Musica Secreta - Dangerous Graces: Music by Cipriano de Rore and pupils - Dirk Bennett

There were female composers way before Clara Schumann, as one new CD is showing in vibrant style... but to put them in context, you first have to learn to play tennis.

In 1555 Antonio Scaino, a theologian at the court of Ferrara, published his Trattato del giuoco della palla which for the first time lies down in written form the rules for tennis ('giuoco della corda') dedicated to Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara and fervent player of the game. Alfonso (1533-97) was the last direct male heir in the line of the house of Este, the rulers of Ferrara and of Modena, and celebrated patrons of the arts.

At his court resided Torquato Tasso, madman, courtier and writer and, until the 19th century, most widely read of the Italian Renaissance poets. His celebrated work Gerusalemme liberata, the tale of the leader of the first Crusade, Godfrey of Bouillon and the capture of the Holy City, forms the basis and inspiration for countless artworks of the time, most notably music. His first love, one Lucrezia Benedidio, was at the same time member of probably one of the first group of all female musicians in Europe.

Together with Laura Peverara, Leonora Sanvitale, Livia d'Arco, Tarquinia Molza and Anna Guarini, Livia d'Arco they acquired fame and notoriety across Italy and the rest of the continent. Accomplished musicians, composers and poets, they show the period from a fascinatingly different angle and force us to correct our perceptions of the time.

We know about this unusual ensemble, brought together by the duke, thanks to Musica Secreta, a contemporary ensemble dedicated to the rediscovery of female musicians of the 16th and 17th centuries, and a research project at Southampton University under the direction of Laurie Stras - in line with current efforts to redefine the role of women in art and culture, see Artsworld's programme on women artists in Paris of the early 20th century. Two of the ensemble's members, Deborah Roberts and Tessa Bonner, have been members of the Tallis Scholars for many years. Musica Secreta understand themselves as a sort of the female Orlando Consort - the Tallis Scholars women striking out on their own.

Their new CD was launched last Friday with a concert at St Batholomew the Great. Hidden south of Spitalfields market in the labyrinthine network of cobbled lanes and alleys and medieval pubs, it is hard to imagine a more atmospheric and fitting venue for a concert of this kind - and a worthwhile visit for one of the frequent choral services. It was like a timewarp, finding yourself deep in the Middle Ages just five minutes west of the 20th-century concrete monstrosity of the Barbican.

It also became obvious how much the ornate fabric of the melodies over a simple baseline corresponds with the art of the time - with the highly decorated, sometimes contorted outlines of Italian mannerism in sculpture, and the intricacy of contemporary painting - see the current exhibition on Genoese paintings in the National Gallery. The harmonies, still bearing echoes of High Renaissance polyphony but with instruments and transplanted into a secular courtly environment, already point towards the upcoming period, Baroque and Bach.

A truly unique and wonderful experience, and an eye-opening introduction into one of the obscured areas of culture. Forget the tennis, play the music.

08 April 2002