Originally stablished in Toronto in 2017, Sub Rosa is a U.K. based ensemble dedicated to singing the works of religious women from the Medieval and early modern world. Founded in Toronto in 2019 by convent scholar Eliza Jane Cassey, the ensemble has recently re-started its mission across the Atlantic to explore 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, with instances of rebellion and active resistance by the nuns. Through our performances, we shed light on the important (though often invisible) role played by women in religious history. By exploring these women’s 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.
Though put on hold due to the trials of emigration and the trauma of the global pandemic, Sub Rosa has now been revived in Oxford and York. 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. Our upcoming projects explore how communities in exile formed network in busy urban spaces, often using their family connections to pave a way for survival.
In the early modern period, music sung by nuns would have been just as part of the city soundscape as music sung by their male counterparts. 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.