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 Indeed, these privileges were not completely rescinded until late in the nineteenth century.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