In 1998, the museum and research center known as The Historic New Orleans Collection received a special acquisition. The Ursuline nuns, who had settled in New Orleans in the late 1720’s, handed over a large portion of their archives. One unique gem stood out among the numerous documents—a manuscript from the 18th Century known as the Ursuline Manuscript.
It is the only known music to survive from the first decades of New Orleans when the French Baroque was at its zenith.
The early history of the Ursuline Manuscript is spotty at best. Here’s what we do know: the Ursuline nuns were given a manuscript of devotional songs in 1754 by a “Monsieur Nicolet.” Nearly two decades before, it had been copied in Paris and somehow made it over to New Orleans. What the manuscript was used for before and after the nuns acquired it might be hinted at from its title-Nouvelle Poésies spirituelles et morales (“New Spiritual and Moral Poems”).
The Ursuline manuscript was based on a multi-volume series published in Paris by Nicolas Lottin. While the original boasted eight volumes, only four are found in the Ursuline copy. The music is made up of recycled popular vocal and instrumental tunes with new words set to them. An interesting characteristic is found in the manuscript among the song themes: those lauding virtues are copied in red ink, while those depicting vices are in black.
The Ursuline nuns played a special educational role in the early decades of New Orleans. They taught the female children of European settlers as well as Native Americans and African slaves. The Ursuline school’s modern-day version is known as the Ursuline Academy. It is the oldest Catholic school in the U.S. and the oldest continuously-operating school for girls. The Ursuline manuscript is evidence that music would have been a part of the nun’s 18th Century curriculum.
The music heard on this episode was performed by Le Concert Lorrain.