Anne Cartwright

Discovering Isabella

Isabella Leonarda was an Italian composer from Novara, one of the most productive woman composers of her time.

We all dream don't we? I don't mean those ones we have whilst doing that pile of ironing, or peeling potatoes. The ones where we agonise over how to spend that million or so we have just acquired.

No. I'm talking about the ones where we are doing the most unlikely things, either for bad or for good; the ones where we are swimming through shark-infested waters or floating on a cloud of golden marshmallow.

I know other people's dreams are said to be very boring, but please bear with me.  There is a point to this and I promise I will get there soon!

Odd though it may seem, I had a dream about about Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. I am not going to recount it, but it was such that when I awoke, my curiosity was aroused and I went online to see whether I could get an answer to questions brought about by the appearance of these great composers. They spoke of a particular female composer from way back in the mists of time, and I just had to see whether I might be able to track her down to find out about her and to try to put a little flesh on those old bones of hers.

Who was Isabella Leonarda and what was her music like? She was born Isabella Calegari in Novara on 6th February in the year 1620. Her parents were Apollonia and Giannantonio, and the family was an old and prominent one in Italy at that time. In fact, Giannantonio held the title of Count, and was also a doctor of law.

When Isabella was just 16 years old, she entered the convent of Saint Ursula, still in Novara, and took the name of Leonarda. 

She grew to become a devout and successful woman, eventually holding positions of authority before becoming Mother Superior and then Regional Counsellor for the Ursulines. She was well regarded in her home town as a composer but little known elsewhere in Italy, although she composed over a period of some 60 years and is credited with producing around 200 compositions.

Most interestingly perhaps is that Isabella was over the age of 50 or so before she began composing regularly and publishing works which survive to the present day.

Little is known of her musical education before entering the convent, but it would seem to have been natural for a girl of her background to have received some instruction. It is suggested that she studied with Gasparo Casati (1610-1641), who was Maestro di Cappella at the Cathedral in her home town from 1635 until he died.

Isabella was not known as a singer, nor as an instrumentalist, but she was one of the most prolific convent composers of the Baroque era. She claimed that her music was not written out of any personal ambition to gain credit in the world, rather to let everyone know of her great devotion to the Virgin Mary to whom she dedicated almost all of her life's work.

I was keen to find out what her music sounded like, so I went to YouTube where I was bowled over by the fresh and lively quality of her writing. When my husband, who is the director of the choir Cantique in Rochechouart, heard Isabella's music, he decided to include a piece in our forthcoming programme. So Isabella will take her place alongside the great Mozart and Vivaldi!


Cappella Artemisia, directed by Candace Smith, performs the motet Ave Regina Coelorum by Isabella Leonarda


© 2017 Anne Cartwright