Did you know that women were not allowed to sing in public until the 16th century?
Early music ensemble Armonia Celeste was created to remind listeners of this important development in history. Modeled after the first all-female ensemble of professional singers, Concerto delle Donne, Armonia Celeste brings back an early era of music that tremendously influenced subsequent generations of female singers: the Italian Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
Originally an amateur group of female courtiers, Concerto delle Donne arose during the late Renaissance in Ferrara, Italy and eventually evolved into an all-female group of professional musicians. The ensemble sang musica secreta, music performed for an exclusive audience in a private setting since women could not legally perform in public. The group performed regular formal concerts for members of the court’s inner circle and important visitors.
Of course, Concerto delle Donne wasn’t the only female group creating and performing music at the time. Nuns were actively composing music, too, but for the sole use of their own convent. What marks Concerto delle Donne as different from other 16th century female singing groups was its invitation for composers to write songs for them. Composers of the time, whether religious or secular, were limited to making music that did not include a treble part within the high, soprano voice range. When it did, boys or castrati performed the falsetto. Because of this, you can imagine how thrilled composers were with Concerto delle Donne’s success; they were finally able to compose pieces for a florid, lyrical and highly ornamented singing style.
Armonia Celeste—meaning ‘celestial harmony’ in Italian—strives to give a 21st century audience the same experience they they would have had if they were living in Italy back then. For 16th century Italians, music from the Barberini court was equivalent to today’s pop music.
“We’re almost at a disadvantage because this music was written specifically for people to hear in their own language,” Beasley said.
The ensemble consists of three female voices, a lute and a Baroque triple harp. The group’s expressive, warm and powerful voices are brought out with minimal accompaniment of the instrumentalists. Paula Fagerberg plays the triple harp while Lyle Nordstrom plays lute, therbo and the baroque guitar.
Though the group’s members live in different parts of the country, their love for early music clearly binds Armonia Celeste together, making for a unique performance of technically challenging music. The ensemble’s three singers—Rebecca Beasley, Sarah Griffiths and Diana Grabowski—have been singing together so long that Beasley said she feels that they are “living in each other’s heads” when they perform together.
Armonia Celeste’s latest tour, “Udite Amanti – Lovers Beware! – Music from the 17th Century Barberini Court,” consisted of five concerts in seven days, starting in Atlanta and ending in Ann Arbor, MI. Performances included pieces by Barbara Strozzi, Claudio Monteverdi and Luidi Rossi, all of the pieces composed solely for female singers of the time. The program’s selections progressed from the early stages of young lovers awakening to passion before delving into betrayal, suffering and unrequited love.
Listening to Armonia Celeste’s performance at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor a few Saturdays ago, I found the group to be distinctive not only for its rare musical choices but also for its variety, improvisation and theatricality. The music from Italy’s Barberini court is unusually diverse, both contextually and stylistically; pieces ranged from comical, to tragic, to melodic, to absurdly fast staccato. Although all of the pieces were within the same genre of music, none of the performances dragged or felt repetitive.
Much of this is due to the fact that there is a lot of room for improvisation in early Baroque music. Composers of the early Baroque period did not want to trap musicians into having to play certain notes on a page—a convention that came much later. Instead, composers wrote a single note (known as a figurative base) to tell musicians how the piece progressed. Singers receive as much musical freedom as the instrumentalists; nothing in the music keeps them from improvising, changing notes or coloring the tone of their sound.
“It’s kind of like someone hundreds of years ago said, ‘Oh, it goes something like this,’” Beasley said, “and then you’re supposed to get out your instrument, noodle around and make it sound something like that.”
In Armonia Celeste’s performance, the solo pieces were especially theatrical, as if they were reenacting a scene from an Italian opera. Beasley, Griffiths and Grabowski are all highly skilled at exposing raw emotion in their pieces, fueled by their dramatic facial expressions. In effect, the mood of the pieces shifted from hilarious and flirtatious to sad and tormenting.
The result was an emotional and lively performance; so much so that I nearly forgot I was listening to Baroque music. I was moved by the aesthetic beauty of the music’s Italian lyrics accompanied by the singers’ theatrical expressions. Though perhaps contemporary pop music will always remain on the forefront of live music performances across the country, I hope to see more of Armonia Celeste—and other ensembles like them—in the future.
To learn more about Armonia Celeste, please visit www.armoniaceleste.com