Celestial Singing: Creating Our Convent Ensemble

Nov 26, 2018 | blog, Mexican Christmas, Vocal | 0 comments

In our upcoming program, A Mexican Christmas, the repertoire includes sacred music from the convents of 17th-century Mexico alongside villancicos, songs of praise and celebration that were often performed by folk musicians.

To recreate the celestial sound of the nuns, we have assembled a choir of women’s voices, which we call our “Convent Ensemble.”

Made up of eight singers and three instrumentalists, this ad-hoc group has performed together several times since 2013 when Ellen Hargis, co-artistic director of the Newberry Consort, first came across the Newberry Library’s Mexican Choirbooks, which contain music sung by nuns at the Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Mexico City, one of the richest and most prominent convents in Mexico that operated from the late 16th century until the 19th century.

When Hargis first learned about the Choirbooks, she was in the midst of planning a concert of Italian nuns’ music, and she decided to incorporate some of the Mexican music for contrast. She has been entranced by this music ever since.

“This music is hardly ever performed, let alone by an all-female ensemble, so we all enjoy the exploration of a new repertoire together,” Hargis says. “The sonorities are beautiful, and the mix of styles is challenging. It has everything I love about the innovative Italian music of the same period together with the unique flavor of the music from Old and New Spain.”

To make the ensemble sound like a traditional nun’s ensemble, Hargis chose women from a wide range of ages to reflect the likely population of a convent community. “It was important to me that our sound be different from the homogenous sound of the English Cathedral choirs,” Hargis says. “Voices were not chosen for blend, but for range and individual timbre.”

This Convent Ensemble has performed music from the Mexican Choirbooks several times over the past few years: in Chicago in 2013, 2015 and 2016, and once on tour for the Society for 17th Century Music. They even recorded a CD in 2015 called “Musica Celestial: From the Convent of the Encarnación.”

In A Mexican Christmas, our Convent Ensemble will perform music that the Convent of the Encarnación might have sung at Christmastime. Four of the pieces were composed by Spaniards and formed part of the repertoire brought to the New World from Spain when the convent was established. The other pieces were  written by Mexican composers, who incorporated elements of indigenous music into their work.

Hargis says this mixture of old and new world styles is especially evident in the music by Juan Gutierrez Padilla, (1590-1664), who hailed from Puebla, Mexico. “You can hear the jazzy rhythms of the new style mixing with the elegant polyphony of the old style in his writing,” she says.

Although many of the pieces in the Mexican Choirbooks were written specifically for the all-female choir at the Convent of the Encarnación, some of the pieces, such as the Mass setting by the Spanish composer Mateo Romero, were originally composed for men to sing the lower parts.

“There are a couple of ways that we know cloistered nuns in Italy handled such issues – one is that instruments could play the lower parts, while women sing the higher ones,” Hargis says. “The other is that they would transpose the low parts up an octave and sing them in the comfortable parts of their voices. We will use both solutions in this concert.”

Unlike many choirs today, the choir at the Convent of the Encarnación did not face the parishioners when they sang. Instead, they would sing in a separate nave of the church that was closed off with a gate, so that they could be heard by the parishioners, but not seen. This gave their music an even more ethereal quality, and we hope to recreate that same feeling in our Mexican Christmas concert, where we will have our “Convent Ensemble” in a separate part of the sanctuary from the rest of the musicians.

Join us for this magical program of celestial music Dec. 14 to 16!

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