A manuscript from the Convento de la Encarnación in Mexico City is now held at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois. Made up of six surviving choirbooks, it contains various hymns, motets, antiphons, and polychoral pieces both by famous European composers like Tomás Luis de Victoria as well as by minor composers like Juan de Lienas, Fabian Perez Ximeno and Fray Jacinto.
The choir books were working copies rather than ones produced as ornate collectors copies, meaning that they were meant for everyday use by the nuns of the Convent of the Encarnación, a community established in the late 16th century.
The Newberry Consort’s 2015 CD Música Celestial explores this “nun's music” with an all female 10-member vocal ensemble accompanied by organ, viola da gamba, vihuela, and bajon.
The Newberry Library's manuscripts are in surprisingly good shape, yet some music still needed to be reconstructed for this program. A case in point was an 11-voice setting of Psalm 112, Beatus Vir by Fray Jacinto—the only piece by Jacinto in the entire collection. The work was especially intriguing given how little is known about this composer’s life or other works, if any.
The Newberry Consort’s co-director Ellen Hargis really wanted to program the piece but ran into a snag when she discovered that parts were missing from the manuscript. After searching high and low for a duplicate source of Beatus Vir, another copy of the entire piece was eventually found in an archive in Puebla, Mexico. And voila! Listeners now have the pleasure of hearing it.
Mexico isn’t the first place most people think of when it comes to Renaissance and Baroque repertory. But European-style music (tinged with its own distinct flair) flourished in Mexico during that time, especially in religious communities like convents.
Since contact with men was limited inside cloisters like the Encarnación, it’s likely that this music was sung entirely by women. The parts that were too low for their voices could have been transposed up the octave, or else the women played the bass parts on various instruments. Even though no purely instrumental music is found in the Encarnación choirbooks, there is evidence that instruments were used in the convent since the First Provincial Council of 1555 directed that organs should be installed in all church parishes.
The Newberry Consort’s recording reflects this tradition, opening with the Tiento de mano derecha y al medio a dos tiples, a fantasy for “two melodies in the right hand" by the blind Spanish composer Pablo Bruna.
Juan de Lienas
In contrast to Jacinto’s singular piece in the manuscript, Juan de Lienas is well represented in the Newberry Choirbooks. Like Jacinto, however, we don’t know all that much about his life.
Several manuscripts refer to him with the title "Don," implying that Lienas was a nobleman. But judging from other titles that reference Lienas, we can guess that he might have had a colorful personality—though not one that everyone appreciated. Scribbled into the margins of some of the partbooks, we see Lienas “el famoso cornudo” (the well-known cuckold), or "cornudillo" (the little cuckold) and “el chibato Lienas” (the billy goat Lienas, alt. "traitor Lienas"). One source even calls him a "galán tieso rollizo" (chubby, stuck-up fop)!
Whoever he was and whatever he was like, his music has its own personality and takes up the lion’s share of the Newberry Consort's recording.
You may have heard the Newberry Consort in a live concert performance of Lienas's Credidi Propter on our January 2013 full-length broadcast, Celestial Sirens. At the time, Newberry's performance of this piece was commercially unavailable. But now you can listen whenever you want!