by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sister Anna Isabella Leonarda is probably the best woman composer you’ve never heard about.
Thankfully, that’s changing.
Sister Anna Isabella, an Ursuline religious from northern Italy who lived from 1620 to 1704, published more than 200 musical works during her life — amazingly, most of them after she was 50 years old.
Although well-regarded in her hometown of Novara, located 31 miles west of Milan, she was not known elsewhere in Italy. After she died, her music fell into obscurity and her fame as one of the most prolific convent composers of the Baroque era faded.
Catholics and others in the Kansas City area will have a rare opportunity to hear the music of this woman religious composer performed at a concert by the Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra of Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri.
The ensemble will present Sister Anna Isabella Leonarda’s “Litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary” and the “Mass in G Major” by Franz Peter Schubert.
The concert will take place at 7 p.m. on Feb. 19 in the Father Pedro Arrupe Auditorium on the Rockhurst campus. Music director and conductor Timothy L. McDonald will present live program notes at 6:15 p.m. (See ticket information below.)
Sister Anna Isabella’s family was minor nobility and her father was a lawyer. Two of her brothers were priests at the Novara cathedral and an older brother was a civic official. His descendants still live in Novara.
Little is known about her musical education before entering the convent, but she probably had some due to her family’s high social status. She held various positions of responsibility and authority in the convent — meaning she wouldn’t have had much time for composing.
Why is Sister Anna Isabella barely known today? Part of it is due to the tastes of the time.
“The way people listened to music back then is different from today,” said McDonald. “Now, we listen to contemporary music, but we also listen to older music. Back then, they pretty much just listened to contemporary music. After she died, her music just slipped out of memory.”
When he was a graduate student studying music history, McDonald was told that women didn’t compose music during the Baroque era. But a scholar checking archives in Milan in the 1990s found that women religious did, in fact, compose music.
“He found that this particular Sister wrote an extraordinary amount of music,” said McDonald. “She was really the most published woman composer. She held her own against all the male composers of Italy as well in the 17th century.”
As far as anyone knows, Sister Anna Isabella is the first woman who published an instrumental sonata.
“This is a time when instruments came into their own, and she really took advantage of it,” said McDonald. “Most of her music uses instruments — particularly violins, violas and cellos. And, of course, the organ, which would have been used in any church at the time.”
Cappella Artemisia, an ensemble of women singers and instrumentalists dedicated to performing Italian convent music of the 16th and 17th centuries, has recorded some of Sister Anna Isabella’s works. One such album is “My Sister My Bride: Song of Songs in the Convent.” This and other recordings can be found online at: amazon.com.
To purchase tickets for the Rockhurst concert from the Central Ticket Office, call (816) 235-6222; go online to: rockhurst.edu/mstickets; or buy them at the performance. Adult tickets are $22; senior citizens or student tickets cost $12. Parking is available in the north parking garage at 52nd and Troost. For a map, go to the website at: Rockhurst.edu/map.