unCONVENTional – professor edits cloistered nuns compositions

Meredith Bowen

In 17th century Italy, 13 cloistered nuns composed music for the women in their convent but published the music for male singers. Meredith Bowen, assistant professor of music, edited and restored eight of these compositions for female choruses.

Bowen edited six of these compositions as part of her dissertation and edited an additional two for a new professional-level women’s chorus called mirabai. Its members are alumnae of Michigan State University College of Music, who performed and recorded the pieces this summer.

She found the original published music in various libraries throughout the U.S. and Europe, then transcribed and restored them. Though the composers would have sung the pieces as sopranos and altos (SSAA), they published the music for sopranos, altos, tenors and basses (SATB).

“Why were they published as SATB if women were the ones singing it?” Bowen asked and then answered, “The choirs who could purchase the music were choirs of men and boys who sing SATB. So, to make money, the nuns would write their music with an eye to the marketplace.”

Bowen’s restoration process involved using the historical documentation that composers from the time wrote on how to adapt SATB music for SSAA choirs. She used that information to make educated, historically based editorial choices.

“In a nutshell, I'm taking music written by women for women in the 17th century and making it available to contemporary women's choruses,” she said. “I call it unCONVENTional: giving voice to the silenced. These women were sometimes forced into the convent and, more often than not, silenced. Yet they persisted, wrote that music and published it. Not so different from what women experience today. I want to give women a voice, and a place to talk about issues surrounding this silencing. Choral music is the medium through which we connect the past to the present, and in the midst of singing, we give voice to the silenced.”

She will have an article published in the March 2018 edition of the Choral Journal about this work.

Besides working with mirabai, Bowen introduced her newly published restored editions of the motets “Alma Redemptoris Mater” by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani and “Miserere Mei Deus” by Raffaella Alleotti at the Choral Music Experience Institute for Choral Teacher Education in Lansing, Michigan.  

Sep 7, 2017
Leslie King