Toronto Chamber Choir Blog

February 29, 2024
Author: Judith Nancekivell

Why Lucas Harris is a fan of convented composers

Toronto Chamber Choir presents The Muse of Novarra: A Portrait of Isabella Leonarda on Saturday, March 9, 7:30 p.m. at Calvin Presbyterian Church, 26 Delisle Ave.
TCC alto Judith Nancekivell spoke with TCC artistic director Lucas Harris about the project.

For some time, I’ve been intrigued by Lucas Harris’s long-standing fascination with early music composed by nuns. So when the opportunity arose to write an article for an upcoming CAMMAC newsletter, I decided to interview him on this topic. In a recent newsletter promoting our Muse of Novara concert, Lucas shared that he first encountered the music of Isabella Leonarda at a lute seminar in 1995, shortly after he started playing lute, and was astounded at its beauty. Here is the rest of my interview with Lucas.

Why are you so interested in music composed by 17th-century Italian nuns?

I find it incredible that, after several centuries where almost no surviving written music can be confidently ascribed to a female composer, we have a mini-flourishing of publication by women in Italy.  I’m also really impressed by the quality and quantity of the music.  My colleague Candace Smith (director of Capella Artemisia, which has been exploring the Italian nuns’ repertoire for decades) says that when people discover that music by nuns exists, they tend to assume it’s a very small body of work and a very niche field.  It’s important to realize that we’re talking about hundreds of pieces of music taken all together.  It’s just taking time for it all to become edited and performed.

Could you tell us a bit about your Cozzolani Reunited project?

My favourite nun composer is Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, a nun from the S. Radegonda convent in Milan (the city where I studied early music for a year as a young man).  Cozzolani’s Opus 3 “Scherzi di Sacra Melodia” of 1648 includes 12 motets for solo soprano with basso continuo accompaniment, but the continuo part book is missing.  I reconstructed the missing accompaniment and published an edition of the motets, which is now available for free download at the Web Library of Seventeen-Century Music.

The story of this project is made more interesting due to the appearance of six of the motets, rearranged with the accompaniment of a string consort, in a mysterious publication in Germany.  This publication appeared well after Cozzolani’s death and doesn’t mention her name.

More information about this project is available on Lucas’s website at

Why did you decide to focus on the music of Isabella Leonarda for the “Muse of Novarra” concert, and what factors did you consider in selecting the music for this program?

What I’m finding with so many 17th-century composers (including male composers whom the TCC has featured in the past such as Heinrich Biber and Johann Rosenmüller) is that their instrumental works have received the most attention in the form of modern editions and recordings.  Their works for solo voices receive less attention, and their choral works the least attention of all. 

The same pattern holds true for Leonarda: There have been many performances of her violin sonatas and a fair number of performances of her wonderful solo-voice motets.  There are very few performances of her motets for multiple solo voices, and her choral music is still almost unknown.  In addition to two sonatas and a motet for soprano with violins, I chose a few different choral works to show her compositional skill with larger ensembles: an SATB motet, plus her Magnificat and her third mass setting, both of the latter for SATB with 2 violins and basso continuo.  Of these only the Magnificat seems to have been recorded at this point.

For those whose interest has been piqued, what recordings would you suggest?

The Toronto Chamber Choir’s CD “A Voice of Her Own” includes works by the nun composers Aleotti, Cozzolani and Nascimbeni.

There are many other groups whose recordings of nuns’ repertoire I admire, including Capella Artemisia, Magnificat, and TENET.  There have also been some projects about sacred music by male composers that was associated with convents – see, for example, the Juan de Lienas Vespers CD by the Newberry Consort. 

In many of these recordings, the music is performed in “convent style” where the music is performed by an all-female group.  The bass part (and sometimes the tenor as well) is sung an octave higher and/or played by instruments.

There’s also a video prepared by Capella Artemisia which includes a presentation by Candace Smith of early music in Italian convents, plus talks by the choral conductor Elena Borzoni and the musicologist Paulo Monticelli, both from Leonarda’s hometown of Novara. It is available at

Judith Nancekivell is a TCC alto who is also astonished by the beauty of Leonarda’s music. 

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