Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Conversation with Craig Monson

On November 11, Catacoustic will host Craig Monson, whose specialty is the history of women in 17th-century Italy, specifically those who were placed by their families in convents for political reasons related to the family dynasties, or because of a lack of an appropriate dowry. Without a religious vocation, these women often seized the chance the convents offered for education and artistic expression, becoming composers, poets, or performers. But some of them just got into trouble. Dr. Monson’s talk will pull back the curtain and give us a peek into the lives of some feisty, determined women who made the most of their lives, despite the restrictions imposed on them.

Then on November 13, Catacoustic will perform a concert featuring the music of these women, most of it composed either by them or especially for them.

We had a chance to talk to Dr. Monson in advance of his visit to Cincinnati.

What is your larger field of study?

Growing up I always thought I’d end up as an anthropologist; then, as a freshman in college, I became more interested in music history instead. Ever since I was in high school, my particular musical interest has always been Renaissance and Baroque music. (In 1960 I owned what I think was probably the only harpsichord north of the Bay Area in California.) In the 1970s and early ‘80s I concentrated on English music from the reign of Elizabeth I, particularly William Byrd, and edited four volumes of his collected works. But in the mid-1980s I shifted to Italy.

What got you interested in this specific topic, women immured without religious vocation?

While on vacation in Florence in 1986 I stumbled upon an unknown keyboard manuscript in an off-the-beaten-track museum and decided to write a learned article on it. On the basis of the binding decoration, a coat-of-arms on the cover, and an inscription on the back, I traced it to a convent in Bologna. In addition to keyboard arrangements of dozens of motets—that made sense—it also contained madrigals and French chansons—that didn’t make sense—including one with a substitute text that would translate something like, “You who have that little thing that delights and pleases so much, ah! Run your hand under my cassock and your cloak!” This did not quite jive with my impressions of 16th-century convent musicians (about which I knew nothing). I decided that music and female monasticism sounded like a very interesting topic. So I switched fields. (I had tenure by then, so I figured I could do whatever I pleased.) Since then, convent music has become something of a cottage industry in musicology.

Do you have a favorite characters from among your subjects?

Cristina Cavazza would be pleased that the convent
she used to sneak out of to see the opera has been
turned into a performance space.

I’ll just mention a couple of favorites who turn up in my book from 2010, Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy: a group of aristocratic, young nun musicians at the Bolognese convent of San Lorenzo in the 1580s, who ran afoul of the Inquisition for conjuring up the devil to help them find a lost viol. Or there’s Cristina Cavazza, a virtuoso singer at the convent of Santa Cristina della Fondazza in Bologna, who in 1708 sneaked out of the convent several times during carnival, dressed as an abbot, to attend the opera. Only after her fourth night at the opera did she finally get caught.

I understand you have some funny stories about your journeys through the archives of Italy. Can you share one with us?

Well, one thing I should point out is that the Vatican Secret Archive is nothing like Dan Brown’s description of it in Angels and Demons (and nothing like the set in the movie—which reminded me more, in fact, of the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale). One of my favorite archive stories involves a former grad student of mine, who was working day after day in the Vatican Secret Archive decades ago and turning up precious little. Then one morning the name of one of the best known Renaissance composers popped out at her from the page and she exclaimed “Holy Sh*t!” . . . loudly. I waited for the pope’s photograph to come crashing down off the wall.

Dr. Monson’s talk is free and open to the public, with Q&A and reception to follow. It takes place November 11, 2015, at 7:30pm. 
Church of the Advent
2366 Kemper Ln
Cincinnati, OH (Walnut Hills) 45206

Catacoustic’s concert, performing the music of this unusual time, will be November 13, 7:30pm.
St. Rose Church
2501 Riverside Drive
Cincinnati OH (East End) 45202
Tickets to the concert can be purchased here:

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