Isabella Leonarda [Leonardi, Anna Isabella]
- Stewart A. Carter
[Leonardi, Anna Isabella]
(b Novara, Sept 6, 1620; d Novara, Feb 25, 1704). Italian composer. Christened Anna Isabella Leonardi, she came from a prominent Novarese family. In 1636 she entered the Collegio di S Orsola, an Ursuline convent, where she remained for the rest of her life. A document of 1658 identifies her as music instructor as well as ‘mother and clerk’ for her congregation. By 1676 she had attained the rank of mother superior and by 1693 madre vicaria; in her last years she served as ‘counsellor’. She may have studied with Gasparo Casati (who was maestro di cappella of Novara Cathedral, 1635–41), who included two of her compositions in his Terzo libro di sacri concenti (RISM 1640³). Cotta called her ‘la Musa novarese’ and printed a sonnet by A. Saminiati Lucchese, comparing her musical talent to the military prowess of Emperor Leopold I.
Leonarda was a skilful, versatile composer whose approximately 200 compositions include examples of nearly every sacred genre. In her concerted masses and psalm settings, sections for full chorus alternate with solo passages and instrumental ritornellos. Her sacred non-liturgical works frequently have intensely emotional Latin texts, some of which may have been written by Leonarda herself. Four-voice compositions in this genre are conservative: imitative writing is pervasive and the organ provides the only instrumental accompaniment. Works for one to three voices are more modern, closely resembling chamber cantatas in form and melodic style. Many employ instrumental ritornellos and vocal refrains. In her numerous solo motets the sensuous lyricism of the arias balances the intense dramatic expression of the recitatives. Some arias are strophic, but most employ forms utilizing varied repetition. The solo motets reveal the composer at her most expressive: word-painting abounds, and occasional Neapolitan 6ths, augmented 6ths and diminished 7ths enrich the harmonic vocabulary. The vocal writing shows occasional flashes of coloratura, particularly in concluding ‘Alleluia’ sections....