discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Little Angels? The mystery of the Alleota sisters

One of my duties as a non-fiction author, and I take this duty seriously, is to bear witness to the past – and, in the case of this book, to uncover the details of lives that have tended to be overlooked or undervalued. Myths are as important as facts, however. Take the following description of the exceptionally talented choir of nuns of the convent of San Vito, Ferrara:

It appeared to me that the persons who ordinarily participated in this concert were not human, bodily creatures, but were truly angelic spirits.

Just in case the reader thinks the writer is finding nuns attractive, there is a careful distancing. The reader must not ‘imagine that I refer to the beauty of face and richness of garments and clothing’. No, ‘one sees only the most modest grace and pleasing dress and humble deportment in them.’

The demand for modesty, grace, humility, for little angels, is one that informs women’s lives, that teaches us all, to quote Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl. As the ground-breaking musicologist, Suzanne Cusick, writes about Renaissance composers: women are seen in their own time as angels or sorceresses, not truly human, ‘never what they are actually are …. formidably talented musicians’. My job, as a non-fiction author, is to move past the myths, and try to shine a light on what those nuns actually were – ‘formidably talented musicians’ – and what enabled them to be so.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I come across individuals whose lives might be better explored in fiction – not only because there are so few historical facts to play with, but also because one feels that the psychological story could be told better that way.

Take the intriguing sixteenth-century Alleota sisters, based in Ferrara, seventy miles south-west of Venice. One of the few points of certainty about the Alleota sisters is that (as so often in the lives of female composers) there is an ambitious father in the background. Giovanni Battista Alleoti was a successful engineer and architect for the powerful Este family in Ferrara.

So far so good, but then there is mystery. Were there two composer sisters or only one? One story has Vittoria learning her art simply by watching her older sister, Raphaela, being taught. Little Vittoria emerged as something of a prodigy, outstripping her older sister. Another view of the evidence suggests, however, that Vittoria and Raphaela are one and the same person.

A simple reason for the two names can be found in the fact that Vittoria was sent to the convent of San Vito – that same convent of angelic nuns noted above – when she was seven, and chose to stay there, if that is the right word, when she was fourteen. For Vittoria, it was a simple choice between continuing a musical life within the convent, or getting married and not doing so. It is quite possible then that, at some point during her time as a nun, Vittoria changed her name to Raphaela.

But two publications appeared in the same year, 1593, one by Vittoria Alleota, the other by Raphaela Alleota, one secular, one sacred. Neither publication acknowledges the other. One scholar, whilst acknowledging that there may well have been two sisters, has hinted at an almost schizophrenic division of personality if there was only one:

One senses that Vittoria and Raphaela, whether the same or different persons, did not wish to know one another.

She goes on to argue that whilst her/their father is in control of the secular music, Raphaela writes her own dedication to the Sacrae cantiones.

Perhaps Raphaela sought to heal a private demon by asserting a new identity that distanced her from her family, especially from her father. Little Vittoria, father’s pride and prodigy, seems to disappear completely, replaced by an independent woman who could select her own texts and lifestyle.


Move forward a few years, and we find a description of the ‘Maestra’ of the Convent of San Vito, Ferrara who ‘sits down at one end of the table and with a long, slender and well-polished wand…’ No angel, this Maestra beat time, in an era when the idea of the conductor was entirely new. The Maestra is named as Raphaela Alleota. It seems she had found her place. is no portrait of Alleota, so a modern female conductor, Anu Tali, and her ‘wand’, will have to do. For an entertaining look at the growing presence of female conductors in the classical music world, 400 years and more on from Alleota at the convent San Vito, see Progress is, however, slow…




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