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Many descriptions of Italian convents from the late 16th and 17th centuries provide us with images of a fabulous musical world inhabited by women. Yet the situation was an extremely paradoxical one, for convents of this period gave rise to wonderful singers, players and even composers despite veritably draconian restrictions on virtually every aspect of these women’s lives, and especially on their music.

The convent represented, for women of the 16th and 17th centuries, the only honorable alternative to marriage. Consequently, a large percentage of young Italian girls, particularly from the patrician classes, entered the monasteries. Unfortunately, the choice was not always based on religious sentiment nor, indeed, always made by the woman herself, for the practice of forced monasticism, although officially condemned by the church, was in fact rampant, the principal motive being the protection of family fortunes which would otherwise risk dispersal through the payment of too many dowries.

Convents fulfilled the task of completing a young girl’s rudimentary education, including music among the subjects. The importance of music to the nuns is understandable, for beyond the simple pleasure and solace which it undoubtedly provided, it also represented an important link with the outside world: the high quality of the music heard within female monasteries drew hoards of listeners and became a celebrated attraction in numerous Italian cities. Church authorities took a dim view of these "blasphemous" performances and hoped, after the Council of Trent which ended in 1563, to reform the convents from the "degenerate" state into which they had fallen. The cornerstone of their reform was "clausura" or permanent total enclosure. The women within the convent walls, many of whom had more or less willingly accepted monastic life while being able to maintain ordinary social ties, suddenly discovered themselves closed in and closed off, even in many cases from family members. Clausura was virtually synonymous with life-imprisonment.

Music represented one of the most impelling dangers to the spiritual well-being of the nuns, and church authorities did everything possible to limit and even cease its use. Severe rules restricting music-making within the convents were continuously published throughout the 16th and 17th centuries (an encouraging sign that they were not being adhered to.)

Considering such a dramatically unfavorable situation, it is thus indeed remarkable that the cloistered nuns were able to produce any music at all, let alone the high quality performances for which they were renowned. And yet a surprisingly large number of printed collections of music between circa 1580 and 1700 (well over a hundred) were either dedicated to or written by nuns, or made reference to them.