Wednesday, 21 December 2022

Savall and the Codex Las Huelgas







In 1905 two Benedictine monks while searching for Gregorian records in the attic of the Cistercian monastery of Las Huelgas dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Burgos, far away Spain, found a set of parchments from the early 1320s that turned out to be copies of a much earlier codex dating back hundreds of years. This became the Codex Musical de las Huelgas, or simply the Codex las Huelgas.



This medieval collection of 186 works became famous much later, because the two monks only catalogued it with the other manuscripts; a facsimile edition with annotations by a Catalan musicologist was published in 1931.



In 1981, even further afield in Australia, medieval music specialist Gordon Athol Anderson took the liberty of completely rearranging 170 parchment sheet works and offering new approaches to the medieval polyphonic music of the Iberian Peninsula.

Most recently, Ismael Fernandez de la Cuesta, the Gregorian scholar, has restored the manuscript, and the order and the story behind it have of course changed again.

Research has been ongoing ever since. The impact on early music ensembles is very significant, if you think of Paul van Nevel's band, who I love a lot. Their name is, yes, 'Huelgas Ensemble'; there have also been many quality recordings from this source, and the situation in terms of discs is a welcome one.

Most of them were born in the 'new' Early Music style; a kind of straightness, strength, an expression of unworldly power is what you hear in them. Some people even think that it is the strength and simplicity of some musical archetype that is important here.

Jordi Savall, who is also Catalan, has long been involved in these musics. Now that the new AliaVox album is out, he's given us his thoughts on the whole thing. Yes, he has a slightly different vision of what he's showing us.


The booklet, adorned with very sophisticated artwork, includes three mini essays: one written by him, with his commentary and thoughts on the recording; the second by a musicologist on the history and internal system of the codex; and the third by a symbol expert on the analogies to medieval bestiaries.

Apparently, Savall didn't start by explaining the notes and then playing them for us with his band. But by trying to get into the period: the values, ideas, ways of life and rituals of the time; to get the real background, to get a sense of the right thinking from 700 years ago. This is not easy. Not because the metaphysical framework itself was different; the embeddedness of ideas was different, and of course the musical expression was different. Moreover, where we are today, with the exposition of ancient music even this is constantly changing expanding; the number of question marks tends to increase; the uncertainty is palpably growing - however much research is being done.


The copy of the Huelgas codex was probably commissioned by the abbess of the monastery of Las Huelgas, Gonzales de Aguero; the date is 1325 and the copyist was Juan Rodriquez. These are the mere names; they are on the parchment, which, why not, lest it should not be so simple, was inscribed on a palimpsest that is, on an even older score. From here the further obscurity is almost overwhelming.



Because the monastery was a Cistercian monastery - then and now - but a 'women's' monastery, where the nuns had to live in silence, simplicity and prayer. It was also a royal pantheon, a coronation site, and an epicentre of intense musical life. It was a place where the ties with the Castilian royal family were strong. And, in what may raise a slight eyebrow, female members of the aristocracy of the time were favoured to visit the monastery.

The spirit of Cistercianism was very strong. It seems that it did not conquer among the common people  but gathered under its banner influential and wealthy patrons who raised not only the Service but also musical life to new heights. In this era, there was a 100-strong women's choir and 13 (male)sconators assisting in many things, for example, men not only carrying water and cutting wood, but also singing the male parts.

The music itself, the pieces, is a collection of works that the nuns have performed since the foundation in 1187, and it was probably to prevent dispersal that the copies were ordered. Motets, organ pieces, sequences, hymns and all styles from the Middle Ages. On the one hand, the musical cross-section of the (then) old 'Ars Antiqua', the school of Notre Dame de Paris, and on the other, the first polyphonic performances appear, a revolution that would become the music of the 'Ars Nova', completed by a series of later composers led by de Vitry and Machaut.

Here we have a further complication regarding the performance: the use of multiple voices was not allowed at that time, indeed, even today we know the Gregorian to be monophonic. Recently, the opinion has been emerging that two lines, two-voice, was acceptable at that time, even in Gregorian chant; but three or more lines was not. And the Cistercian was not strict here, as was long thought: two-thirds of the Huelgas collection consists of polyphonic pieces.



And now comes the area where Savall has stepped back even further, showing us a much broader horizon. He quotes Raimon Panikkar as his motto. He is a twentieth century Spanish Catholic priest with a PhD in theology, chemistry and then comparative theology. A true padre-chemist.

 'The forest of mysticism is not easily penetrated. There are no beaten paths. The last veil of reality cannot be lifted. '

In fact, it is not mysticism that we think of today, but Christian symbolism. Into which, if we look, something fascinating and enormously complex unfolds.

Starting from the basics, the main attributes represented by the evangelists,

Matthew = Man or Angel, Mark = Lion, Luke = Bull, John = Eagle,

to the endless array of qualities found in our world, e.g. femininity = milk, honey, hive; the Harbinger of Hope and Purification = Holy Virgin, the Queen of Heaven among the planets and stars, the Golden Star. Flowers were also included here with their respective correspondences; even herbs, roses, violets, saffron, laurel, and we could go on and on for a very long time. And the whole system, of course, operates under the revolving Heavens where the Spheres, the Crystalline Arcs, the planets, angels and demons and creatures of all kinds make their way according to strict rules.

Where people quite seriously believed that:

If a wolf sees a man before the man sees the wolf, the man loses his voice. If man sees the wolf first, it will not attack. If a man loses his voice because the wolf saw him first, take off all his clothes and knock two boulders together and the wolf will not attack.

