Suor Leonora d’Este: Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter – Motets from a 16th-century convent

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COMPOSERS: Suor Leonora d’Este
LABELS: Obsidian
ALBUM TITLE: Suor Leonora d’Este
WORKS: Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Motets from a 16th-century convent
PERFORMER: Musica Secreta and Celestial Cirens/Laurie Stras, Deborah Roberts
CATALOGUE NO: CD717

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The Este family in Ferrara nurtured one of Italy’s most refined musical centres during the 16th century, including the mysterious ‘secret music’ from which the ensemble Musica Secreta takes its name, and a celebrated ensemble of virtuoso female singers. This recording brings to light another aspect of Renaissance Ferrara’s soundscape: a forgotten collection of 16 anonymous motets, the chants and texts of which link it to the convent of Corpus Domini. Dating from 1543, it is the earliest published collection of polyphony for nuns. The convent’s abbess was Leonora d’Este – daughter of Duke Alfonso I and Lucrezia Borgia. Evidently a gifted musician, Leonora collected keyboard instruments and had numerous connections with composers and music theorists (notably, Zarlino). So, following their extensive research, Musica Secreta’s directors Laurie Stras and Deborah Roberts posit that she is the most likely composer of these motets.

Certainly, their hypnotic polyphony and static harmonies evoke a world of intense spiritual contemplation, and despite fleeting echoes of Josquin (Ferrara’s musical bigwig earlier in the century), the quirky use of dissonance suggests a composer outside the musical mainstream. Inevitably, a rosary of motets for female voices can sound monotonous, though the performers do their best to vary the textures: some are sung by one or two voices to a part, others by full choir; elsewhere, organ and viol enrich the lower sonorities. The recorded balance, too, offers different perspectives on these aptly chaste and seraphic performances.

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Kate Bolton-Porciatti