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Polyphonic Belles

We went and listened to these ladies last night, and it was lovely. There’s no better word for it. Lovely.

Their voices harmonize gloriously, forming chords that paradoxically seem to have a texture and shape. It’s not just music, sounds, but more like an aural sculpture.

They chose a series of pieces from the convent of the sisters of LasHuelgas, a 13th century Spanish order who were apparently not unlike the nuns under the Prioress in Canterbury Tales. They were the younger daughters of aristocracy, who for one reason or another declined (or were unable to attain) marriage and settled into a life of genteel and urbane faith. According to the program notes,

In the early 1180s, King Alfonso VIII of Castile founded a convent near Burgos in north-central Spain at the request of his wife Leonora, daughter of England’s Henry II and Alienor of Aquitaine. It became a refuge (Las Huelgas means “place of refuge”) for royal and noble women seeking the religious life, and a mausoleum for the royal family. In 1188, it was incorporated as a house of the Cistercian order, parto of the reform movement seeking to bring Benedictine monastics back to the pure rule of St. Benedict and his ora et labora (life of prayer and work). But although cistercians were supposed to live a simple life and subsist by the labor of their own hands, these ladies gained, in some fashion, a degree of ecclesiastica jurisdiction and independence that would seem shocking today. Their abbesses could say mass, hear confessoins, and make othe rdecisions and rulings such as a priest or bishop might do. indeed, contemporary Carthusian nuns did, by regular rule, enjoy some of the se privileges when a priest was not availalbe, including the right to sing liturgical items normally assigned to a (male) deacon or subdeacon. But the cloistered, submissive life of a Cistercian was not feflected in the daily life of the aristocratic ladies at Las Huelgas.

The program notes go on to explain that the nuns of Las Huelgas were mostly well educated and very likely worked from a selection of traditional hymns as well as “popular” secular music that was retrofitted with devotional lyrics.

The music for last night’s performance had been chosen with the theme of a day of devotions, “includ[ing] songs with texts that refer to the monastic [lives] of the nuns them selves.” There was even a “do re mi” type of warmup exercise included!

While listening to this music sung in Latin, a language I don’t understand, many different thoughts shook loose. As you might guess, I thought about Chaucer, the Prioress, and thought I might want to learn some more about convent life circa 13th and early 14th century.

During one of the Kyries, I got to thinking of a Kyrie that we sang when I was in highschool chorus. It was one of the few songs we sang that had a decent alto part. When you sing alto as I do (badly) you’re a third-string backup singer anyway, and most alto parts are basically an afterthought at best, but this one particular Kyrie that we did had a really strong alto line where we really belted out some full-lunged, from-the-gut Kyries in service of the lilting sopranos above us and the rumbling basses below us. The alto, contralto, and tenor of this group all had beautiful, rich voices which lifted up the more delicate, piping tones of the soprano; the effect was not unlike an elegant wrought-iron fence enlivened with filigree-like adornments. As far as I could hear, nobody got the short end of the staff in this quartet.

More videos of Anonymous Four doing their thing:

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