Medieval music-making by women thrived behind the closed doors of the convent. Now, that once-lost work of the nuns is being unlocked, as Alexandra Coghlan finds out
There’s a line in Alice in Wonderland that musician and historian Laurie Stras often ponders. “What is the use of a book without pictures?” it asks. For Stras, what that says to her is: “What good is research without actually hearing the music?”
Stras leads a double life: as well as being professor of music at both Southampton and Huddersfield universities, she’s also a professional performer – director, since 2000, of award-winning vocal ensemble Musica Secreta. The group has an unusual remit, focusing on historical music written by and for women from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Often, their music is being heard and recorded for the first time in living memory.
While male instrumentalists have occasionally joined Musica Secreta (which Stras admits changes the atmosphere of the ensemble), the group is generally made up of women – and that’s a natural extension of the communities of nuns who were the original composers and performers of so much of this repertoire. This theme of female communities and relationships is at the heart of the ensemble’s latest recording project – Mother Sister Daughter – Stras tells me, from her book-lined, cat-filled office, when we meet over Zoom.