An Interview with Laurie Stras, Director of Musica Secreta

In anticipation of the newest release on Obsidian Records, Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun and Musician, we met up with Musica Secreta’s Laurie Stras to ask her a few questions about the project.

Tell us a bit about Musica Secreta and the research behind Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun and Musician?

Deborah Roberts started Musica Secreta in 1990 to investigate the repertoire of the Ferrarese ladies from the end of the 16th century (women musicians who sang at the court of Duke Alfonso II d'Este at Ferrara). In fact, my association with Deborah goes back to the mid-1980s, but I joined up with her officially in 1999, when we investigated the repertoire of the Ferrarese ladies for our CD Dangerous Graces.

Musica Secreta has always been about the repertoire composed for and by women in the 16th and 17th centuries. When we did the Dangerous Graces project we used the performance practice techniques that we knew were available to 17th century nuns and extrapolated that back into the 16th century.

Then in 2009, during a research trip to Italy, I went into the archives at Ferrara and within two days I’d found evidence that all of our ideas about the ladies using nuns’ techniques were true. I found evidence of the Duchess taking the ladies into convents, and that the ladies left large sums of money to the convent, so the association between those singing ladies and the singing nuns in Ferrara was really very strong.

It was about that time I also found this mysterious book of anonymous motets published in 1543, entitled “Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata”. I felt certain the motets had been written for nuns, because of the texts and the way the voices worked together. Gradually over the next five or six years I pieced everything together to come up with the music that you hear on the recording.

So what’s so special about music written for nuns?

I think the first thing that you notice about this music is that, because it’s for nuns, it’s not scored in the way that we normally hear polyphony, with soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices. Instead, all the voices are operating in the same range, so you end up hearing melodies that don’t actually exist on the page.

 You also get many more dissonances than usual in this music. One of the things that makes this book even more remarkable is the way that the composer has a very radical approach to dissonance. Dissonance seems to be an active part of this composer’s expressive palette, not something that is just alluded to or avoided, and certainly not something that is there to be resolved.

The quality of the voices is also incredibly important in this music. When you have polyphony that’s written for five voices all singing in the same range, the individual quality of the voices is central to the quality of the final sound of the piece, as is the phrasing. Blend is consequently very important, and you have a much greater reliance on phrasing, because if you want to distinguish each part of the polyphony it’s important for the individual singers to think carefully about where each phrase is going. This is something we worked very hard on in rehearsals for this recording.

Finally, every convent in the 16th century had an organ, and the use of instruments to accompany polyphony was much more widespread than our current practice would suggest. It would be unthinkable to sing nuns’ polyphony without an organ at the very least. We’ve used an organ and a viol, and having that sustained sound under all the parts frees the singers up to phrase in a way that you don’t get with unaccompanied polyphony.

In the 16th century, nuns’ polyphony was banned in areas around Italy, and when I heard the first edits of this recording, it was the first time I really understood what the bishops were so afraid of. I realised that bishops were getting their crosiers in a twist about nuns singing polyphony because the music is so absorbing; the equal voices really pull you in.

Why do you think the Borgia dynasty has captured our imaginations so much, both historically and in contemporary popular culture?

I think we get an almost contradictory feeling from what we know about the Borgia family. We can see a total lack of empathy because they were - they had to be - completely ruthless to maintain power, but they were also fiercely loyal. You get a sense of these really strong passions - one really negative and one really positive - at the same time.

I think Lucrezia did what she could to keep her head above water. I think she’s unjustly maligned, and she took the flack for a lot of the cruelty and ruthlessness of her male relatives, but she was very much their pawn. Her role as a duchess was to hold her community together, and she was a very skilled administrator who managed her husband’s lands when he was away, and who gave generously to the convent.

She also became deeply religious; she was a Franciscan tertiary, and it was clear that the convent of Corpus Domini, where her daughter was eventually raised and became abbess, was a very important place for her. She also created an entirely new sister convent to Corpus Domini for the orphaned daughter of her brother Cesare.

It is in itself quite remarkable that Cesare’s daughter was allowed to become a nun, because she could have been used as a bargaining chip by the family, as Lucrezia herself had been, married off to the highest bidder. But Lucrezia allowed her to be raised in a convent, where she was safe from men.

How different was life in the convent for women such as Lucrezia’s daughter compared to the lives they might have led outside it?

It’s important to remember that nuns in the 16th century had more autonomy than women outside the cloister. Although they were contained in the convent, inside it they were doctors, they were writers, they were painters, they were musicians, they could do the sorts of things that women outside the convent couldn’t do.

When Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter was orphaned at the age of four, she was raised in a convent because there was nobody at the court who could raise her. She couldn’t have been raised in her father’s house because it would have been dangerous for her. She probably realised very quickly that she was better off in a place where she couldn’t be used as a bargaining chip, and where she was allowed to be a musician. For Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, the convent was a place where she could do the things she wanted to and really excel at them.

Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun and Musician will be released on 3 March 2017.

Pre-order your copy on Amazon here .