A Clear Pearl of Invention – the Music of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani by Warren Stewart of Magnificat Baroque

Today The Seventeenth Century Lady is honoured to have a guest post from the artistic director of Magnificat Baroque. This popular ensemble can be found via their website, Twitter @MagBaroque, and Facebook. Warren wonderfully writes about Chiara Margarita Cozzolani – a remarkable, yet sadly overlooked composer of Baroque music, and Magnificat Baroque’s Concerti Sacri (which is absolutely gorgeous!).

A Clear Pearl of Invention – the music of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani By Warren Stewart, artistic director of Magnificat

It has been two decades since the publication of Celestial Sirens,[1] Robert Kendrick’s seminal work on the music of nun’s in Italy in the 16th and 17th Century. Since that time, further research by Kendrick and others, along with numerous recordings and performances, has helped to illuminate the remarkable repertoire of music by women, whose lives are otherwise largely lost to history. This summer, Magnificat released the double CD Concerti Sacri marking the completion of a project to record the surviving complete works of the remarkable Chiara Margarita Cozzolani.

Cozzolani was born into a Milanese family of merchants in the early years of the 17th Century and may have received her early musical training from members of the Rognoni family, well-respected instrumental and vocal teachers in the city. Like her sister, aunt, and nieces, Cozzolani took her vows at the Benedictine convent Santa Radegonda while in her late teens. There she entered a foundation whose nun musicians had already been praised for a generation and whose population (around 100 sisters) provided a large pool of young women who could be trained as singers and instrumentalists. Her four publications appeared between 1640 and 1650 and she later served as prioress and abbess at S. Radegonda.

The convent of Santa Radegonda was located across the street from the Duomo in Milan on a street that now bears the saint’s name. The building was razed in the early nineteenth century and the site is now a multiplex cinema. But the blockbuster events of the 17th Century were the celebrations of festal vespers and mass at S. Radegonda and other musically renowned convents, where diarists and travellers describe crowds packed so tightly that one could hardly breathe.

There is evidence for excellent music making at S. Radegonda as early as the late sixteenth century.  Writing in 1674 (while Cozzolani was still alive), the Milanese poet Carlo Torre wrote of the convent’s singers:

“It can be said that in our own times, Mount Helicon has been transported to this monastery, due to the excellence of its veiled singers, or that spirits from on high fly in this church, since rapturous melodies are heard … So that you readers do not think I am speaking in hyperbole, I will wait for you there on the next feast-day, and you will take away true proof of what I have said”.

In 1670, the urban panegyrist Filippo Picinelli named Cozzolani specifically in his praise of the house’s music:

“The nuns of Santa Radegonda of Milan are gifted with such rare and exquisite talents in music that they are acknowledged to be the best singers of Italy. They wear the Cassinese habits of [the order of] St. Benedict, but (under their black garb) they seem to any listener to be white and melodious swans, who fill hearts with wonder, and rapture tongues in their praise. Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise, Chiara [literally, ‘clear’, Cozzolani’s religious name] in name but even more so in merit, and Margarita [literally, ‘a pearl’] for her unusual and excellent nobility of [musical] invention . . .”.

Magnificat’s new recording includes the 20 motets for one to four voices and a four part setting of mass ordinary found in Cozzolani’s second collection, Concerti Sacri, published in 1642 with a dedication to the Tuscan prince Mathias de’ Medici (1613-67.) Mathias, well known as a patron of singers across Italy, would have heard some of the motets and perhaps the mass during his stay in Milan in February 1641, which would have included visits to hear the famed singing nuns of Santa Radegonda.

Image by Nika Korniyenko, featured in Magnificat Baroque's newest album

Image by Nika Korniyenko, featured in Magnificat Baroque’s newest album, Concerti Sacri (1642).

Unlike Cozzolani’s first published collection Primavera di fiori musicali which had been produced by a Milanese printer in 1642 (now lost), Concerti Sacri was entrusted to the well-respected music printer Alessandro Vincenti in Venice, which ensured a wide circulation for the motets. Indeed, one of them, the soprano duet O dulcis Jesu, was reprinted in a motet anthology of 1649 from Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) compiled by a Lutheran organist and another, the alto solo Concinant linguae, is found in a later French manuscript with an attribution to Giacomo Carissimi.

Only the soprano partbook survives of her 1648 publication Scherzi di Sacra Melodia, a collection of highly virtuosic and structurally extensive solo motets. However, the partbooks for her final publication, the large scale collection of vespers music and motets Salmi a Otto Voci Concertati, published in Venice in 1650, survive complete in the Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica in Bologna and Magnificat’s recording of these works was released in 2010. Sadly, Cozzolani seems not to have any more music after her 1650 publication, and her name quietly disappears from the house’s lists between 1676 and 1678. But her achievement in producing such variegated and often striking music remains, even if more than three centuries were necessary for its rediscovery.

[1] I am deeply grateful for the support and advise of Dr. Kendrick throughout Magnificat’s work with Cozzolani’s music and in this article I have drawn liberally  from notes he has provided for Magnificat’s concerts and recordings.


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