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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events.

Twin City debut brings music by nuns that has rarely, if ever, been heard here

Group photo convent music in secret 2019 St Louis.jpg
Michael Anderson
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Schola Antiqua
The women's ensemble, Schola Antiqua, will present an evening of convent music March 19 at Illinois State University.

The early music group Schola Antiqua makes its Twin City debut March 19 with a special Women’s History Month program. Not just any women, though: “Music in Secret: Sounds from the Early Modern Convent” is dedicated to music written almost exclusively by nuns.

When Schola Antiqua director Michael Anderson asked organist Naomi Gregory to program a concert for the group, he gave her practically carte blanche on the theme.

“We had a broad theme of convent music,” Gregory said, “and then within that was the chance to think, well, which century should we represent? Maybe are we going to concentrate in particular countries?”

In the end, Gregory settled on music spanning several centuries, mainly from Italy, but also representing German sacred music.

“In the first half of the program, we are essentially alternating between chant items where everybody is signing the same melody. Those come from 13th and 15th century chant books. But then we alternate that with these polyphonic pieces —multi-voice pieces. The second half of our program features music a little bit later, at the beginning of the 17th century, which is a wonderful time of experimentation — and we have everything there.”

Chicago’s Schola Antiqua began as an all-male ensemble in 2000 and boasts collaborations with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago and Memorial Art Gallery of Rochester, N.Y.

“We soon realized that it would be much easier and much more beautiful to include higher female voices,” said artistic director Michael Anderson. “We began to add that element in 10 or 12 years ago, and we’re never going back.”

“Music in Secret” first premiered in 2018 and is coming to Illinois State University in large part because of Dr. Cora Swenson Lee’s involvement.

“I’m also teaching a musicology course this semester on women in music,” Lee said. "It was very exciting to be able to tie all that together and be able to include students from my cello studio, my course and the vocal department.”

Lee, who is an ISU professor of cello, will play viola de gamba for the free concert.

“It was a Renaissance instrument that fell out of favor at some point at the end of the Baroque era(but) has seen quite a revival in the last 75 years or so,” Lee said. “It’s a really beautiful instrument. It’s got a very earthy sound to it— kind of a buzz which is really delightful. It’s quite fun.”

Anderson said convent music is some of the most coveted music produced, though its authors did not rise to fame like composers such as Bach or Corelli.

“The music coming out of the convent was a really important event week to week, but the nuns were not allowed to show their faces — they had to keep to the inside,” Anderson said. “Townspeople would go up to the gates of a convent and listen as closely as they could to the beautiful strains coming out. There’s no one to record this. These kinds of journals don’t survive but a few anecdotes do that tell us how important this music was in a given principality.”

That is one, but not the only reason for the title: “Music in Secret.” Gregory said several selections derived from evocative text found in the Old Testament book Song of Songs. One solo, performed by Twin City resident Lindsey Adams, translates, “You’ve wounded my heart, my sister, my spouse, with a glance of your eyes. With a hair from your neck, you have wounded my heart. How beautiful are your breasts, my sister, my spouse.”

“So many things we could talk about with the text,” Gregory said, “but let me tell you, the musical setting is so beautiful.”

While the music is derived from a Catholic tradition, Lee said the concert is something everyone will enjoy.

“I don’t think music like this has been heard in Bloomington-Normal — ever,” Lee said. “It’s good for your soul to listen to this music, and I think it’s going to be accessible to a lot of people in the community.”

Schola Antiqua's concert at ISU's Kemp Recital Hall begins at 7:30 p.m. March 19. The program is free and open to the public.

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