Let’s assume for a minute that “Hamlet” had been written as a comedy rather than a tragedy and that when Hamlet tells Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” she actually goes. How long could we expect before the recording contract followed?
Music has always been a big part of convent life, much to the church hierarchy’s dismay, and musically talented women were much sought after. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual for a convent, much like a university today, to sweeten the pot a bit to get a talented novice to move inside their walls. “Musical skills and beautiful singing voices were so valuable that convents could even offer discounts on the dowries of gifted nuns, and decorous religious houses accepted girls from modest backgrounds,” says Silvia Evanegisti in her book Nuns: A History of Convent LIfe. Just don’t tell the Bishop about it.
Well, we know from Act IV, Scene V of “Hamlet” that Ophelia was quite the singer, so had Polonious lived, he surely would have gotten a discount to send his daughter to a nunnery, as Hamlet suggested.
Given the premium convents offered on musical talent, it’s not surprising that many of the female composers we know about from the Baroque era today were nuns. One nun whose work has managed to survive to this day is Rosa Giacinta Badalla, a Benedictine nun in Milan who’s believed to have lived from around 1660 to 1710. She had only one printed collection of compositions that we know about, Motetti a voce sola, and it makes one wish she had been given a recording contract.
Her work is “remarkable . . . for its patent vocal viruosity, motivic originality, and self-assured compositional technique,” Robert Kendrick says in his Grove Music entry on Badalla.
You can hear that virtuosity, originality, and self-assurance in “O serene pupille,” a beautiful piece for solo voice that also translates well to the violin. In this 5-minute video, we see musicians from La Donna Musicale in 2011 perform an excerpt from the piece using violin as the solo instrument. La Donna Musicale is based in Boston and it’s a company dedicated to performing classical works by women composers.
To showcase the rich vein of music that’s come to us from the convents, a couple of publishers have released compilations within the last few years. Rosa Mistica is a highly regarded collection that includes a piece from Badalla as well as composers named Isabella Leonarda and Bianca Maria Meda.
“This music brings such joy and peace to my whole being, and every one of the pieces on this album is so beautiful, it’s hard to find words that adequately express the astounding harmony,” says one reviewer on Amazon.
Badalla’s work also appears on Concerto delle Donne, a compilation of female Baroque composers, including one of the most well-known of all female classical composers, Barbara Strozzi. This compilation isn’t limited to the cloistered, so it has a much broader range of work and yet the pieces still center around sacred music, as Baroque music by women composers often did.
Another piece of Badalla’s, called “Non piangete,” is performed beautifully by soprano Roberta Invernizzi and cellist Elena Russo. You can listen to that in the video below.
We’re fortunate this this and other works from Badalla and other nuns remain with us today, and hopefully yet more will be found in the musty cellars of convents someday. The work of composers as gifted as Badalla deserve a wider audience; it would be a shame to keep it cloistered behind the walls of a nunnery.