Composer: Claudia Sessa (b. 1570 - d. 1619)
Performance date: 02/07/2018
Venue: St. Brendan’s Church
Composition Year: 1570 - 1619
Recording Engineer: Ciaran Cullen, RTÉ
Instrumentation Other: theorbo & soprano
Ruby Hughes -
Jonas Nordberg - [theorbo]
22. COFFEE CONCERT – ST BRENDAN’S CHURCH 11.00
Ruby Hughes [soprano], Jonas Nordberg [theorbo]
Heroines of Love and Loss
Giovanni G. Kapsberger [1580-1651]
Barbara Strozzi [1619-1677]
Giovanni G. Kapsberger
John Bennett [1575-circa1614]
The willow song
A. Piccinini [1566-1638]
Claudia Sessa [1570-1619]
Occhi io vissi di voi
Lamento: Lagrime mie
Giovanni G. Kapsberger
Francesca Caccini [1587-1640]
Lasciatemi qui solo
Giovanni G. Kapsberger
Lucrezia Vizzana [1590-1662]
O magnum mysterium
Henry Purcell [1659-1695]
Giovanni G. Kapsberger
Attributed to Anne Boleyn [1501-1536]
O death rock me asleep
List to the heavy part the music bears,
Woe weeps out her division, when she sings.
Ben Jonson Cynthia’s Revels Ii (1600)
The female voice has been assigned a mourning role since the dawn of time, through keening, wailing and ululation. We can still detect the germ of such spontaneous lament in the great arias of opera’s doomed heroines. And it was in the 16th century, with the birth of Italian opera, that the female voice took wing. If libretti told of victimhood, music empowered the high voice, releasing its spectacular potential for self-expression.
The focus of this intimate sequence may be loss and lamentation, but here women have taken possession of the writing too. The 17th century was a surprisingly productive period for female composers: they may have required heroic levels of courage to rise above the barriers of educational restriction, social convention and sexual jeopardy associated with female creativity, but there were also opportunities that would disappear in later centuries.
The convent offered one: more than half the women who published music before 1700 were nuns. In this all-female environment gifted musicians could develop their craft before a literally captive audience (following a 1563 ruling by the Council of Trent, nuns were confined to convents). The nun-composer Claudia Sessa left little trace: from a patrician Milanese family, she spent her life in the convent of Santa Maria Annunciata. This brief, intensely mystical aria, I lived through your eyes is one of only two surviving works by her, published in a Venetian anthology in 1623 Canoro pianto di Maria Vergine sopra la faccia de Christo estinto. In this collection, Mary meditates on different parts of the dead Christ’s anatomy; here it is his extinguished eyes. The devotional aspect of the singer living through your death is heightened by rapid melismas on the words death and not rejoicing, followed by a slow, faltering descent, broken by slow trills.
The convents of Bologna, were renowned, even notorious, for their musical achievement, none more so than San Cristina della Fondazza, despite the harsh prohibitions of Archbishop Gabriele Paleotti, who forbade the nuns from receiving (male) instruction. Lucrezia Vizzana was a high-born singer, organist and composer at San Cristina, and from the evidence of her music published in Componimenti musicali de motetti concertati in 1623, she had – covertly – become familiar with the stile moderno of Monteverdi. Her O Magnum Mysterium is an intensely private meditation on the mystery of Christ’s suffering, each dissonant phrase marking his wounds and sharp suffering, streaming Allelulias following like a consonant balm.
Vizzana was forbidden to write for instruments other than the organ and occasionally bass viol at a time when instrumental virtuosity was on the rise in Italy, especially in her hometown of Bologna. There lutenist Alessandro Piccinini, who claimed to have invented the arch lute, was dreaming up such intricate gems as this cheerful Ciaccona for solo theorbo, its delicate filigree variations on a ground retaining a sense of earthy improvisation. At the same time, in Rome, the German-Italian Giovanni Kapsberger was also developing both lute and theorbo. His Toccata Arpeggiata is a tour de force of sombre beauty, its flying arpeggios creating a deft harmonic arc, precursor to the the dazzling soloistic works of Vivaldi a generation later.
