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Isabella Leonarda: La Musa Novarese

By Stewart Carter


Just as Novara has had illustrious men in all the professions . . . she also has not lacked virtuous women who make her famous. Among these there shines with glorious fame the name of Isabella Leonarda, who because of the singular esteem in which she is held in the art of music could rightly call herself the Novarese Muse par excellence.

—Lazaro Agostino Cotta, Museo novarese (1701)

So wrote Cotta in his Museo novarese (Milan, 1701), a “Who’s Who” of prominent citizens of this small north-Italian city. Cotta’s vignette on Leonarda is the longest in his book devoted to a musician and one of the few devoted to a woman. In spite of the educational and professional obstacles that women faced in this era, a small but significant number of them distinguished themselves as performers and composers.

Italy, the cradle of the Baroque style, witnessed the initial flowering of women in music. Between 1566 and 1700 some 23 Italian women saw their music appear in print, a number far exceeding that of any other nationality. Of this group, Isabella Leonarda (1620–1704) was the most productive, with nearly 200 published compositions to her credit. My new edition (vol. 113 of A-R’s Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era) makes available, for the first time in a modern publication, all 12 sonatas of Leonarda’s Opus 16 (1693)—the earliest sonatas published by a woman.

Opus 16 is Leonarda’s only collection of instrumental music; almost all of her remaining works are sacred vocal compositions. A sampling of Leonarda’s sacred vocal music is published in my earlier edition, Isabella Leonarda: Selected Compositions (Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, vol. 59). Perhaps this is one reason that she is less well known than her contemporaries Francesca Caccini (1587–1641) and Barbara Strozzi (1619–77), virtuoso singers who composed primarily secular vocal music. Leonarda, however, chose the religious life. In 1636, at the age of 16, she entered the Collegio di Sant’Orsola, an Ursuline convent in her native city. While we know very little of her musical training, circumstantial evidence suggests that she studied with Gasparo Casati, a talented but little-known composer who was maestro di cappella at Novara Cathedral until his death in 1642.

Leonarda came from a prominent, well-connected family. The support they provided to Sant’Orsola may have enhanced Sister Isabella’s influence, for she served her convent in various positions of authority—as madre (1676), superiora (1686), madre vicaria (1693), and consigliera (1700). The precise significance of these titles is unclear, but superiora was probably the highest office in the convent.

Sonatas 1 through 11 are for two violins, violone, and organ. The violone plays an ambiguous role, often merely doubling the continuo, at other times providing an independent part and occasionally even engaging in solo passages. Although Opus 16 was published after all of Corelli’s en­semble sonatas had appeared, her sonatas more closely re­semble those of the pre-Corelli generation—composers such as Maurizio Cazzati, Marco Uccellini, and Giovanni Legrenzi—in style and technique. Sonatas 1, 3, 4, 7, and 8 are “concerted sonatas”: each of the three instruments has at least one solo passage. This label might suggest that these are forward-looking works, rather like incipient concertos, but in fact the opposite is true, for such works are more characteristic of the early seventeenth century. First seen as early as 1610 in Giovanni Paolo Cima’s Sonata per il violino, concerted sonatas can also be found among the works of Giovanni Battista Riccio and Dario Castello. By 1693 this approach was decidedly old-fashioned.

Sonata 12 is Leonarda’s only solo sonata, and it is one of her finest compositions. It is in seven sections, in the pattern slow-fast-fast-fast-slow-fast-fast. Both slow movements are recitative-like, inviting improvised embellishment in the manner of the slow movements of Corelli’s sonate da chiesa of Opus 5, published by Roger (Amsterdam, 1710).

Leonarda’s sonatas are unusual in their formal structure. It is generally conceded that Corelli established the “standard” four-movement, slow-fast-slow-fast form of the sonata da chiesa, even though several of his compositions do not conform to this pattern. Earlier composers tended to be less consistent with regard to the number of sections or movements, though three is a relatively common number and sonatas exceeding five sections are rare. Leonarda’s sonatas, however, vary from as few as four (Sonatas 6 and 9) to as many as thirteen (Sonata 4), and her sonatas in four sections do not follow the slow-fast-slow-fast model.

Moreover, Leonarda uses refrains in a rather unusual way. Sonata 5, with the pattern ABA'CDA''DA''EF, is the most regular; Sonata 10 has two refrains, in the pattern ABCDEBDFBG. Quite unusual is the plan of Sonata 4, ABCDEFGHIJI'J'I''. Sections are essentially of three types: (1) fast sections in duple meter, often with some imitation, derived from the canzona tradition; (2) slow, expressive, homophonic sections in duple meter, related perhaps to the toccata and recitative; and (3) homophonic sections (occasionally with brief passages in imitation) in triple time, apparently related to the dance.

Above all, Leonarda was a talented, productive composer whose music deserves to be better known. A few recordings of her music are available, including a fine rendition of Sonata 12 by Ingrid Matthews (violin) and Byron Schenkman (harpsichord) on the CD In stil moderno: The Fantastic Style in Early Seventeenth-Century Italy (Wildboar WLBR9512; distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA). Perhaps modern listeners who come to know these works will agree with Sébastien de Brossard, author of the first music dictionary in the French language, who remarked, “All the works of this illustrious and incomparable Isabelle Leonard [sic] are so beautiful, so gracious, and at the same time so learned and wise that my great regret is not owning all of them.” 

Stewart Carter is editor of the Historic Brass Society Journal and former editor of Historical Performance. He has also edited A Performer’s Guide to Seventeenth-Century Music (Schirmer Books, 1997) and Perspectives in Brass Scholarship: Proceedings of the International Historic Brass Symposium, Amherst 1995 (Pendragon, 1997). He is also General Editor of Bucina: The Historic Brass Society Series and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society. He has published articles in Early Music, Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, the Historic Brass Society Journal, Performance Practice Review, Historical Performance, and A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. Dr. Carter is Professor of Music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, where he teaches music history and theory and directs the Collegium Musicum.