Isabella Leonarda

Imagine living your whole life in one city! Isabella Leonarda (1620 – 1704) lived her whole eighty-four years in Novara, a city in Northern Italy. It must have been a cultural center for the region, being situated between trade routs from Milan to Turin and from Switzerland to Genoa. The city of Novara is the capitol of the Novara province. It’s name is very musical in itself, “Nov” which can be translate as “new” and “aria” which we see all the time in music as “song”. Indeed, Novara was no doubt a musical center during Isabella Leonarda’s lifetime.

This was the Baroque, when a few decades earlier, the composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643) had begun his musical life in his birth place, the nearby city of Cermona, that famous city known for being the home of the workshops of the famous violin makers Andrea Amati, Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guaneri. Italy was coming out with all kinds of music during this time. It was a new, different kind of music that used the basso contiuno as its foundation. You can always know that music is from the Baroque when you see the basso continuo line, a single bass line that served as the foundation for the harmonies for the music. Composers used this harmonic foundation to express human emotions and literal meanings of the texts they employed. Opera composers such as Jacopo Peri even stated outright that they derived their ideas for harmonies from observing human speech and the sounds we make when we want to express joy, grief, ect.

Through music, people told stories and explored ways of thinking about and communicating the human experience. The music of the Baroque is highly expressive. This applies to vocal as well as instrumental music. Composers employed the same exact means to express emotion through abstract instrumental sounds as they did in vocal music. A very fine example is Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. Clearly Baroque music does have meaning and a connection to reality.

These musical developments taking place in Italy quickly spread throughout Europe. The violin and the violin family of instruments were all the rage, and nobility in other countries made orders for their own instruments. Italian musicians were also sought after and came to live at the courts of the nobility outside their native land. This was a time of printing, and Italian music was circulated throughout Europe. Isabella Leonarda may not have ever left her native city of Novara, but musically speaking she didn’t need to because she was at the center of the action. She was also at the spiritual heart of her city. She was an Ursuline nun, entering the convent at the age of sixteen, eventually becoming Mother Superior. She came from a family of nobility and members of the Leonardi family still live in Novara today. Four years after entering the convent, some of her music was published along with that of Casati, Maestro di Capella at the Novara Cathedral. It is speculated that Casati was Leonarda’s music teacher. She eventually came to publish twenty volumes of her works, almost two-hundred pieces, making her one of the most published composers of her time. Her music can be found today in monastery libraries in Bergamo, Siena, Bologna, Como,Pistoria, Einsiedeln, Beuron, and Ottobeuron. Her music is suited to liturgical and non-liturgical church settings. The bulk of her works are for voice and instruments, Op. 16 being her only collection of instrumental pieces. Her “Sonata Duodecima” is a beautiful violin and continuo piece written in a typical Baroque expressive style. It is much like Corelli’s sonata da chiesa being that it has multiple alternating slow and fast movements, each containing its own way of moving and suggesting little separation between movements. This music welcomes the creative ingenuity of the musician and invites a multitude of thoughtful interpretations.

Notes: Specific information about the city of Novara taken from Biograohical facts about Isabella Leonarda taken from “Sonata Duodecima from Op. 16 (1693) for violin and continuo”, Barbara Garvey Jackson, ed., Baroque Chamber Music Series Number 16, Dovehouse Editions, Canada, 1983.

Interpretación en directo a cargo del conjunto “El Concierto Ylustrado” de la Sonata Duodecima de Isabella Leonarda. Primer ciclo de música de Cámara “Palacio Conde del Pinar”, Chiclana (Cádiz, ESPAÑA), 19 de abril de 2007. Programa: Mujeres Barrocas.


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