Secret Voices

Secret Voices
(hmu 807510)

Chant & Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c. 1300

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See Text and Translations

Track List

Virgines egregie
Ave maris stella
Claustrum pudicicie / Virgo viget / FLOS FILIUS
Fa fa mi / Ut re mi
O maria virgo / O maria maris stella / [IN VERITATE]
Benedicamus domino: cum cantico
Salve porta / Salve salus / Salve sancta parens
Kirie: Rex virginum amator
Gloria: Spiritus et alme
Verbum bonum et suave
Salve virgo regia / Ave gloriosa mater / [DOMINO]
Sanctus & Benedictus
Gaude virgo nobilis / Verbum caro factum / ET VERITATE
Agnus dei: Gloriosa spes reorum
O monialis conscio
Benedicamus domino: Belial vocatur
In virgulto gracie
Ave regina celorum / Alma redemptoris mater / [ALMA]
Benedicamus domino à 3 (rondellus)
Si vocatus ad nupcias
Mater patris et filia
Benedicamus domino à 2
Omnium in te christe
Listen to Samples

Reviews of Secret Voices

[New] choral SACD from Harmonia Mundi, splendidly performed and recorded, remind us how music can bring meaning to lives burdened by isolation or oppression.

The Las Huelgas Codex is a collection of sacred and secular music copied out at the beginning of the 1300s. It was created at the Cistercian convent in Burgos, Spain, and contains both monophonic (single voice) and polyphonic pieces. The nuns of the convent sang this glorious polyphony despite the rules of their order proscribing the performance of music with more than one part. These are the "secret voices" of Anonymous 4's new release; the group brings this distant era alive, assembling from the Codex a musical representation o f the sisters' monastic day, from "First Light" to "Night." Not all the music is devotional in tone. The ten-movement mass that forms the center of A4's program (and, presumably, the nuns' day) features a sunny, lilting motet "Salve virgo regia/Ave gloriosa mater," and later on we're given the rollicking, round-like ''Benedicamus domino a 3". Despite the passage of time, with only a single change in personnel in their 20- year recording history, the quartet sounds as fresh and pure in its ensemble sonority as ever. The unison chant is ravishing and the complex polvohonv is rendered with admirable transparency.  
                                                                                                                                                   Andrew Quint, The Absolute Sound

Secret Voices:
Chant and Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c.1300 Anonymous 4
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807510 www.harmoniamundi.com

For those enraptured by the female voice, this CD offers something close to earthly paradise. Structured around a liturgical day in a 13th-century Spanish cloister, the iconic women’s ensemble offers a day-long bath in the pleasures of voices raised in celebration of the Virgin Mary.

In the 12th century, Alienor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine’s daughter helped found the convent of Las Huelgas for aristocratic women near Burgos in what is now Spain. From this institution comes the Las Huelgas Codex, an early 14th-cen tury anthology spanning the century’s repertoire, from monophonic songs and tropes to polyphonic motets. Many of the motets were originally secular, and the texts were replaced by Marian poetry suited to daily observance.

According to Anonymous 4, the solfeggio exercises in the Codex imply that at Las Huelgas, the Cistercian restriction against women performing polyphonic music was ignored. Whether this hypothesis represents solid scholarly conjecture or a revisionist feminist perspective is irrelevant to the beauty of this ensemble’s singing. Anonymous 4 distinguishes itself from similar ensembles by its full-bodied, accurate yet nuanced vocal presence. As in previous Marian productions La bele Marie (HMU 907312) and A Lammas Ladymass (HMU 907222), the constants are beauty, strength, and timelessness: an almost mystical reveling in the feminine.
                              Lance Hulme, Early Music America, February 2012

Anonymous 4: "Secret Voices"
Chant & Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c.1300. Cunningham, Genensky, Hellauer, Horner-Kwiatek.
Texts and translations. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807510

A band of forward-looking thirteenth-century Spanish nuns provides the foundation for this recording. This particular group of Cistercians occupied Las Huelgas, a convent founded for aristocratic Castilian women seeking refuge from secular life. For some unknown reason, these nuns were permitted privileges long held by the church as the sole precinct of men, including saying mass, hearing confession and singing polyphony. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and the women of Anonymous 4 (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) whose selfless performance standard recommends them as the natural musical descendants of these avant-garde nuns. The selections, culled from among the 186 works in the Codex Las Huelgas, are organized in groupings that mirror the daily routine of convent life from First Light to Night. A composite Mass forms the centerpiece in acknowledgment of the nuns' unprecedented freedom to conduct it.

The opening sequence, sung in confident unison, is an ode to holy virginity, a theme carried through in many of the texts. Some pieces, such as "Ave maris stella," involve complicated turns and ornaments, which never derail Anonymous 4's eerily accurate intonation. They sustain tricky open fifths in the motet "Virgo viget" and join in sweet unison in "O monialis conscio," a mournful prayer in memory of a departed sister. They divert, reassemble seamlessly, then scatter again in active polyphonic pieces such as the sequence "Verbum bonum et suave" and the motet that follows, "Ave gloriosa mater." The curious dissonances of "Benedicamus domino: Belial vocatur" suggest serious musical imagination on the part of its composer, whoever he — or she — may have been. In "Benedicamus domino à 3," the ladies of Anonymous 4 transfer the aural focus from line to line by accenting rhythms and subtly adjusting their dynamics. One of Anonymous 4's most admirable qualities is the way they suggest the style of early- music performance, while avoiding a straight, white tone. There is always a shimmer of natural vibrato around the edges of their sound. Their lovely, caressing vocal production is certainly one of the secrets to their continued success. Undoubtedly, their canny choice of material, both in terms of historical fascination and musical elegance, is another.
-- Opera News, February 2012


