The music that was written in clausura was extraordinary in its
inventiveness as well as its musicality. The nuns who penned it were
writing to express their deepest spirituality at a time when musical
expression by women was not only frowned upon but frequently forbidden
by the church. Until quite recently most of this rich cultural heritage
lay dormant in the recesses of Italian monastic libraries, despite the
fact that, in its day, it was published for its very consistent and
faithful audience outside the cloister walls. With the help of such
researchers as Robert Kendrick, Candace Smith, Laurie Monahan, Stewart
Carter and more, this music is now becoming available again to the
The Italian seicento (17th century) was a phenomenon. Monasteries for
women in Italy were largely populated by the daughters of the
privileged whose families offered these institutions huge dowries to
provide room and board and de facto life imprisonment. For a number of
reasons, among them the highly competitive and rising cost of dowries
and the popularity of marriage among gentlemen to women of lower
classes (not a suitable option for women), there was an explosion of
women living in clausura: in fact, a majority of patrician daughters
went into the convents rather than into marriage. The church, in its
infinite wisdom, taught these women to read so that they could perform
daily worship. With the help of an occasionally sympathetic local
church leader many of these nuns, taking advantage of the best
education to be had for females, became excellent musicians (music
teachers were either men considered past lasciviousness, who
nevertheless, as a precaution, taught from the other side of the
screed, or the nuns themselves). The musical abilities within the
convents were a great source of pride for their townsfolk.
In fact local patricians so enjoyed female monastic music that several
nuns became quite famous. Prominent critics wrote extensively about
them, and of the quality of their singing and compositions. Individual
nuns gained reputations as excellent singers, violinists, luthiers,
trombonists, and most importantly, composers.
Northern Italian monasteries for women were built to include a chiesa
interiore, in which the nuns would conduct services, and a chiesa
exteriore, a larger section attached to the wall and connected by a
hole through which sound could travel but no individual could be seen.
Despite this apparent sanction of audience participation, the Church
set strict rules against nuns' performing for the public, and
frequently sent out edicts to forbid music in their services - a good
indication that the performances continued despite all restrictions.
Often a monastery's instruments or male teachers were removed from the
premises, leaving the imprisoned residents to their own best devices.
All this contributed to the most remarkable and unique characteristic
of the sisters' compositions: since they were written to be performed
in a fickle Church climate in which Rome might at any time enforce its
ban on music, meaning instruments might be available one day and
removed from the convent the next, the music had to work no matter what
octave the bass line was in. While there were, apparently, women who
could sing quite low, the bass and tenor parts were frequently raised
up an octave and doubled by the cellist, or trombonist, if there was
one. If there wasn't, the bass and tenor parts might become alto and
soprano parts, or the whole work might be transposed to accommodate the
voices and instruments on hand.
(photo courtesy of Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT)
Amelia LeClair received her Bachelor's in Music Theory and Composition from UMass Boston in 1975, with some post- graduate studies at Longy School of Music during which time she explored conducting as an option. Having noticed throughout her education the dearth of female conductors as well as composers in the historical canon, she lost faith in her own ability to do either and moved on to raising a family.
25 years later she received her master of music in choral conducting from New England Conservatory in 2003, studying with Simon Carrington. She made her conducting debut in Jordan Hall in March of 2002.
Luckily for her, and all of us, curious and unencumbered musical scholars in the 70's were busy unearthing the works of female composers which had for too long moldered in libraries: Robert Kendrick, Craig Monson, Claire Fontijn, Candace Smith, Judith Tick, Jane Bernstein, Liane Curtis, Laurie Monahan, and so many more. At long last the Norton Grove Dictionary of Women Composers appeared on university shelves. The work of these scholars became the impetus for the ensemble that would perform the music they discovered.
In 2004, LeClair founded Cappella Clausura, an ensemble of voices and period instruments specializing in music written by women from the 8th century to the present day. In addition to premiering many works by women of the medieval, baroque and renaissance eras, Cappella Clausura has presented and premiered the music of Hilary Tann, Patricia Van Ness, Abbie Betinis, Emma Lou Diemer, and many more living composers. In spring of 2013 Ms. LeClair will present her first paper - on Cappella Clausura's historic and innovative performance of Hildegard Von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum - at the annual Medieval Studies Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Ms. LeClair is director of choirs at the Church of St Andrew in Marblehead, and director of Vermilion, a quartet singing a uniquely Unitarian Vespers service for the First Unitarian Society in Newton. She is former director of Schola Nocturna, a compline choir at the Episcopal Parish of the Messiah in Newton, of Coro Stella Maris, a renaissance a cappella choir in Gloucester, and of the children's choirs for First Unitarian Society in Newton. She lives in Newton with her husband, graphic designer Garrow Throop. Her daughter, Julia, who lived in China for five years, now resides in Washington, DC. Her son, Nick, a classical guitarist, lives in Brooklyn, NY.
BA UMASS '75, MM'03 New England Conservatory
VISITING SCHOLAR, Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, 2012/13
DIRECTOR, Cappella CLAUSURA - an early music ensemble (Auburndale, MA)
DIRECTOR, Vermilion (Vespers Choir for First Unitarian Society in Newton, MA)
DIRECTOR OF CHOIRS, Church of Saint Andrew (Marblehead, MA)