Originally established in Toronto in 2017, Sub Rosa is a U.K. based vocal ensemble dedicated to the works of religious women from the Renaissance and early modern periods. Founded by convent scholar Eliza Jane Cassey, the ensemble has brought its mission across the Atlantic to Oxford and York, exploring hidden gems of vocal music written by and for historic religious women.
Our repertoire ranges from medieval chant, to polyphony, to late 17th-century choral and solo repertoire. Our goal is to introduce diverse audiences to convent music in a holistic and approachable way.
Nuns used singing and composition to communicate their identity and their devotion beyond the convent walls, developing their social and financial independence. The power of their music caused them to become both controversial and alluring to the outside world. At times, their music was even declared illegal, rulings which the nuns actively resisted and rebelled against. Through our performances, we shed light on the important (though often invisible) role played by women in religious history. By exploring this music – particularly equal voice polyphony – we get to see more about how historic women pushed boundaries, formed bonds, and carved out a space for themselves in the early modern world.
With the co-direction of Caroline Lesemann-Elliott, and we have expanded our repertoire to include the music of English convents in exile in France and the Low countries, as well as French convent music.
In the early modern period, music sung by nuns would have been as much a part of the city soundscape as music sung by monks. In fact, more ordinary people were likely to hear women singing than men, because convent churches were public gathering places. For this reason we aim to offer a new perspective on an “authentic” polyphonic/choral sound as a historical phenomenon and cultural experience.
Our name is tied to the traditional reference to secret meetings as ‘under the rose,’ not unlike the secluded music of these women whose lives remain underexamined.