the Soul of Music in Women’s Hands
This article celebrates the 400th anniversary of Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) – Ursuline nun, singer & composer – in connection with the Earthly Angels performance and recording project.
Listen to her music here.
An extended version of this article will be published on this blog soon.
The Soul of Music
In 1601, song-composer Caccini proclaimed the Baroque priorities of his ‘New Music’ as ‘Speech and Rhythm’.
The first character to sing in the first opera (1600) was Tempo – the personification of Time – commanding: “Act with the hand, act with the heart!” For us today, tempo is the speed of music, but for Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) it was Time itself, defined by Aristotle as a ‘number of movement’ perceived by the Soul.
The up-and-down hand-beat of Tactus connected musical notation to real-world Time. Period iconography shows singers beating Tactus, even in solo songs.
Zacconi (1592) characterises Tactus as ‘regular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any perturbation’. Mersenne (1636) calibrates Tactus as 1 second per minim, shown by a 1m pendulum. At the end of the century, Carissimi (1696) defines tempo as subjective ‘quality’, the way time feels.
17th-century ‘time-signatures’ are relics of much older Mensural notation. Long notes are divided by 2 or 3 to create short notes. Signs of Proportion recalibrate note-values in triple time. Within these fixed multiples, Leonarda employs modifying words to specify fine gradations of tempo.
Amidst ‘passionate vocal effects and contrasting movements’ Frescobaldi (1615) shows how to ‘guide Time’, using Tactus. Transitions between movements are made by keeping steady Tactus (no tempo change, or strict Proportion), or by
suspending the Tactus-hand in the air momentarily, then starting the new movement with modified Tactus, steady time that now feels adagio (literally ‘easy’) or allegro (happy).
For Leonarda’s contemporaries, ‘Time is the Soul of Music.’ Read more here. Zacconi explains that Time breathes life into dry notation: a minim is a dead symbol, until we animate it with the Divine Hand, symbolised by Tactus. Carissimi’s tempo is perceived as an Aristotelian ‘affection of the Soul’, an emotion. Leonarda’s precise notation contradicts 20th-century assumptions that performers choose their own tempo, or that expressiveness requires rubato.
In Baroque speech and music, Rhetoric aims to ‘move the passions’. Read more about musical rhetoric here. Sensual love-lyrics arouse fervour that Leonarda’s music re-directs towards the Divine. Delightful hand-gestures explain the text and communicate passionate contrasts. Rhetorical Delivery combines Pronunciation of words and music with Action of gestures and facial expressions, to channel Enargeia, the emotional power of detailed description. Read more about Enargeia here
Poetic imagery brings a scene to life, as if the audience could see it with their own eyes. ‘Here’, ‘Now’, ‘Behold!’: Gesture directs the audience’s attention to significant details of the imagined vision. In baroque Madrigalism (word-painting), the music sounds like what the words mean. Fragments of melody create ‘passionate vocal effects’ corresponding to gestures of the hand.
Period Medical Science categorises emotion into Four Humours: warm Sanguine (love, hope), dry Choleric (anger, desire), dark Melancholy and cold, wet Phlegmatic.
In Leonarda’s Volo Jesum (1670), ‘you fly’ (volate) up a triple-proportion fast-note scale to ‘love God’ on a long high note. After a tempo change to happy allegro, a contrasting 64 movement cites the love-sick Melancholy harmonies and descending bass-line of an operatic lament: ‘the heart is burning’ amidst Choleric ignis et flamma (fire and flame) with high notes and flickering vocal effects. A ‘happy mountain’ of Sanguine ‘joys’ rises boldly, Phlegmatic ‘rivers’ flow smoothly down, Paradisi has the highest note of all. Descending notes move Choleric passion to Sanguine Humour – et in flammis es dulcis spes – whilst Leonarda’s hand shows the Holy Spirit coming down to earth as Christ: ‘in flames, You are sweet hope’.
Poetic detail, moving passions, vocal effects, contrasts of tempo, expressive gestures: Leonarda does ‘act with the hand, act with the heart’. The composer’s hand notates subtle tempo changes, in which the serene movement of the Divine Hand is reflected in the diverse pulse-rates of a lover’s human heart. Violinists’ and continuo-players’ hands give life to instrumental music, a microcosm of heavenly perfection, yet swayed by the human passions of the Four Humours. All this is guided by Tactus and expressed by gestures.
Nevertheless, all Leonarda’s handiwork – composition, Tactus, instrumental-playing and rhetorical gestures – remained unseen. Hidden from the congregation by the grille that closed nuns off from the world, the woman who simultaneously embodied an ardent lover and a religious mystic communicated energia (the baroque spirit of performance), by the aural Enargeia of detailed text and precise tempo. Unlike an opera or court singer, she ‘moved the passions’ and warmed her listeners’ hearts to love by evoking ‘affections of the soul’ in sensual visions that were entirely imagined, not seen.
Invisible to her 17th-century listeners, almost unnoticed by musicologists until recently, women’s hands are the heart and soul of Leonarda’s music.