Artemisia Editions was created by Candace Smith and Bruce Dickey to complement the work of the Italian ensemble Cappella Artemisia, a group of women dedicated to performing music from Italian convents of the 16th and 17th centuries. Extensive research has unearthed a startling amount of music either written by or dedicated to these cloistered nuns – music whose quality reflects the remarkably high standards of the original performances as described in the chronicles of numerous historians and travelers in Italy.
Artemisia Editions would like to make available to modern performers a part of this fascinating and virtually unknown repertoire. In particular, we want to stress the historic uniqueness of its intended performance by cloistered nuns, that is, without male voices. Indeed, the singular musical situation in which these women found themselves leaves us with a thorny problem of performance practice: the music written for and by the nuns often includes parts for tenors and basses. How, then, was this music performed? Or indeed, “Who’s on bass?”
The solution of Artemisia Editions involves providing two alternative versions of each edition: an original version for mixed voices as it was first published, and a convent version providing a hypothetical reconstruction for women’s voices, as it might have been sung by the nuns. Some of the music will be appropriate for women’s choral ensembles, some of it for ensembles of soloists, and some of it for a combination of soloists and instruments.
Each edition includes an historical introduction, Latin texts with English translations, critical notes, and suggestions for performance practice. All original basso continuo parts have been simply but carefully realized and the original figures retained.
WHO’S ON BASS?
A veil of mystery surrounds this repertoire: the music written for and by the nuns often includes parts for tenors and basses, and the use of most instruments was officially forbidden in the convents. How, then, was this music performed?
One way in which nuns could have performed music which lay out of their vocal ranges was of course through the use of instruments, and it is unquestionable that these forbidden entities were employed in the convents, despite all the regulations banning them; indeed nuns themselves wrote pieces using instruments. Most church authorities allowed an organ, a harpsichord for study purposes, and a viola da gamba to play the bass line. More surprisingly, many nuns chose to play the bass lines on the trombone, with or without the consent of their superiors.
But the lower parts were not always performed instrumentally. It is no secret that some women can sing quite low, and given the circumstances in the convents, this kind of talent would have undoubtedly been cultivated. Proof of such women has come down to us with the names of female “basses”; listed among the nuns. Thus, if we accept the possibility of a woman being able to sing down to a low C (a low but not impossible note for a female voice), the performable repertoire becomes much larger. Certainly tenor parts rarely go below this, so anything written for canto, alto and tenor would fit within the range of women’s voices.
It is by now well established that transposition was a common practice in the 16th and 17th centuries. In particular, certain combinations of high clefs (the so-called “‘chiavette’”) indicated specific transpositions, usually downward by a fourth or a fifth. But in most cases, if such pieces are sung as written at the high pitch, they fit entirely, or almost entirely, within the range of female voices. On the other hand, when normal clefs are used, the soprano often does not go above d5 or e5, so that a transposition upward of a 3rd or more would enable women to sing all the parts. And it is interesting to note that two important treatises with instructions on how to transpose by unusual intervals, Cima’s Partito de’ Ricercari of 1606, and Lorenzo Penna’s Primi albori musicali of 1672, are both dedicated to nuns. It is probably safe to conclude that the nuns transposed their music to the pitch where they were most comfortable, often using non-standard transpositions, or no transposition where the clefs would normally indicate it.
Finally, the practice, surprising as it may seem to our ears, of singing bass parts up an octave (though preferably doubled by an instrument at the lower octave if chordal inversions would otherwise occur), was also demonstrably in use by nuns. Romano Micheli (c. 1575-1659), among others, documents this practice in his two collections of psalms for 3 voices (1610 and 1615), which give various suggestions for performance, including the possibility, when “used by the reverend nuns”, of an ensemble of 2 sopranos and an alto “singing the bass an octave higher”.