Of course, on a second reading, some ethological / psychosomatic possibility is already starting to come through. Or substitute in place of wolf to devil, in place of man to believers, in place of cast off all his garments, in place of baptism by stripping off his worldly self, in place of the two pieces of rock being struck together as penance for the forgiveness of sins, so to laugh at, on first round, is not even appropriate...


Where's the musical connection? Well, there's the 'twist', because almost all the texts in the Huelgas codex refer to some part of Scripture, and are full of these symbol systems. And here is the special 'Bestiary' connection: Savall has selected so that the 'Animals of Christ' can be found in the pieces from which he has compiled the record.

That is, separately, they come in order in the tracklist, first, the Eagle / Lion / Bull / Man 'group' with a prose of 'Iocundare, plebs fidelis, cuius Pater est in celis', then comes a conductus of Sun, Moon and Stars at the End of the World 'group', Audi Pontus, Audi Tellus, and so on.

Before anyone asks, with sparkling eyes, if it's like the Lion, in music, then majestic and commanding and regal, possibly, roaring a big one, like 400 years later, with Vivaldi, the storm, when it strikes? Well, mostly not, almost not at all. The allusions and symbols are much, much more hidden, so much so that a perfect knowledge of Latin and a book-less recitation of all the stories and prophets of the Old Testament would at most make the analogical arcs a little easier to understand, but the real magic, the 'correspondence', is not in the language, but in the music and its accompanying text, only closely together, but inexpressible in their entirety.

Having gone through the entire Beastarium, from the Eagle to the Dragon and the Disgusting Flies, and the Pelican, the Lamb and the Griffon, the Snake and the Dove, the Salamander and the Cephalopods and all the many-winged Beasts, not forgetting the Worms, we can finally talk about the show itself. What happens when you put this SACD in the player.

Something very different from what we are used to. The start - and this is what happens before all the pieces - is an instrumental sounding, almost gently, which turns into a short improvisation, really only a few bars, and then the piece itself is attached to this melody or rhytm. Music of various forms and genres follows, some that resembles a pilgrim song, some that resembles a hymn or an antiphon from hundreds of years later, some that recalls motets from later liturgies, and some that resembles nothing but itself. And each one ends with an 'Amen'. But these are sung in such a way that I can hardly find the word to cover the grandeur that these two syllables conceal.
Our [Hungarian] language is beautiful, isn't it?, yes, it's pure linguistic metaphysics: it covers, indeed, but it covers in such a way that it reveals something very powerful, yet we say 'covers'.

The whole album does exactly that. It obscures, obfuscates, heavily mystifies, and circumscribes something very important with musical intricacies and symbolism. And yet it achieves this better than if you were to handwrite the solution on a piece of paper or print it out on A4.

Because that's how the world works.


We are not moving along straight lines, but in complex spiral movements. Like clouds and cyclones and winds. And our thoughts, mostly.

The performance of the singers - it's just fantastic. Lots of unisons, sopranos all at once, and Savall has chosen them in such a way that their voices, together, take on a slightly odd, interesting 'tribal' quality. Yes, there's our fabulous [Hungarian] language again: tribal, because there was something the old tribes knew that they now only preserve in their singing, and if you asked them outright what it was, they wouldn't know themselves... just as many people don't know why Belmondo's face was blue on the movie...

Pierrot le Fou - 1965

The instruments accompany with infinite subtlety, or sometimes provide a middle line, like a bisector or a barrier that marks and holds things. The multiple voices, where present, are barely perceptible; infinitely tactful, in the background, are the new-agey secret echoes of 'Ars Nova'; there is no mixture of lines, we are still a long way from hardcore polyphony; there are lower voices that are more like organum, but there are also some that are already on their own, but so 'carefully' that the evenness familiar in Gregorian chant is absolutely unaffected.



Indeed, the term coined by the Swiss doctor fits the bill.

There is an emergence of something prehistoric, something primordial in the recording.
So much so, that it exhausts the category of 'magic'.

And now an important question arises, which interests me so much that the whole article was written for this purpose. Namely, could this kind of musical archetypal-approximateness, which has come down to us in the pages of the Huelgas codex, really have been performed in this way, in this form? Does archetype mean typification, systematisation, which in fact means simplification, a straightening towards the essence? Because the 'type', the concept, is there, in the word, which is itself an abstraction, which is not the thing, but only the frame?
Are the older, 'straightforward' performances mentioned above more correct? Or is it this disc, where the primordial system, the base, seems to be a complex and chiselled and spiral geometry?

I'm open-minded here now. For me the answer is obvious, but I know that this is a very complicated subject and many people have many different ideas.

That said, the music is simply beautiful.
Without any speculations on music history or philosophy, it can be taken in at first listen. The quality of the sound, or rather, the art of recording, is a great help: the right tones, the captivating and unique vocal sounds, perfect overtones and the generously over-calculated sampling frequency of the SACD all help to navigate the labyrinth.


To think about these things: a purely intellectual delight. And the fact that it is also a multi-dimensional extension of musical reception is a particularly subtle and unique thing.

One of the last pages of the codex:

A seated figure receiving the blessing of a divine hand.

The ancients knew exactly how important music was; this music; and this collection. Its rhythm, its melody, its beauty, every audible and inaudible moment, its magic.

And what forces and powers intersect our gently curving diagonals.

*         *         *

Thank you for the pictures