Vittoria/Raffaella Aleotti –Who is She?

Scholars are unsure whether this woman composer was one or two sisters. Both Vittoria and Raffaella are shown as composers, as exceptional organists and teachers in the convent and performers of vocal and instrumental music in the homes of the elite of Ferrara, Italy. Vittoria composed only madrigals, a secular genre, and there is nothing heard of her after 1593. We first hear of Raffaella in 1593. She wrote only sacred music and gained fame for her performances and leadership. In any event, Giovanni Aleotti’s many talented children were born in Ferrara.

Vittoria showed early musical talent, mainly on the harpsichord and voice. After working with a prominent teacher, Ercole Pasquini, she was sent for musical training at age six or seven to San Vito convent which was known for nurturing such talent. By age 14, she chose to enter the convent as a nun and dedicate her life to God’s service. It is possible Vittoria changed her name to Raffaella in the convent. However, a dedication of Vittoria’s published music written by her father suggests there were two musically inclined daughters.

1593, the same year that Vittoria published her secular music, Raffaella published a book of sacred concertos in Venice. It is reported that she was the first nun to have her sacred music published. Apparently, Hildegard’s music, written before Gutenberg’s invention, was only preserved in manuscripts. Raffaella was famous as an organist, as well as playing the harpsichord, the trombone and other wind instruments. Raffaella took over the direction of the concerto grande, the convent’s main ensemble, which had 23 singers and instrumentalists who played the harpsichord, lute, bass viol, flute, cornet and trombone. Although nuns were not allowed to interact with men, some of the music had parts for tenor and bass. The instruments filled those parts. They performed for Pope Clement VIII and the queen of Spain, Margaret of Austria. Raffaella was the Maestra at the convent until her death. She enjoyed complex music and often used harmony and dissonance to emphasize the text. There was criticism however, because the polyphonic complexity of many voices blurred the ability to discern the text thus making the holiness of the music disappear. In light of the counter-reformation, authorities were quite conscious of the need to make sacred music understandable.

I first heard a choral performance of Raffaella’s, “Ascendens Christus in Altum” in a CD, Ladies Night, produced by the Columbia Choral Ensemble and given to me by a lovely woman who was at one of my presentations. What a lovely gift! I could appreciate the polyphony and intertwining of the multiple voices. And since we are not bound by the strictures of the 16th century, it included male singers which, no doubt, gave the music more depth than the original hearers could enjoy. The words, translated from the Latin, are simple: “Christ ascends on high. He led the captive in captivity. He gave gifts to mankind. God ascends in jubilation. Alleluia.” Simplicity of lyric is useful for the understanding and appreciation of this style of music and on that note I appreciated it.

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