Professor Laurie Stras tells the story of a musical rediscovery

In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’ The sentence itself is often quoted, but not so Woolf’s other observations about anonymity. She understood it as a both a prison and a refuge for creative women of the past: they might escape what we’d now call trolling if they kept their identities secret, but they would also never get credit for anything they had written. But she also thought modesty and anonymity had become ingrained in women: ‘The desire to be veiled still possesses them. They are not even now as concerned about the health of their fame as men are, and … will pass a tombstone or a signpost without feeling an irresistible desire to cut their names on it.’

In the past few years, I have grown ever more fascinated by the anonymous music in Renaissance books of sacred music. In the age before music publishing made composer celebrity a commercial angle, the need to preserve a composer’s name – particularly in manuscripts that were not intended for the market – was not as widespread as modern historians would like. The books’ owners may have known who the composers were, but just as equally may not have cared: for many, the music itself was probably more important than its creator, especially if it was on a sacred text.

As for Woolf’s poets, so for our musicians. The author’s identity mattered to Woolf, who wanted to see women acknowledged for their work and rehabilitated to the history of literature. Putting women back into the grand narrative of Western music is likewise an ongoing project for music historians, but if we follow Woolf’s logic, women composers were as likely as women authors to conceal their identities.

The history we have creates a bias in our imaginations. If we do not know of women composers in the Renaissance, we might think only men would have had opportunity and ability to compose – and therefore, all anonymous music must be by men. But like Woolf, I see a history in which women had opportunity and ability, particularly in convents, which were far from the silent and passive places we might think them to be. Music theory treatises were dedicated to and owned by nuns; we know they were taught and even sometimes who their music teachers were; and we know they had an ongoing need for music to keep their convents economically and spiritually thriving. So what if Anonymous really was a woman?

I see a history in which women had opportunity and ability, particularly in convents, which were far from the silent and passive places we might think them to be

There is an argument against reviving forgotten compositions that goes, ‘if they were any good, we’d still be playing them’ – in other words, music survives in the repertoire only and always on merit. This is not the way culture or history works: even Bach’s music needed to be recovered from neglect. But names give context and a guarantee of quality: we know that a work by Clara Schumann or Maddalena Sirmen or Barbara Strozzi will be worth hearing. On the other hand, it is difficult to argue for anonymous music: why invest in something that you don’t know will be any good, and that will be hard to sell to audiences?

Musica Secreta’s latest project puts together music from two manuscripts of anonymous music that tell both kinds of stories: part the rediscovery of a masterpiece by a known (male) composer – the expansive glory of Brumel’s complete Good Friday Lamentations – and part a leap of faith, the revival of anonymous works from a book that belonged to a pair of nuns. All we know about them is that they were composed for the convent’s most important days, including Easter and Christmas, and they mattered to the nuns enough to have them preserved.

Next month, we will bring both the Brumel and a selection of these mysterious convent works to St John’s Smith Square for the Holy Week Festival: a sequence of motets for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter morning. In order to get mentally and musically closer to the sisters who first sang them, we perform them from a large choir book around a single lectern. The more we sing the nuns’ motets, the more clearly we hear a consistent stylistic approach: one that intimately understands the peculiar complexity of polyphony for multiple female singers. Who better placed to develop that understanding than a musically literate nun? We may never know her name for certain, but that doesn’t mean she could not have existed.

At a time when the recovery of music by women has gained some kind of traction in our cultural life – witness Radio 3’s annual International Women’s Day programming and subsequent initiatives like Jessy McCabe’s campaign to get women composers represented in the A-level music syllabus, and the 2019 Venus Unwrapped series at London’s King’s Place – we are increasingly alive to the discovery of new women composers, and willing to recognise the value of their works. We could do worse than to listen generously, too, to their anonymous sisters, veiled by convention and modesty, and the intricate beauty of convent polyphony that graced the worship of their most solemn feasts.