-Century Italy:

Restoration Practices for Contemporary Women’s Choruses


Seventeenth-Century Italian Nun Composers


Raffaella Aleotti (1570 – 1646)               

Claudia Sessa (1570 – 1619)                               

Sulpitia Cesis (1577 - )                               

Caterina Assandra (1590 -1680)                         

Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590 – 1662)                      

Claudia Rusca (1593 – 1676)                              

Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602 – 1678)

Isabella Leonarda (1620 -1704)                          

Maria Cattarina Calegari (1644 – 1675)

Maria Xaveria Perucona (1652 – 1709)                       

Alba Tressina (1620s)                                

Rosa Giacinta Badalla (1660 – ca. 1710)

Bianca Maria Meda (1665 – 1700) 

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Click on picture to purchase directly from Hal Leonard

Forthcoming editions restored for women’s voices

Aleotti           Miserere Mei, Deus                    SSA, 2 c inst/bc

Aleotti           Surge, propera amica mea        SSA/SSA, 2 c inst/bc

Cozzolani      Alma Redemptoris Mater          SA/bc

Cozzolani      Regna terrae, cantata Deo        SSAA/bc

Cesis              Stabat Mater                              SSA, cello/bc

Leonarda      Ave Regina Caelorum                SSAA/bc

Leonarda      Lauda Jerusalem                        SSAA, 2 violins/bc

Leonarda      Laudate Pueri                             SSA/bc

In total, about 350 pieces written by cloistered nuns are available for performance today. Many of these pieces are available in their original printed voicings which include parts for tenors and/or basses. This research showed a number of ways to restore the music from the seventeenth-century printed voicings to possible original performance voicings. In addition, two pieces by Isabella Leonarda were recovered from an archive in Zürich, part books combined and engraved in modern notation, and restored using the options laid out by primary resources.

Based on research of primary resources, restoration practices for this body of music include five options: Transposing the Bass, Transposing the Tenor and Bass, Instrumental Substitution, Whole Score Transposition, and any combination of the above. Sources for these restoration practices are as follows:

Transposing the Bass

raise the bass part up an octave, making it into an alto part.

In 1605, instructions from G. P. Cima’s Hodie Christus natus est for SB an continuo, directs the performer to


Thus if [the contents] are to be sung a 3, a sweeter harmony will result, if two cantus parts and a bass are combined, or two tenors and a bass, or cantus, tenor, and bass, or else two cantus and alto, for the use of the nuns.

Instructions from a 1610 Vesper setting by Romano Micheli for SSB and continuo:


Transposing the Tenor and Bass


Both Joan Whittemore and Kurt Sven Markstrom show how composers like Nicola Porpora, who worked for both cathedrals and the Ospedali, revised their own music to fit both male and female choirs.

Instrumental Substitution

Recently the vicar-general of Milan issued an order that some nuns of this diocese could no longer use musical instruments exceptthe organ and the regal. Now, since the nuns of S. Maria Maddalena of Monza in the said diocese find themselves completely without voices that function as basses for their polyphony, they use a violone da gamba for this purpose, having no other choice unless they desist from polyphony altogether. They would like to continue this in order not to deprive themselves of polyphony, and so they have recourse to Your Illustrious Lordships, asking humbly that they deign to concede them this favour, and order the said vicar that, in the light of this need, he allow them to use this instrument.

Whole Score Transposition


Composers from the seventeenth century used chiavette clefs with the intention of transposition down a fourth or a fifth to fit the vocal ranges of the choir.

Three books dedicated to nuns:

·      Cima’s Partito de’ Ricercari of 1606 is a treatise on retuning harpsichords to all possible intervals

·      Lorenzo Penna’s Primi albori musicali of 1672 provides instructions for transposition of continuo lines higher or lower than written

·      Pompeo Natali’s 1662 Madrigali, e canzoni spirituali e morali includes a continuo line transposed up a fifth or down a fourth to show how the music can be made accessible for the nuns.


On the whole, these restoration practices work very well. There are some slight challenges with using the techniques above. In the case of transposing the bass and/or tenor, the voices cross often. This isn’t a problem with good readers and strong ensemble singers, but may be a challenge for less advanced choirs. The issue with Instrumental Substitution is if the tenor and/or bass is replaced by an instrument, the text is missing. This is only a problem if the text does not appear in another voice. Finally, in Whole Score Transposition, the issue is range and tessitura. If the score is raised a perfect 4th or 5th, it’s sometimes too high. Usually, transposing the score up a m3 is sufficient to make the piece accessible by a women’s chorus.