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MusicPart of Humanities

Celestial Sirens

The Challenge

What would a convent choir in 16th-century Italy have sounded like? What music would it have sung? How can we bring that sound alive again?

Some women in Renaissance convents spent more time singing than they did any else, even sleeping. Convent choirs were responsible for at least eight services per day, and in many Italian cities, they were a vital part of culture and a source of civic pride.

Celestial Sirens
Context

There is an enduring perception among many early music scholars, performers and audiences that most vocal music (particularly sacred polyphony) written before 1600 was intended for all-male performance, with a corollary that women singers’ participation in early music performance today is at best a compromise. Stras’s research has successfully contested these perceptions by providing evidence for widespread adaptive performance practices that allowed female ensembles to sing repertoire that is ostensibly unperformable without male voices. Practical investigation is essential to the historical research; moreover, without demonstration in the marketplace, the dominant narratives holding sway over promoter and audience attitudes are difficult to shift.

Our solution

For nearly fifteen years, musicologist Laurie Stras and singer Deborah Roberts have worked with their amateur choir Celestial Sirens and the professional ensemble Musica Secreta to investigate the way women made music in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. With funding from the AHRB and ACE, they have produced three award-winning CDs and three semi-dramatized events.

Impact

In 2007, Stras and Roberts were approached by best-selling novelist Sarah Dunant for help researching her new book. The result was a novel, Sacred Hearts, and a CD, Sacred Hearts, Secret Music. Set in a convent in 1570s Ferrara, the novel tells the story of a young singer. The CD presents polyphony and chant performed as it would have been by 16th-century nuns.

Dramatised for Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 in July 2009, Sacred Hearts was also chosen for Channel 4’s 2010 TV Book Club. Classic FM awarded the CD 5 stars, and it was Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice in October 2009. After a launch at the South Bank Literature Festival, a live show toured the UK and Ireland from 2009 to 2012, sometimes involving local choirs in workshops and the evening performance. Venues included Cobh Cathedral, Brighton Festival Fringe, and Latitude Festival.

Inspired by the revival of choral singing in the UK, Celestial Sirens reached the National Selection Stage of Choir of the Year 2012, narrowly missing the Category Final. Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens continue to provide a research context for new explorations. These include the reconstruction of a 1580s convent carnival masque, and a recording of works from the 1540s, newly identified as some of the earliest existing convent music in print.

In 2014, Celestial Sirens was chosen as the Best Individually-led Project at the Engage Awards, sponsored by RCUK and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement.

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Laurie StrasEmeritus Professor
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