When I learned there was a new recording of music from the medieval manuscript called the Codex Las Huelgas, I thought it would be fun to compare it to a few other recent recordings. That gives you a good idea of how my medievalist brain functions: I automatically assumed there would be several others. Once I thought about it reasonably, I was amazed that three recordings have been produced in the last two years.
A codex is always a treasure trove for historians. The term refers to a manuscript made up of various things bound together. Some were designed that way, and some became codices (that’s the plural) as books and papers were handed down, sold, and rebound through the centuries. The Codex Las Huelgas belongs in the first category. It was probably written out by a scribe named Johannes Roderici for a wealthy Cistercian convent in northern Spain around the year 1300.
Roderici composed only a couple of the 186 pieces in this codex; his job was to copy out music and texts from a bunch of different sources into one convenient book for convent use. And it’s a good thing he did, since today Las Huelgas is our only source for many of these sacred works. Even more important, 141 of them are polyphonic, which is a big deal because Cistercian rules forbade singing pieces with more than two parts. Apparently, these sisters went ahead and did it anyway.
It’s appropriate to start with a recording sung only by women. The CD Santa Maria, whose subtitle translates as “Chants for the Virgin from 13th-century Spain,” was released on the Bayard Musique label in 2016 by the ensemble Discantus, directed by Brigitte Lesne. It includes a few pieces from the Codex Las Huelgas among other chant music about the Virgin Mary. (Discantus also released an album of only Las Huelgas music 25 years ago, but these are different pieces.)
“Recordare, virgo mater” is an offertory, a type of chant sung during Mass while bread and wine are placed on the altar. The version in Las Huelgas is for two vocal lines in counterpoint. The women of Discantus sing with such precise intonation that their voices disappear into each other when they come to unison pitches.
Although the use of instruments in medieval church services is a topic of much speculation and disagreement, “Salve regina glorie” is a sequence, a type of popular religious song that was often performed beyond the church. So it’s not crazy that Discantus decided to record this as a pleasingly meditative instrumental, with rebec (early violin), guitar, and bells.
It doesn’t take a musicologist to spot the most obvious difference between the Discantus recording and that of Ars Combinatoria (Musaris, 2017) as led by Canco López: There are men in the mix, at least on some tracks. Anónimo: Mulier Misterio is not available on YouTube, but you can stream it on Spotify here:
The music in the Codex Las Huelgas is written out in Franconian notation, the first type of musical notation that could show rhythm in an effective way. One of the striking things about this recording is how strictly Ars Combinatoria cleaves to the declared rhythmic values. Put simply, Franconian notation – a fascinating subject that I can’t get into thoroughly here -- defaults to triple time. But not every modern group believes the notated pieces should all sound like waltzes.
“Agmina milicie” is good example of how the Combinatoria singers take the rhythmic divisions into strict sets of three. It’s also a nice demonstration of the word “tenor” in its original musical meaning. Before “tenor” came to designate a high male voice, it grew out of the Latin verb “tenere,” meaning “to hold.” So, the tenor was the voice (in any pitch range) that held long notes. In medieval sacred music, those long notes would always have been a Gregorian chant. Here the men sing the chant slowly while the women sing a swinging, triple-time ornamentation against it in polyphony.
Besides rhythmic interpretation, another major decision faced by groups trying to sing medieval sacred music is vocal timbre. In “De castitatis thalamum,” the women’s voices especially are intensely nasal, almost like a Bulgarian Orthodox choir. It’s a marked contrast to the more ethereal sound of the women in Discantus.
How fortunate we are that three such skillful ensembles have set their sights on the Las Huelgas repertoire. The most recent effort is Fons luminis (Evidence, 2018) by the venerable Ensemble Gilles Binchois, under the direction of Dominique Vellard.
Here we have yet another approach to the distribution of genders in performing this music. For this recording, the Kyrie trope “Fons bonitatis” is performed only by men. A normal Kyrie chant has only two words (Kyrie eleison), so the singers stretch out each syllable of text over many notes. In a Kyrie trope, the same Gregorian chant melody is used, but new extra text has been added in to take advantage of all those notes.
Another definition of “trope” in medieval music is the addition of polyphonic lines to a Gregorian chant. That’s what you have in “Agnus dei, o Jhesu salvator,” which takes a Gregorian chant melody for the Agnus Dei text from the Mass and adds two extra vocal lines against it. The women of Ensemble Gilles Binchois give a stunning performance. And notice how free their rhythmic interpretation is compared to Ars Combinatoria.
When I was deciding the topic of this review, I hoped to include some recent recordings of another hugely important Spanish manuscript of chant with and without tropes, the Codex Calixtinus, which dates almost 200 years earlier than Las Huelgas. Sadly I couldn’t find any recordings of that repertoire more recent than 2014. But as soon as a new one comes out, you can be sure I’ll write about it here.