Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Duke Alfonso II d’Este began to assemble at his court at Ferrara a new kind of ensemble – a group of virtuoso women musicians and singers, a musica secreta brought together to feed his fascination for the female voice. Although initially the Duke found talent among his own subjects, gradually his search extended to neighbouring courts situated along the Po river, specifically those at Mantua and at Parma. Alfonso’s passion shaped, indeed governed, the lives of those who were summoned to satisfy it, noblewomen and artisans alike. Their positions at court were both exalted and precarious; although arranged marriages and employment as ladies-in-waiting to the Duke’s sisters and wife gave them security and status, their musical activities in any other context might have been considered less than respectable. The women associated with the musica secreta were performers in a very modern sense, singing and playing for an audience gathered together specifically to witness the Duke’s private spectacle. What may have begun as an elegant pastime, a mutual display of accomplishment among courtiers, eventually took on the form of a concert or even – to use a more current analogy – a cabaret. The Duke’s concerto di donne played for four to six hours a night, sometimes as the centre of attention, sometimes as a backdrop to card games and conversation.
The concerto’s performances soon inspired an exclusive repertoire of works composed specifically to exploit their virtuosic abilities; however, for the most part the ladies drew their material from an existing repertoire of madrigals, villanelle, canzonette and semi-improvised recitations of both lyric and epic poetry. These were adapted in order to make them suitable for performance by female voices; furthermore, the women were all highly skilled in the art of diminution – florid ornamentation that could be either extemporised or carefully devised beforehand. Although the works were published or written down most frequently in polyphonic versions – for instance, as a cappella multi-voice madrigals – the ladies performed them as vocal solos, duets and trios to the accompaniment of instruments, usually playing for themselves. The transformations wrought on the music might have included transposition to bring vocal lines into the female range (including octave transposition of tenor and bass parts), entabulation of the lower parts to be performed on an instrument, or even the free adaptation of the lowest-sounding parts to form a basso seguente, a semi-independent bass part from which the upper harmonies could be realised.
Funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Board, the project ‘Female musicians at the courts of Ferrara and Parma, 1565-1589’ was set up to investigate the lives and the music of these women, whose formidable talents made them famous across Italy and the rest of Europe. Through both archival study and practical experimentation, the project has sought to illuminate the origins of the ensemble and to recreate the sound and the spirit of the music it made. The performances on this CD were developed through many hours of collaboration and exploration; ornamentation and instrumentation are not indicated in the original part-books, and although some of the more intricate embellishments were written before rehearsal, most of the ornaments are either freely improvised or occur as part of a scheme devised during rehearsal. Instrumentalists have mainly entabulated and arranged their own parts; continuo parts were developed during rehearsal. The processes involved in our research are documented on the website http://www.soton.ac.uk/~lastras/secreta, where scores for all the madrigals on this CD (and more) may be downloaded and printed off for further study or performance. Laurie Stras