Codex Las Huelgas: A Medieval Treasury for Singers
Benjamin Bagby - (course director) voice
Lisa Solomon - voice
Lawrence Rosenwald - language, pronunciation, rhetoric, interpretation
1.) The Codex Las Huelgas: an early 14th-century international anthology of religious vocal music, monophonic and polyphonic
2.) The Cantigas de Santa Maria compiled by King Alfonso X of Castile (13th century)
Audition due date April 15
The Cistercian convent Las Huelgas de Burgos was founded in 1187 by the Castilian King Alfonso VIII and his wife, Eleanor of England (a daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine). From its beginnings, it was a magnificent royal monastic house, its church a burial place for the kings and queens of Castile, enjoying exceptional civil and ecclesiastical privileges, endowed with rich lands and wealthy beyond measure. In 1257, during the reign of King Alfonso X 'the Learned' (el Sabio), the community consisted of one hundred noble choir nuns (dueñas de velo), women from the most powerful families in the realm, as well as forty aristocratic girls being schooled by the nuns (niñas de hijasdalgo), with forty lay sisters attending to them. There was a community of priests (including a schola cantorum), Jewish physicians, Mudejar (free Muslims living under Christian rule) administrative officials, teachers, surgeons, gardeners and stone masons. The architectural style of the convent displays a unique blend of Gothic and Islamic elements, and even in the royal tombs there were silk and muslins from Mudejar and North African ateliers, sometimes bearing inscriptions in Arabic, covering the remains of crusading Christian kings and their queens.
Sometime in the early 14th century, the scriptorium of the monastery assembled a unique parchment manuscript containing vocal music which was designed to amplify and adorn the Gregorian Chant sung in the mass and offices. This manuscript, known today as Codex Las Huelgas, has never left the monastery since its creation. It is an unassuming book containing 170 folios, meant for consultation by the most elite singers who wished to refresh their memories in preparing the liturgy for the following day. A treasure-trove of monophonic and polyphonic vocal art, the codex contains a wide-ranging repertoire of religious vocal music, including concordances with 12th century Aquitaine, Notre-Dame de Paris, and more recent compositions from the 13th century. There are also pieces by local composers, reflecting the spirit of the times, sometimes re-working French originals to suit local taste, and reflecting a lively musical scene in the church, the cloister school, and the scriptorium.
This course will examine some highlights from this revelatory medieval source: polyphonic conductus and motets, tropes on chant for the Mass, solo death laments for Castilian nobles (men and women), long meditative prosae for solo voice, celebrations of the saints, and of course, music for the ever-present Virgin Mary.
To complement this work, we will look also at several of the miracle-stories set to music in the reign of Alfonso 'el Sabio', the collection of Cantigas de Santa Maria, sung in the dialect of Galicia, and certainly well-known to the nuns of Las Huelgas.
Course participants should be trained vocalists at an intermediate to advanced level. Prior experience with medieval music is not necessary, but excellent pitch control and a good rhythmic sense are essential skills. The notation of the manuscript will be explained, and those who already have some experience with medieval notation will have the option to work from the original manuscript (but this is not necessary). Pieces will be assigned according to the needs and abilities of each participant.