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Cappella Clausurawas founded by Amelia LeClair in 2004 to research, study and perform the music of women composers. Our twin goals are to bring engaging performances of this music to today’s audiences, and to help bring women composers into the classical canon. Our repertoire extends from the earliest known music by women, written in the middle ages, to the music of our own time. The core of the vocal ensemble is a group of eight-to-twelve singers who perform a cappella, with continuo, and with chamber orchestra, as the repertoire requires. Our singers are accomplished professionals who perform widely as soloists and ensemble musicians in Greater Boston and beyond; likewise, our instrumentalists are drawn from Boston’s superb pool of freelancers. We utilize classical and baroque period instruments when appropriate to the repertoire.
Cappella Clausura’s name honors the extraordinary body of music written by cloistered nuns of 17th century Italy who, in the language of the time, were said to be "in clausura:" covered, hidden away, segregated from public life. These gifted and musically educated individuals--such as Raffaella Aleotti, Chiara Cozzolani, Bianca Maria Meda, Caterina Assandra and Sulpitia Cesis--became our first historical community of recognized women composers. Cappella Clausura has performed and recorded their music with dedication, and will continue to do so. And we take the name "Clausura" as a metaphor for the cultural obstacles faced by women composers throughout history.
Over the last ten years, Cappella Clausura has performed an ever-widening repertoire for enthusiastic audiences in concert halls, churches and academic settings. This repertoire includes music by medieval composers Hildegard von Bingen, Kassia, and the anonymous Trobairitz/Trouvres (troubadours); Renaissance composers Vittoria Aleotti and Sulpitia Cesis; Baroque composers named above as well Isabella Leonarda, Barbara Strozzi and Elizaberth Jacquet de la Guerre; Classical composers Mariana von Martines (whom we have dubbed "the female Mozart"); Romantic composer-performers Clara Wieck Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel; and the 20th-21st century’s Rebecca Clarke, Erna Woll, Patricia Van Ness, Abbie Betinis, Sinta Wuller, Emma Lou Diemer, and Hilary Tann.
Program highlights through the years have included our acclaimed production of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum, which we consider the first opera by a woman composer; Passionately UnConventional: works by women of the Italian Baroque; and ARenaissance Christmas Pageant with music spanning four centuries, ornamented by modern dance and puppetry.
Upcoming highlights of the 2013-14 season are the March release of our premier recording of the complete Ghirlanda di Madrigali, eighteen madrigals by the Renaissance teenaged prodigy Vittoria Aleotti; the October 5-6 program Rebecca Clarke and her Circle:Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Palestrina, which includes Clarke’s complete a cappella output in the context of music by her colleagues and influences; and Illuminations, a performance-installation piece featuring a day in the life of a 16th century Belgian convent, its music, food, costumes, scribes, and its recently discovered illuminated ceremonial antiphonal.
The music that was written in clausura was extraordinary in its inventiveness as well as its musicality. The nuns who penned it were writing to express their deepest spirituality at a time when musical expression by women was not only frowned upon but frequently forbidden by the church. Until quite recently most of this rich cultural heritage lay dormant in the recesses of Italian monastic libraries, despite the fact that, in its day, it was published for its very consistent and faithful audience outside the cloister walls. With the help of such researchers as Robert Kendrick, Candace Smith, Laurie Monahan, Stewart Carter and more, this music is now becoming available again to the public.
The Italian seicento (17th century) was a phenomenon. Monasteries for women in Italy were largely populated by the daughters of the privileged whose families offered these institutions huge dowries to provide room and board and de facto life imprisonment. For a number of reasons, among them the highly competitive and rising cost of dowries and the popularity of marriage among gentlemen to women of lower classes (not a suitable option for women), there was an explosion of women living in clausura: in fact, a majority of patrician daughters went into the convents rather than into marriage. The church, in its infinite wisdom, taught these women to read so that they could perform daily worship. With the help of an occasionally sympathetic local church leader many of these nuns, taking advantage of the best education to be had for females, became excellent musicians (music teachers were either men considered past lasciviousness, who nevertheless, as a precaution, taught from the other side of the screed, or the nuns themselves). The musical abilities within the convents were a great source of pride for their townsfolk.
In fact local patricians so enjoyed female monastic music that several nuns became quite famous. Prominent critics wrote extensively about them, and of the quality of their singing and compositions. Individual nuns gained reputations as excellent singers, violinists, luthiers, trombonists, and most importantly, composers.
Northern Italian monasteries for women were built to include a chiesa interiore, in which the nuns would conduct services, and a chiesa exteriore, a larger section attached to the wall and connected by a hole through which sound could travel but no individual could be seen. Despite this apparent sanction of audience participation, the Church set strict rules against nuns' performing for the public, and frequently sent out edicts to forbid music in their services - a good indication that the performances continued despite all restrictions. Often a monastery's instruments or male teachers were removed from the premises, leaving the imprisoned residents to their own best devices.
All this contributed to the most remarkable and unique characteristic of the sisters' compositions: since they were written to be performed in a fickle Church climate in which Rome might at any time enforce its ban on music, meaning instruments might be available one day and removed from the convent the next, the music had to work no matter what octave the bass line was in. While there were, apparently, women who could sing quite low, the bass and tenor parts were frequently raised up an octave and doubled by the cellist, or trombonist, if there was one. If there wasn't, the bass and tenor parts might become alto and soprano parts, or the whole work might be transposed to accommodate the voices and instruments on hand.