Secret Voices Program Notes

Chant & Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c. 1300

In the early 1180s, at the request of his wife Leonora, daughter of England’s Henry II and Alienor of Aquitaine, King Alfonso VIII of Castile founded a convent near Burgos in north-central Spain. It became a retreat (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, part of the reform movement seeking to bring Benedictine monastics back to St. Benedict’s pure rule of ora et labora (prayer and work). Although Cistercians were supposed to live a simple life and subsist by the labor of their own hands, the ladies of Las Huelgas (who included members of the royal family) were granted, and did exercise, a degree of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and independence that would seem shocking today. Their abbesses could say mass, hear confessions, and make other decisions and rulings such as a priest or bishop might do. Indeed, these privileges were not completely rescinded until late in the nineteenth century. 

The Codex Las Huelgas, copied in the first quarter of the 14th century, is an anthology of European polyphony and monophonic Latin song that spans the entire 13th and early 14th centuries. The finest examples of every style and genre of sacred and secular music are found among the 186 works in the collection: many are unique to this source, many others are only found in Iberian sources, and several come from the mainstream of the Parisian school of composition. Numerous well-known secular works have been contrafacted (retrofitted) with sacred Latin texts, to make them appropriate for liturgical or devotional use. The Codex is written in a clear hand, not overly ornate, and appears to be arranged and laid out for practical use. Its notation reflects a transitional state between the older Nôtre-Dame modal notation and the clearly defined mensural notation of c. 1300. Our new transcriptions were made with a flexible, intuitive approach to the relationship between rhythm and notation in this source.

There is some controversy about the singers of these songs. Some scholars believe that a hired choir of male chaplains did the singing. Others believe as we do: that this repertoire -- ranging from simple plainchant and rhythmic monophonic song, to the most complex and virtuosic polyphonic conductus and motets -- was collected for nuns themselves to sing. From the text of the hexachord solfeggio exercise, written as a two-voice discant, Fa fa mi / Ut re mi, it appears that there was a strong musical tradition among the sisters. Despite the Cistercian rule that prohibited these ladies from singing polyphony, it seems to have been an “open secret” that polyphony was both sung and enjoyed at Las Huelgas, and that the musical rights and privileges accorded only to male clerical singers were enjoyed there as well.

In Secret Voices, we have created a “day” of music in honor of the Virgin Mary, and have also included songs with texts that refer to the monastic life of the nuns themselves.

There are elegant French motets here, like the Benedicamus domino setting Claustrum pudicicie/Virgo viget/FLOS FILIUS, the original text of which describes pastoral love in the springtime; and the hybrid 4-voice conductus-motet O Maria virgo/O Maria maris stella/[IN VERITATE]. There are virtuoso conductus, like Ave maris stella and Mater patris et filia, with unpredictable rhythms and lively hockets. A playful Benedicamus domino à 3 is written in rondellus fashion -- like a catch or round -- typical of 13th-century British polyphony. There are also heartfelt laments, like the monophonic song O monialis conscio, a planctus written on the death of a beloved member of the sisterhood; and elegant duos with intertwining lines, like the sequences Verbum bonum et suave and In virgulto gracie.

The Codex also contains many polyphonic works intended for the Mass -- for everyday use or for specific feasts or devotions, especially for the Virgin Mary, Christmas, and female saints.  Most of these are troped -- that is, the normal liturgical texts are enlarged with prose or poetry (shown in italics in the texts and translations). Within our program we have created a composite Mass, interspersed with motets in honor of Mary, using some of these troped items: Kirie: Rex virginum amator, Gloria: Spiritus et alme, and Agnus dei: Gloriosa spes reorum.

Scholars have looked closely at works in the Codex for possible references to monastic life at Las Huelgas. Aside from laments on the death of specific persons related to the convent, there are songs on the subject of the wise and foolish virgins (Virgines egregie, and Si vocatus ad nupcias), extolling the wise virgins, among whom the sisters would have certainly counted themselves. The sequence In virgulto gracie speaks of virgins in gleaming white mantles, such as those worn by Cistercian monastics. And the discant: Fa fa mi/Ut re mi refers to the “golden” nuns, and uses a term (cartucensis) that may mean “Carthusian” -- perhaps a reference to Carthusian nuns, who were permitted to sing certain items of the liturgy in the absence of the male clerics who normally sang them.

The Codex also contains numerous settings of the Benedicamus domino versicle, which was and still is used to close each hour of the eight daily devotions of the Divine Office, and which could also substitute for the closing Ite missa est of the Mass. We have used some of these settings, in a variety of forms and genres, to close each section of our program. To these we have created and added the customary medieval response, Deo dicamus gracias (Let us say: “Thanks be to God!”).

The repertoire of the Codex Las Huelgas provides for us the proof that Anonymous 4, far from singing “men’s music,” have been following in the footsteps of their much-older sisters, who had no difficulty (except from their male monastic rulers, and the pope) in finding and performing the most beautiful, virtuosic, avant-garde art music of their time.
                                                                                                                                                        -- Susan Hellauer

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