Milan: Christmas Mass by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani

December 2009

Dec 4 2009 8:00 pm
St. Patrick's Seminary
Menlo Park CA

Dec 5 2009 8:00 pm
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Berkeley CA

Dec 6 2009 4:00 pm
St. Mark's Lutheran Church
San Francisco CA

Lecture by Artistic Director Warren Stewart 45 minutes before each performance.


Performing Sacred Music in Liturgical Context


Celestial Sirens by Robert L. Kendrick

Cozzolani Motets edited by Robert L. Kendrick

In December, by popular demand, Magnificat will again perform Cozzolani's setting of the Mass Ordinary for four voices and basso continuo in the context of the liturgy for Christmas, with the familiar items (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) joined by her settings of motet texts appropriate to the feast, thus giving a sense of the convent’s musical liturgy around 1650. Much of the music can be heard on Magnificat’s second CD of Cozzolani’s music on the Musica Omnia label, Messa Paschale.

Listen to Magnificat perform the Agnus Dei from Cozzolani's Messa a 4:

Magnificat - Cozzolani Messa a 4 Agnus Dei


In addition to the setting of the mass ordinary, the program will feature five of Cozzolani's motets ("concerti"), two from her Concerti sacri of 1642: the solo motet Ecce annuntio vobis and the duet O dulcis Jesu; two from her Salmi a Otto Voci Concertata of 1650: the trio Quis audivit unquam tale and the four voice Gloria in altissimis; and the solo motet O præclara dies from Scherzi di Sacra Melodia of 1648. Only the vocal partbook of the Scherzi survives and the continuo part has been reconstructed by Magnificat's Artistic Director Warren Stewart.

Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c.1677) was a sister at the musically famous convent of Santa Radegonda, located in the seventeenth century across the street from Milan Cathedral. Santa Radegonda was famous for its sisters' music-making on such feast-days, as visitors from all over Europe crowded into the half of its church open to the public (the chiesa esteriore), where they could hear the voices of the nuns while the monastic singers remained invisible in their half of the church (chiesa interiore), separated by a three-quarters-high wall. 


Like her sister, aunt, and nieces, Cozzolani took her vows at the house in 1620, while in her late teens. She had been born into a well-off family in Milan, and might have received her early musical training from members of the well-known Rognoni family, instrumental and vocal teachers in the city.  She entered a foundation, however, 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 musical publications appeared between 1640 and 1650; later, she served as prioress and abbess at Santa Radegonda. She helped guide the house through more difficult times in the 1660's, when it came under attack by the strict Archbishop Alfonso Litta, who was concerned to limit the nuns' practice of music and other "irregular" contact with the outside world. She disappears from the convent's membership lists between 1676 and 1678, and thus we may presume she died in her mid-seventies.

The fame of Cozzolani and her house is evident in a passage from her contemporary Filippo Picinelli's urban panegyric, the Ateneo dei letterati milanesi (Milan, 1670):

"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 enrapture 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 . . .". 

She was, of course, only one of over a dozen nuns in seventeenth-century Italy who published their music, but the ongoing tributes to her and to the musical culture of her house are remarkable on any count.


Part of the fascination of the sisters’ music was clearly its timbral uniqueness. In the case of Santa Radegonda, we have no records of men ever singing together (or even collaborating from the chiesa esteriore) with the nuns, and so the vocal and instrumental ensembles that attracted such renown must have been all-female. With such a large pool of possible singers, convents seemed to have used women with unusually low voices to sing tenor lines at their written pitch, and either to have sung bass lines at pitch or to have transposed them up an octave into alto range, with the instrumental basso continuo (at least organ, theorbo, and bass violin, according to records from Santa Radegonda in the 1670’s) providing a bass line in the appropriate low register.

A good deal of Cozzolani’s music, in its surviving printed form, demands the normal set of mixed voices (various combinations of SATB), as this format was clearly more attractive on the printing market. But in order to recreate something of the original, “angelic” timbre which was heard in Italian convent churches, and which reminded listeners of a kind of Heavenly Jerusalem with its “celestial” voices, Magnificat will use only female singers in these concerts, transposing both tenor and bass lines up an octave. The parts of the mass reserved for priests (the prayers and readings, and the intonations for the Gloria and Credo) will be sung by baritone Hugh Davies as on our recording Messa Paschale.

Adapted from notes by Robert L. Kendrick

free music download from Magnificat

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Catherine Webster, soprano

Meg Bragle, alto

Jennifer Ellis Kampani, soprano

Kristen Dubenion-Smith, alto

Hugh Davies, celebrant

Warren Stewart, violoncello

Hanneke van Proosdij, organ

Articles about Cozzolani

Chiara Margarita Cozzolani in her World

Chiara Margarita Cozzolani: Celestial Siren

Magnificat Celebrates A Decade of Cozzolani

Re-Composing Cozzolani- Magnificat to Perform Modern Premiere of Lost Work

The Flowers on Magnificat's Cozzolani CDs


Listen to Cozzolani's Mass

Download Magnificat's Recording of Cozzolani's Mass

Purchase the CD

MusicWeb (UK) review of Messa Paschale