Elisabeth Cruciger, Lutheran hymn writer.

As this year 2017 comes to its end, together with celebrations for the 500th-anniversary of Luther’s Reformation and the important achievements of ecumenical dialogue, this series on music and the Reformations also concludes. We have surveyed the overall situation of music (and particularly of sacred music) in the sixteenth century, the various viewpoints of the Reformers on music, the practice and musical habits of the Western churches in those difficult and yet fecund years, and the role of music in the development of confessional identities – as well as in early ecumenism. This last stage of our itinerary focuses on a cross-confessional topic: the sacred music of sixteenth-century women.

The main problem when discussing this subject is the paucity of sources. It is easy to surmise that women sang and made music at least as much as men, but the minor musical literacy of the female population makes it hard to reconstruct their creations. In spite of this, we have some wonderful examples of spiritual creativity, which bear witness to women’s passionate engagement in the religious field and their use of music as a privileged form of expression.

There is Elisabeth Cruciger, who belonged in the first generation of Lutheran hymn-writers, and who (seemingly) wrote one of the most celebrated and long-lived chorales in the Lutheran tradition, Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (on which, incidentally, Bach wrote a beautiful cantata). A Strasbourg Reformer, Katharina Zell, was the compiler of cheap booklets with religious songs for children and families, through which she wished – quite literally – to spread the word of the Reformation.

Other women, particularly among the Anabaptists, re-texted existing religious (and even non-religious) songs in order to adapt them to their situation, which was frequently marked by the experience of martyrdom or exile. One of them, indeed, was identified as an Anabaptist and then persecuted precisely because she publicly sang a hymn of her creation during a journey by ship. Another Anabaptist woman, Soetken Gerrijts, was a highly esteemed figure in her congregation, and composed many appreciated hymns – in spite of the fact that she was blind, and so had to memorize the Biblical passages she frequently quoted, and to dictate her compositions to other members of the community.

On other occasions, music became a form of resistance for other persecuted women: for example, nuns who wanted to remain faithful to their vows frequently enacted musical forms of rebellion against the religious or civic authorities who wanted to suppress their convents after the establishment of Protestantism. So the Genevan Poor Clares made use of the noisy bells of their convent as a musical signal which testified to their constant schedule of prayer and worship, while for others the very act of singing the Hours represented a musical symbol of their staunch faith.

Indeed, Catholic convents were one of the contexts where musical literacy and creativity flourished most. In the Italian convent of S. Vito, in Ferrara, the nuns were so accomplished in music (both in playing instruments and singing) that they acquired international fame; many patrician visitors came to Ferrara with the explicit purpose of hearing their music. Their “concerts” took place also outside liturgy, and the extraordinary level of their musicianship allowed many talented women to cultivate their gifts and skills. Among them, for example, was the famous singer and composer Rafaella Aleotti,  who published the first opus of sacred music in print authored by a woman.

A performance of 'Sancta et Immaculata', composed by Raffaella Aleotti (1570 – 1646)

Another famous nun was the Milanese Claudia Sessa, whose voice was allegedly better than that of the legendary composer Claudio Monteverdi. When Sessa sang, crowds gathered in the church, and here too many members of the European nobility were eager to secure their places. Even when she was explicitly asked to leave the convent and become a court singer, however, Sessa politely refused; as many contemporaneous witnesses report, she was quite happy to be a nun, and the “angelic” quality of her voice mirrored the spiritual beauty of her person.

Yet another nun, the Spanish Gracia Baptista (of whose life virtually nothing is known) is the author of the first piece of instrumental sacred music authored by a woman to appear in print; she wrote a short but elegant piece based on the Gregorian plainchant tune Conditor alme siderum, on which a garland of notes (to be played by a keyboard instrument) weaves itself.

These few examples are just the tip of the iceberg: they represent a minority of the sixteenth-century women whose musical activities are known, and these, in turn, represent a tiny fraction of those which are still to be discovered or – alas – are forever lost. In spite of this, their lives and stories tell us of a time when music was one of the favourite languages of faith, in which religious women found the ideal expression of their feelings and experiences.

It is therefore a sign of hope, in my opinion, to close our series with the nearly-silenced, and yet powerfully touching voices of the faithful women of the sixteenth century. Though their conditions of life were frequently hard and difficult, and they often felt the harsh consequences of religious polemics which they had not created or wanted, their music speaks of their faith, of their hope, of their love for beauty and for God, thus weaving a thread of unity even among Churches which were separating from one another five hundred years ago.

It is my hope that, following their example, the Christian Churches will find – also through music – the language of a renewed communion, so that they may sing together, once more, a “new song”.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Her new book, Reforming Music: Music and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century, was published earlier this year by De Gruyter. Visit her website.

Earlier articles: (1) Reforming music: harmony and discord in the 16th century (2) Pre-Reformation church music: plainchant, polyphony and popular songs (3) Polyphony? Or cacophany? Prelude to a reformation in church music (4) Reformation music: how the Word became words. (5) Lutheran songs: a musical gift for all Chistians (6) The Genevan Psalter: Calvin’s musical reformation (7) Musical chairs: monarchs and church music during the English Reformation. (8) ‘God has a good ear for music’: the Catholic response to Reformation music. (9)  Jesuits, founders and dukes in the shaping of post-Tridentine music. (10) Conquering aural space: the musical wars of the Reformation.(11) Musical harmony in the midst of Reformation discord.


Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com