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In 1724, the imminent theorist and collector music Sébastian de Brossard wrote in praise of the works of Isabella Leonarda that “all of the works of this illustrious and incomparable composer are so beautiful, so gracious, so brilliant and at the same time so knowledgeable and so wise, that my great regret is in not having them all.”
Isabella was born into a noble family of Novara in Piedmont in 1620. Little is known of Isabella’s musical education, though it has been suggested that she may have studied with Gasparo Casati, maestro di cappella at the Novara Cathedral from 1635-1641. Two of Isabella’s works were included by the composer in a collection of sacred concerti published in 1641.
Isabella entered the convent of Saint Ursula in Novarra in 1636 and remained there for the rest of her long life. A document from 1658 identifies Isabella as music instructor at the convent as well as “mother and clerk for her congregation.” By 1676 she had attained the rank of mother superior and by 1693, mother vicar.
Easily the most prolific woman composer of the century, she published twenty collections of music, containing over 200 compositions that feature examples of nearly every sacred genre. In 1693, she became the first woman to publish instrumental sonatas.
In 2003, Magnificat presented a program devoted to Isabella’s music for Vespers. Her setting of the psalm Laetatus sum is sung soprano Catherine Webster in the following live recording from those concerts.
Isabella’s instrumental works, which appeared in 1693, are apparently the earliest published sonatas by a woman. The collection consists of eleven trio sonatas and one sonata for solo violin and continuo. In our concerts, Rob Diggins will perform one of her most harmonically adventurous works, the Sonata duodecima, an extended work in seven sections. This live recording comes from the same concert in 2003.