We return to the 17th century and Florence, where the gifted singer-composer Francesca Caccini was growing up in the fertile musical atmosphere of the Medici court. La cecchina, cherished daughter of Giulio, author of the influential manual Le nuove musiche, was renowned for the finely spun beauty of her voice. At a time when the line between improvisation and composition was fluid, and singers were expected to produce music to show off their artistry, she became known for her skill in introducing expressive dissonances, and enriching the harmonic progress of the aria. A writer at the Medici court, Cristoforo Bronzini said of her music that she worked such stunning effects in the minds of her listeners that she changed them from what they had been.
Head-hunted (unsuccessfully) by Henry IV of France, she became in 1607 La musica to the Grand Duke, sponsored by Christine de Lorraine, and was chosen to provide music for one of the earliest operas, La stiava. While much of her music has sadly not survived, she did leave a collection of secular monodies, Il primo libro delle musiche to which this beautifully poised meditation belongs. In Lasciatemi qui solo we can hear how she uses the new Florentine stile recitativo, in which the singer must speak in music (sprezzatura) as naturally as possible. In this strophic song, a lonely, abandoned woman pleads to be left alone to die, while lovers return to their beautiful pleasures. Akin to an incantation, over five stanzas it builds a quietly tragic force.
In the next generation, the extraordinary Venetian Barbara Strozzi, was, like Caccini, a gifted singer and composer, but never enjoyed secure patronage. Educated, but also pimped out by her father to his friend, her life as a professional musician was precarious and overshadowed by the taint of the courtesan. The fact that she succeeded in having no fewer than seven volumes of her music published is testament to an indomitable self-belief. This highly-perfumed, dramatic aria ‘L’Eraclito amoroso’ (Heraclites in Love) gives us some indication of her own performance style: above the extremely slow descending bass, the vocal line weaves a richly sensuous, expressive narrative, each moan, sob and sigh dramatised. Plunging chromatic intervals and eye-brow-raising leaps enhance the charged atmosphere, where the pain of love pleases until hope dies. Here is music fit for the stage.
In her ‘Lamento’, the dramatic scope is amplified yet further: it opens with an anguished wail which cascades down over a trembling pedal, intoning the words ‘Lagrime mie’ – tears of mine. The tonality is buffeted by daring accidentals; passages of searing arioso are interleaved with intimate recitative, the whole resolving in a major cadence of sudden tranquility: it’s clear she embraced Monteverdi’s ‘second practice’, as articulated by his brother, Giulio Cesare, ’to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant.’
From Venice to Elizabethan England: while Claudia Sessa was interned in her convent, the Italian madrigal flourished in England, heard here in ‘Venus’s Birds’ by John Bennett (1575-1614), most famous for his ‘Weep, oh mine eyes’. Delicately prefaced by lute, a melody enlivened by irregular, syncopated, stresses flies free in a mournful chorus which comes to rest on a major chord. This swing between minor and major phrases is also a feature of the haunting, folk ballad ‘Willow Song’ from Shakespeare’s Othello, which the troubled Desdemona sings before sleep. First recorded in a 1583 book of folk songs with lute, it would have augured a betrayal to Shakespeare’s audience.
In the music of Henry Purcell, Italian innovation is clog’d in the melancholy English vein to create indelible vocal art. The aria Oh lead me to some peaceful gloom was written in the last year of Purcell’s life, for John Fletcher’s play Bonduca. In the play Bonduca (Bodicea), surrounded by Roman soldiers, has persuaded her daughter to take her own life. The aria borrows its sighing opening phrase from Dowland’s Lachrimae in a conscious homage to that legendary set of lamentations. In Purcell’s only full opera, Dido and Aeneas, boasts perhaps the most famous lament of them all. Here the descending, chromatic ground bass is perfectly balanced by the slowly rising melody, culminating in the high, heart-stopping pleas to Remember me.
If Dido’s Lament can move the stoniest heart, the final lament, O death, rock me asleep  has the force a personal tragedy: the lyric is thought to have been written by Anne Boleyn herself while waiting for her execution in the Tower of London. The setting, too, has been ascribed to Boleyn, who was musically well-educated, but others have speculated the composer was her brother Lord Rochford or her lutenist Mark Smeaton. The insistent rocking, or tolling figure in the bass casts its spell, while the lone voice ponders on the future, I die, I die, I die, I die…
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