Saturday, 30 July 2016


“Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” - Timothy Leary

Isabella Leonarda (6 September 1620 – 25 February 1704) was an Italian composer from Novara. At the age of 16, she entered the Collegio di Sant’Orsola, an Ursuline convent, where she stayed for the remainder of her life. Leonarda is most renowned for the numerous compositions that she created during her time at the convent, making her one of the most productive woman composers of her time.

Anna Isabella Leonarda was born on September 6, 1620, the daughter of Giannantonio Leonardi and his wife, Apollonia. The Leonardi were an old and prominent Novarese family whose members included important church and civic officials and knights palatine. Isabella’s father, who held the title of count, was a doctor of laws. In 1636, Leonarda entered the Collegio di Sant’Orsola, an Ursuline convent in Novara. Her family maintained close ties with Sant’Orsola as benefactors, which some speculate may have contributed to Leonarda’s influence within the convent. She held various positions of authority throughout her time at Sant’Orsola - 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.

Leonarda was a highly regarded composer in her home city, but her music was apparently little known in other parts of Italy. Her published compositions span a period of 60 years, beginning with the dialogues of 1640 and concluding with the Motetti a voce sola of 1700. Leonarda is credited with producing nearly two hundred compositions during that period, though her only works appearing before 1670 were the dialogues printed by Gasparo Casati. It appears that she was over the age of 50 before she started composing regularly, and it was at that time that she began publishing the works that we know her for today.

Leonarda’s works include examples of nearly every sacred genre: Motets and sacred concertos for one to four voices, sacred Latin dialogues, psalm settings, responsories, Magnificats, litanies, masses, and sonate da chiesa. She also wrote a few sacred solo songs with vernacular texts. Sonate da chiesa refers to her Opus 16, which was historic in that it was an instrumental composition rather than vocal. Only two Italian women are known to have made contributions to instrumental music, each of them publishing only one collection in this field. Leonarda’s Opus 16 is one of these two collections, the other being a composition by Marieta Morosina Priuli.

Though Leonarda’s predominant genre was the solo motet, most of her notable historical achievements came from her sonatas. She was the first woman to publish sonatas, composing many throughout her lifetime. For example, Sonatas 1 through 11 are for two violins, violone, and organ. Sonatas 1, 3, 4, 7, and 8 are “concerted sonatas”: Each of the three instruments has at least one solo passage. Sonata 12 is Leonarda’s only solo sonata and one of her most renowned compositions. It is divided into seven sections with two slow movements which are recitative-like, inviting improvised embellishments.

Leonarda’s intricate use of harmonies is one example of her influence in the cultivation of polyphonic music at Sant’Orsola, as many other Italian nun composers were doing at their own convents during the same period. This style created an atmosphere conducive to the creativity of the musician, allowing for slight improvisation or musical ornamentation. Leonarda’s sonatas, however, are unusual in their formal structure. It is generally held that Arcangelo Corelli established the “standard” four-movement, slow-fast-slow-fast form of the sonata da chiesa. 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.

Additionally, Leonarda uses refrains in a rather unusual way. Sonata 5 is the most regular; Sonata 10 has two refrains, in the pattern ABCDEBDFBG. Sonata 4 has the quite unusual plan of 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.

Here are Leonarda’s “Sonate a più Strumenti”, which are a wonderful introduction to the amazing music of this baroque woman composer.

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