Celestial Sirens: Nuns and Thier Music in Early Modern Milan

By Barr, Cyrilla | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Celestial Sirens: Nuns and Thier Music in Early Modern Milan


Barr, Cyrilla, The Catholic Historical Review


Celestial Sirens. Nuns and Their Music in Early Modern Milan. By Robert L. Kendrick. (New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press. 1996. Pp. xxi, 556. $95.00.)

Current scholarship has produced a wealth of learned writings on an old, but only recently explored, source of modern history-the lives and activities of nuns within the cloister. This phenomenon may in part be due to the current interest in women's studies in general; in musicology, in particular, it is evidence of pushing the boundaries of archival research. Celestial Sirens, along with Craig Monson's Disembodied Voices, Elissa Weaver's works on the theatrical performances of nuns in Florentine convents, and Caroline Walker Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast, are impressive evidence of the richness of these sources. Since the nuns studied in these works were subject to both civil and ecclesiastical authority, their very lives and activities are among the most thoroughly documented in early modern history.

In Celestial Sirens Robert Kendrick constructs a conceptual framework of the religious, economic, and political circumstances of the period in which the subjects of his study lived. He traces the musical activities of five generations of nuns in Milanese convents (from ca. 1570 to well into the eighteenth century), through the tenure of eight different archbishops-ranging from the restrictive Carlo Borromeo to his more permissive nephew Federico Borromeo. Examination of the nuns' musical activities during this period reveals not only conflicts between clergy and secular authority, but also power struggles among the clergy themselves, and at times factionalism inside the cloister. This very class distinction within the convents had its practical consequences for the musical life of the nuns. The converse (sisters without final vows who had brought a smaller dowry to the order) did the menial work in the cloister, thus allowing the professed nuns greater leisure to pursue musical studies.

Despite the Church's attempts to limit family control of the patrician nuns by enforcing strict clausura, the occasional infiltration of secular music and the need for male tutors sometimes placed the nuns at the center of suspicion and even controversy. Their situation is more or less symbolized by the very space in which they functioned musically: the dichotomy between the interior church in which they performed and the exterior church to which travelers came and visiting dignitaries were brought to hear them.

There is much to be learned from the proscriptions of the various archbishops just as there is from the music performed in the cloister. While Kendrick's study is essentially a musicological investigation, his exploration of non-musical documentation is sensitive to the dilemma in which the nuns sometimes found themselves; the very musical achievements for which they were recognized sometimes resulted in their being subject to extreme disciplinary measures. Despite these difficulties, it is clear from the music performed that many of these women-perhaps the most famous musicians in early modern Milan-reached an impressive degree of skill. The level of their virtuosity is attested not only by the repertoire of works written for and dedicated to them by well-known composers of the time (thirty-eight listed in Appendix C), but also by the impressive compositions of the nuns themselves. …

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