The sound of an all-female vocal ensemble, by turns earthy, sensual, angelic and otherworldly, has fascinated listeners for centuries. Nowadays, we love Anonymous 4, female barbershop quartets, and The Supremes. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Concerte delle donne were making waves in Italy. In religious communities, nuns making music for their own devotion attracted the attention of the outside world, their voices soaring over the convent walls as they sang and played music of their own composition as well as the works of contemporary masters. This program explores the music of the singing nuns in the Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Mexico city, a community established in the late 16th century and dissolved sometime in the 19th century.
At the Convent of the Encarnación, as was common elsewhere in Mexico, women were offered “dowry waivers” if they were trained musicians, thereby ensuring a high level of musical performance for the convent. The fact that much of the music in the convent’s six surviving choirbooks now housed in the Newberry Library is in high clefs, and occasionally lacks text in the bass parts, suggests that this music was in fact performed by the women of the convent without help from men. Direct contact with male musicians in a cloistered community like the Encarnación was forbidden, so either the women sang the low parts, played them on viol or bajón, or possibly, transposed them up an octave. You’ll hear all three solutions in this concert!
Our program begins with the witty Tiento de mano derecha y al medio a dos tiples, a fantasy for “two melodies in the right hand” by the blind organist Pablo Bruna. Bruna was born in Daroca, Aragón, was blinded by smallpox at age five, and spent his entire career in the town of his birth, first as organist and later as maestro de capilla (chapel master) at the church of Santa Maria la Mayor. Only 32 works survive – a real shame, considering the unique and colorful voice of this fascinating composer. Enjoy his wonderfully rhetorical dialogues for right and left hands, Latin rhythms, and zesty harmonies.
We continue with music by one of the most famous old-world composers, Tomás Luis de Victoria. His works, along with many by fellow Spanish composers Guerrero and Morales, figure prominently in the Choirbooks, and include full mass settings, several motets, and a set of Lamentations for six voices. His beautiful setting of Isaiah 53:4-5 (Vere languores nostros) evokes the Italian tradition of elegant polyphony that we also hear in the voices of many new-world composers. Those of you familiar with his famous O magnum mysterium (written twenty years later) will recognize a particularly poignant musical passage heard in Vere languores. In O Magnum, the text of that passage is “O blessed Virgin, whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Christ Jesus”, and in Vere languores, “Sweet cross…you alone were worthy to bear the King of Heaven”. Quite a touching internal reference!
Juan de Lienas is the most well represented composer in the Newberry Choirbooks, supplying a dazzling collection of antiphons, motets, and polychoral psalm settings. Sadly, we know nothing of his life. His music does not appear (at least, not attributed to him) in any other Mexican sources, and we have no mention of his name in church records. He seems to have had some enemies at the Convent of the Encarnación; his name, written by some as “Don Juan de Lienas” (Mr. Juan Lienas), is also written “el famoso cornudo” (the well-known cuckold), the even nastier “cornudillo” (the little cuckold), and “el chibato Lienas” (the billy-goat Lienas), this last supported by a drawing of him with a silly moustache and a scrappy beard at the beginning of one bass part. We adore him, though – his melodies are ravishing, and his use of rhythm absolutely infectious. His magnificent settings of music from the compline service, particularly Tristis est anima mea, are worthy of the best European composers. His music deserves to be better known.
There is no instrumental music in the Choirbooks, but we know that instruments were used in the convent, certainly to play the bass lines of vocal pieces when they were too low for women to sing and perhaps to provide occasional music as well. We present our bass players in three selections of variations over a ground or a popular tune. Two are by Diego Ortiz, a Spanish composer and theorist who wrote a book of diferencias and ricercadas (variations and ricercars) for viola da gamba. Rachel Begly has written her own set of variations for bajón (baroque bassoon) in the style of Ortiz on Dormendo un giorno, a madrigal by Verdelot that was used by Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero as a theme for a mass setting in the Newberry Choirbooks.
Later in the program, you’ll hear more diferencias, this time on the vihuela, a plucked-string instrument. The anonymous hymn Sacris Solemniis is probably the oldest piece in the Choirbooks, with a text is attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. You’ll recognize the words of 6th strophe, Panis angelicus, but the tune is nothing like the famous 19th-c. settings of that verse. The hymn tune as we find it in the Choirbooks is the basis for this set of variations by Spanish vihuelist and composer Luis Narváez.
Fabián Peréz Ximeno was the organist at the Cathedral in Puebla,and his music is found in choirbooks there and at the Mexico City Cathedral. However, there is more of his music in the Newberry Choirbooks than anywhere else, including his famous “Missa de la batalla a 8”. Here we pair an organ solo on the battle themewritten in the old world by José Ximénez with Fabián Ximeno’s double-choir setting of Dixit Dominus. The bellicose text of the psalm is wonderfully painted in Ximeno’s spirited call-and-response writing, alternating with verses in plainchant. José Ximénez was the organist at the Cathedral of Zaragoza, Spain, where he assisted, and later succeeded Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia. Heredia’s meditative Pangelingua shows another side of this very colorful organ repertoire conceived in the old world, but certainly brought to Mexico and played on the organs in the cathedrals of these new world musical centers.
Fabián Ximeno wrote an entire mass on an 11-voice setting of Beatus vir (psalm 112) by Fray Jacinto (Brother Jacinto), the only piece attributed to Jacinto in the Newberry Choirbooks, and the closing piece on our program. We know nothing about this composer except that he is very, very good. Given the number of unattributed pieces in the Choirbooks, I hope that future examination of the music will reveal other works we can attribute to this wonderful composer.
You are likely hearing the modern premiere of this piece, which is incomplete in The Newberry Choirbooks. The set is missing two volumes, and most likely, they contain the top choir of this 11-voice piece as well as several other misplaced pieces of music. We put out a call for help to all our Hispanophile colleagues, and the missing choir was located in a manuscript of unattributed music in an archive in Puebla. We were thrilled to discover that this manuscript contained the entire piece, and we’ve identified is as being by Jacinto and put it all together for you to enjoy!
We are delighted to bring you this second in a series of concerts devoted to music from the Newberry Mexican Choirbooks. Stay tuned for more as we continue to transcribe, edit, reconstruct, and perform this fantastic music. What’s old is new again!