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Ursulines’ 1736 songbook reproduced by HNOC

Singing at Mass surely must have nourished the Catholic faith of the Ursuline nuns who came to New Orleans in 1727 as missionary educators of girls in French Louisiana.

But now music historians can speculate that some of the songs might also have helped to alleviate the sisters’ homesickness, having been set to familiar secular tunes originally composed in their native France.

Shedding light on the early Ursulines’ musical world is a more than 250-year-old, hand-copied collection of music from their library – the oldest known example of written music in the Mississippi Valley.
The Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC) has preserved this musical manuscript for modern audiences in a new book called “French Baroque Music of New Orleans: Spiritual Songs from the Ursuline Convent (1736).”

Part of sisters’ vast library

The book offers facsimiles of music and lyrics for 299 spiritual pieces that explore four themes: “The Glory of God”; “Mysteries of Our Lord”; “Virtues” and “Vices.”
Given the bent of the 1736 manuscript, it is not a big leap to imagine the Ursulines drawing from the songbook to inform their religious formation and that of their students, said Alfred Lemmon, director of the HNOC’s Williams Research Center and one of the new book’s contributing authors.
“We know they would sing different parts of the Mass – such as the Kyrie and the Gloria – but they would sing different things as well, possibly songs (from this collection),” Lemmon said.
The vintage manuscript came into the hands of the HNOC in 1998, when it acquired the Ursuline Sisters’ library of about 3,000 scholarly books dating from the earliest days of the convent and school in the French Quarter.
The songs, written by prominent French composers including Jean-Baptiste Lully and Francois Couperin, were manually copied in Paris in 1736 from an original source called “Nouvelles poésies spirituelles et morales sur les plus beaux airs de la musique françoise et italienne avec la basse.” The copyist, who embellished the manuscript with illustrations, is known only by the initials “C.D.”

Obvious treasure

“The fact that (the manuscript) was something of great value and worthy of publication was readily apparent,” Lemmon said. “We know from accounts that the Ursulines performed music, but they never mentioned what the music was.”
The manuscript was sent to the New Orleans Ursulines in 1754 by a “Mr. Nicollet,” possibly as part of the Frenchman’s ministry of providing inspirational books to Catholic missionaries.
Most of the songs are contrafacta – secular tunes of the time that were reset with sacred lyrics. The practice of applying different lyrics to an already familiar tune was common in 18th-century Europe, Lemmon said, citing a famous example.
“‘Ode to Joy,’ which we know as a hymn, is from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” Lemmon said. “Everyone knew that tune, (but later on) someone had the idea to write a spiritual text to it.”

Musical shorthand

According to scattered references in letters and other historical documents, many of the Louisiana Ursulines were talented musicians in their own right, playing the harpsichord, bass violin, violin and flute.
Lemmon said such musical aptitude was helpful when it came to playing songs from the 1736 manuscript. The copyist used a “musical shorthand” as he or she transcribed the songs, providing would-be performers with only a single vocal line and a single bass line, rather than more complex arrangements.
This pared-down approach to presenting music varies from the original published source, which was “very standardized,” Lemmon said.
“Performers (guided by the Ursuline manuscript) were expected to be able to complete the rest of the music – to improvise if they wanted one of the verses to be done with the flute, or (rotate in) a mature soprano for another verse,” Lemmon said. “We wanted to put it into the hands of (today’s) performers exactly as it was written, and let those performers bring their own creative spirit to it.”

Mindful of musicians’ needs

 The hand-illustrated, leather-bound collection was deliberately produced in horizontal “landscape format” – wider than it is high.
“One of the reasons they did that was so that the performers would not have to turn pages as often. It was an issue of practicality,” explained Lemmon, noting that ensembles in North America and Europe have done performances based on the Ursuline manuscript. It also guided a “very well-received” performance at the book’s Nov. 20 launch, he said.
Overarching all of this musical intrigue is how “French Baroque Music of New Orleans” restores Louisiana’s Colonial-era music to its rightful place in the city’s musical tradition.
Before the advent of jazz, New Orleans was ground zero of European music in the United States: the site of the country’s first performance of a Beethoven piano concerto in 1819; the source of traveling opera companies that visited the East Coast in the 1820s; and home to multiple opera houses in the early part of the 19th century.
“The city even had a German opera house that would translate French and Italian operas into German,” said Lemmon, adding that the early jazz musicians were classically trained players who wrote their own music and who were adept at playing operatic overtures on the piano. In the 1840s, the city’s free people of color formed their own orchestra.
“We love our history, we love our music, but it is so much richer than we imagined, and (the Ursuline manuscript) is a wonderful example,” Lemmon said. “It survived hurricanes; it survived fires; it survived humans. We have this treasure!”
The original manuscript is on view at the HNOC, 533 Royal St. “French Baroque Music of New Orleans: Spiritual Songs from the Ursuline Convent (1736),” priced at $110, is available at the HNOC gift shop and at The HNOC also stocks a 2002 CD – “Manuscrit des Ursulines de la Nouvelle-Orléans” – performed by Le Concert Lorrain under the direction of Anne-Catherine Bucher.
Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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