One of the Newberry’s great music treasures is a set of manuscript choirbooks that were created for the use of the nuns in the former convent of the Encarnación in Mexico City, which was founded in the Renaissance and dissolved in the mid-nineteenth century. The books were donated to the Newberry in 1899 by Charles Hutchinson, then-president of the Art Institute of Chicago, upon his return from a trip to Mexico. For more than seven decades, the church or monastery in which the books had been used remained unknown. Finally, in 1979 and under the direction of University of Chicago Professor Howard Mayer Brown, musicology student Eliyahu Schleifer completed a Ph.D. dissertation that revealed their origin.
The Conceptionist nuns of Mexico City apparently used these choirbooks for about 200 years, between 1600 and 1800. There are six of them, containing close to 100 pieces of music, and the layout suggests there probably had been two more volumes in the set. The books measure 15 x 10 inches, and they follow the common choirbook format of having two voice parts on each folio – so two nuns would have shared each book. The covers of volumes four to six are lined with eighteenth-century proof pages of religious books printed in Mexico City; at least 20 different scribes had a hand in copying out the music. The books contain polyphonic – that is, multi-voice – music for singing the mass and the office services. They also contain polychoral works—works for a double choir. About 60 of the pieces are copies of known works by major sixteenth- and seventeenth-century composers from both Europe and New Spain, including Mexican composer Juan de Lienas. But there are also about 40 anonymous compositions.
It is likely that some of the same pieces were also sung in the Mexico City cathedral, but in the two locales, the cathedral and the convent, this music would have sounded very different. In the cathedral, the singing would have been done by men and boys. To hear women’s voices, one would have had to go to the convent chapel. In fact, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, convent chapels were virtually the only place from which the public could hear choirs of female voices. In convents, cloistered nuns sang all the parts, even the tenor and bass.
Recent research by another University of Chicago musicology student, Cesar Favila, has shown that in the Mexico City convent, the nuns would have sung at the back of the church, on two levels, upper and lower, behind curtains. So parishioners, facing the altar, would have heard the singing coming from behind them. When the nuns were singing the polychoral works, it’s likely that the two “choirs” of voices were located one above the other. All of this must have offered a novel, exciting sonority, quite unlike what one would have heard in the cathedral. The nuns sometimes would have used instruments, such as the viola da gamba, to accompany their voices, creating a mixed vocal and instrumental sound.
The Newberry Consort will perform some of the choirbook music at three different venues May 2 through 4.