Motetti a cinque voci
As the public face of Ferrara’s
concerto delle donne, Margherita Gonzaga d’Este would have been
used to having all sorts of songs and madrigals dedicated to her by the most famous composers of the day. She was the envy of Italy and most of the
European aristocratic world for her lavish musical court, which was copied everywhere. But it all ended abruptly in 1597 when her husband
(Wikimedia Commons) Duke Alfonso II died without heir, and the Pope stepped in to absorb the Duchy of Ferrara into his own papal states.
Margherita was only in her early thirties, but there were no marital prospects for her at a time when such arrangements were typically
made while the happy couple were still in their teens, or even younger. She returned to
Mantua, and did what most did in her position: she founded a
convent — the Clarissan Convent of Saint Ursula. The contemplative focus of the order notwithstanding, Margherita maintained her
aristocratic lifestyle as best she could, surrounded by many of her treasured art works, and a considerable program of music; the Pope
Church of Saint Ursula, Mantua
(Wikimedia Commons) granted her leave to practice polyphony. She never took orders herself, and was thus able to receive visitors as long as she was secluded from the rest of the convent.
Women were banned from participating in the celebration of mass and from singing in the church, but in most of the convents of the day, the rule was circumvented by separating the nuns with various partitions and dividers, then pretending that they were in another church within the church. They were heard and not seen. Yet there was still the problem of supplying lower voices: some nuns might manage the tenor range, but very few could sing an actual bass part.
There were several obvious ways to overcome this problem. One was to transpose a work up by as much as a fifth, bringing the lower voices within reach of more singers. Alternatively, instruments could be substituted for those missing voices. The convenience of an organ basso continuo and the concertato practice in such situations is self–evident.
Alessandro Grandi was born in 1586, probably in Ferrara, and held several positions in his home town as maestro di capella in several churches and academies. Even if he had never been to court personally, he would have known all about the musical goings–on there, particularly the donne, through his contacts at confraternities like the Accademia della Morte and the Accademia dello Santo Spirito. In 1614, his Motetti a cinque voci (“Motets for Five Voices”) was published with a dedication to Margherita Gonzaga.
Although the numbers in the collection were probably composed several years or more earlier, many are nostalgic reminiscenses of the glory days of Ferrara and the donne, while remaining true to the new concertato idea; the motets all include a continuo part.
Grandi later became quite famous for his concertato style. In 1617, he won a post at Saint Mark’s in Venice, where eventually he became deputy to Monteverdi himself.