Musica Secreta was founded in 1990 and is dedicated to the recovery, performance and recording of music associated with women in the early modern period. The group’s mission is not just to promote works by female composers but also to increase knowledge of and restore respect for women’s agency in Renaissance and early Baroque music. Women, both religious and secular, were active as performers of all kinds of music, yet for twenty-first-century musicians and audiences alike, the possibility of female performance of the broadest repertoire has been obscured by the way music was transmitted and preserved. Most of the music published in the sixteenth century was issued in a standard format – a set of vocal partbooks for soprano, alto, tenor and bass (with additional parts as necessary). It is now acknowledged that musicians worked from these books in a variety of ways and the format could be no more prescriptive for performance than a piano score of a popular song is today. Yet modern sensibilities present intellectual and aesthetic obstacles that the early modern musician would not have recognized – to perform without male voices on some or all of the parts in a polyphonic piece, or to have those parts reduced in accompaniment, messes with the supremacy of the score; and it can flout the expectations of both church and concert-goers, as it just “sounds wrong” to those who have not yet stretched beyond the comfort of a now-established European choral tradition.
When Musica Secreta perform music published in the standard partbook format, they are obliged to arrange it to suit their resources, just as a convent’s choir or a female ensemble such as the Ferrarese concerto di dame would have been. Most frequently, this means transposition of either whole pieces or individual parts, together with the use of instruments to fill out harmonies or substitute for the lower voices in polyphony. The many and oft-repeated prohibitions on the use of instruments made by the Church during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries only seems to reinforce the fact that they continued to be used, despite the rules, as a way to substitute for the missing basses. Furthermore it was not uncommon for a polyphonic piece to be performed with only the top line sung and the lower parts played. This would have been particularly important in convents where few adequate singers could be found, but in many cases it also serves the purpose of more progressive composers such as Giaches de Wert, active at the musically experimental court of Ferrara, and the lover of one of the sopranos from the concerto di dame. To give a similar treatment to works by much earlier composers such as Josquin may seem sacrilege to some, but even during his lifetime the nuns were singing daily. In the absence of a single published work expressly scored for female voices, what choice had they but to arrange the music to suit their needs and circumstances?
The issues facing contemporary women musicians who want to perform early music are less about authenticity (although it is probably more “authentic” to sing sacred polyphony with an all-female ensemble than it is with a mixed-voice group) than they are about ownership. One of the core aims of Musica Secreta is to open musicians and audiences to the possibility that it is perfectly in order for women to sing Palestrina and Josquin. Ultimately, they wish their performances and recordings to be accepted as neither radical nor experimental, but simply an alternative way of listening to and experiencing early music.