Complete Collections of Nun Composers

This series is intended to highlight the works of particularly significant convent composers by publishing the complete corpus of their surviving works. It features the motets of Sulpitia Cesis, a nun at the Augustinian convent of S. Geminiano in Modena and author of an important collection of Motetti spirituali for 2-12 voices, preserved in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena. The complete motets of Cesis comprises four volumes:
CC 01: The first volume of Cesis’ motets contains all the pieces for 6 voices or less.
CC 02: The second volume of Cesis’ motets contains 6 motets for 8 voices.
CC 03: The third volume of Cesis’ motets contains 5 motets for 8 voices.
CC 04: The fourth and last volume of Cesis’ motets includes 4 motets for 8 voices and her only motet for 12 voices.

Also represented in the series is Alba Tressina, whose few known works are contained in a collection of her teacher, Leone Leoni.

CC 01 Sulpitia Cesis: Motetti Spirituali Volume I: motets for 2-6 voices (1619)

CC 02 Sulpitia Cesis: Motetti Spirituali Volume II: motets for 8 voices  (1619)

CC 03 Sulpitia Cesis: Motetti Spirituali Volume III: motets for 8 voices (1619)

CC 04 Sulpitia Cesis: Motetti Spirituali Volume IV: motets for 8 & 12 voices (1619)

Sulpitia Lodovica Cesis, a nun at the Augustinian convent of S. Geminiano in Modena, was the author of an important collection of Motetti spirituali for 2-12 voices, preserved in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena. Born on 15 May 1577, she was daughter of the count Annibale Cesis and his wife Barbara. The date of her death is unknown, but certainly followed the publication of her motets in 1619, when she was 42.

Cesis’ collection of Motetti spirituali is an important body of music both for the generally high quality of the works it contains and for the information it provides regarding performance practice in Italian convents in the early 17th century. Its eight partbooks contain 23 motets for 2-12 voices. The pieces suit a variety of occasions including Easter and Christmas, others are dedicated to various saints, Mary, Christ or the father confessors. Four works are generic motets on biblical texts, loosely based on psalms or taken from the Gospel according to St. John.

Despite the date of publication, Cesis’ motets have more in common with the late 16th century polychoral compositions of Andrea Gabrieli than they do with the concertato style of her contemporaries. Indeed the prevalence of large ensembles over the more modern two and three-voice concerti ecclesiatici in fashion around 1620, as well as the absence of a partbook for the basso continuo (or even an organ partitura), point either to conservatism within the convent walls or to the possibility that the works were composed earlier. This is not an unlikely proposition in view of the fact that Cesis was 42 years old at the time of publication; most nun composers saw their first-and often only-collection published at a younger age.

Despite the lack of a basso continuo part, however, one should not assume that these works were performed without organ. It was not unusual in the late 16th century to utilize organs in the performance of polyphonic and polychoral motets. Most importantly, we must remember that these motets were written to be performed by cloistered nuns, without access to male voices to sing the lower parts, and therefore an organ would be useful, or even essential to perform the tenor and bass voices.

In addition to the organ, two of the motets specifically call for other instruments, a particularly interesting fact in light of the restrictions within the convents for their use, and indeed the instruments specified are not those readily associated with an ensemble of cloistered nuns: cornett, trombone, violone and arciviolone. Yet again, the choice of instrumentation is easily explained in a musical context obviously characterized by an absence of male voices.

CC 05a Alba Tressina & Leone Leoni: 10 Motets for 1-4 voices and violins (1622)

This volume contains the only known compositions by Alba Tressina, a Clarissan nun at the convent of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Vicenza (in the Veneto region, about 80 km. from Venice). They are contained in a print by her teacher, Leone Leoni (b. Verona, c. 1560; d. Vicenza, 24 June 1627). Leoni was a priest and maestro di cappella at Vicenza Cathedral from 1588 until his death. He was also a member of the Accademia Olimpica, the Confraternity of Divine Love, and maestro della musica of the Pia Opera dell’Incoronata. His output includes large-scale sacred works and secular madrigals, but his motets for fewer voices enjoyed particular success, judging from the numerous reprints and their appearance in anthologies in both Italy and abroad.

Leoni’s collection, Sacri Fiori. Quarto libro de Motetti a una, due, tre et quattro voci, con il Basso per sonar nell’Organo (Vincenti, Venice, 1622) contains 4 compositions by Tressina, together with 21 others of his own. The original print (RISM L2011) is missing the Canto II partbook at the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica in Bologna but is complete at the Biblioteka Jagiellonska in Krakow.

The majority of pieces in the collection are for treble voices, a fact that makes them especially suited for convent performance. Only 2 works call for basses, and when tenors are needed, the range of the part rarely goes below e, and therefore falls within the range of a low alto. Many of the motets, including two by Tressina herself, are settings of texts from the beautifully sensual Song of Songs, a popular source of material for 17th-century composers, both outside and inside the cloisters. Even the joyfully musical “Sumite citharas”, invoking a multitude of musical instruments and voices, concludes surprisingly with a languid Anima mea liquefacta est. The other motet included here which specifically mentions music is “Laudate Dominum”, the only work in the collection to call for obbligato violins (si placet, i.e., if desired).

Leoni clearly intended this collection to be of service for a multitude of occasions. The motet “Iste Sanctus” is an appropriate text in honor of any martyr and confessor, and “Congregate sunt” (interesting for its setting of two polyphonic voices over a recurring chant, uses the letter N. (“Nomen”) to represent the name of the chosen saint. The motet “Hæc est” also leaves the saint unnamed, in this case a virgin martyr, a particularly appropriate subject for the convent.

Nearly all of the works included here are performable by women’s voices in their original version. The only exceptions are “Sumite citharas”, scored for four tenors, and “Laudate Dominum”, for alto, tenor and 2 violins. In the case of a women’s performance, the tenor parts may be sung in treble, rather than octave-treble, clefs. For this reason, this volume has been issued in a single edition, rather than in our more common “Original Version” and “Version for Women’s Voices”.