Mass for the nativity of Mary at the Royal Cistercian Abbey Las Huelgas
O Maria virgo florata nigi stillans dilue
O virgin Mary of flowers, chase the snow away
«O Maria Virgo » is a reconstruction of a two-part mass
as the female Cistercians of the 13th and 14th century abbey Santa
Maria of Las Huelgas might have sung.
Most of the chants can be traced to a parchment manuscript of Las Huelgas containing 45 monodic and 141 polyphonic compositions. The corpus of chants, even though it is not an explicit liturgical collection, might well have been used for important feasts during the liturgical year.
The four monodic plancti from the collection were probably performed during funerals of the Royal family. For this recording we have chosen both liturgical and para-liturgical chants for the nativity of Mary: troped and polyphonic chants for the ordinary (Kyrie eleison, Sanctus, Agnus dei) and for the proper (Alleluia, Gradual, Offertory), a three-part Benedicamus domino as well as two hymns for Mary. The important collection of chants from Las Huelgas is outstanding in mediaeval music tradition and shows many different styles of this time between ars antiqua and ars nova. There are chants in the style of Aquitanian polyphony with their two-part tropes or organa from the Notre-Dame School of Paris, two of the oldest polyphonic chant traditions in the 12th and 13th centuries which have been transmitted in manuscripts.
Otherwise there are monodic and polyphonic chants in honour of the virgin showing a highly original style from the Las Huelgas Cistercian abbey. The programme is completed by Gregorian chants from the 11th-century Gaillac gradual (BNF lat. 776), Aquitanian monasteries being very closely related to Christian communities on the Iberian Peninsula. The Abbey Santa Maria la Real of Las Huelgas was one of the most important Castilian monasteries and a cultural centre during the Middle Ages where Cistercian nuns have been living for centuries. The chant manuscript can be considered a document of that high period. Although the Cistercian ideals of sobriety and purity seem not to be followed completely in this abbey, the female members of the royal family retired to the convent for a contemplative life and daily liturgical chant with the community.
On the recording, the mass starts with the two-part prosa Maria virgo virginum, a strophic composition in the typical conductus style of Las Huelgas. Then, we inserted the beautiful cantiga de Santa Maria Rosa das rosas like a small meditation. This cantiga is noted in the 13th century codex B.1.2. from El Escorial, an impressive collection of Maria-chants in Gallician language collected at the court of Alfonso X the Wise of Castile.
After that the introitus Salve sancta parens in plagal d-mode from the Aquitanian manuscript Gaillac BNF lat. 776 follows. The small trope Virgo dei genitrix has been inserted before the first verse of psalm 44 Eructavit cor meum and comes back later during the graduate as verse. The two-part Kyrie eleison from Las Huelgas with its trope Rex virginum shows the characteristic style of the Parisian Notre-Dame School. The Gregorian Gloria has been taken from the Aquitanian Saint-Yrieix gradual BNF lat. 903.
One of the most interesting compositions of this mass is the gradual Benedicta et venerabilis, a knowing mixture of a plainchant from Gaillac with a two-part organum from Las Huelgas. The first word Benedicta and part of the verse Virgo dei genitrix are sung in two parts to mark the high importance of the liturgical occasion.
A beautiful two-part alleluia with its verse Salve virgo mater dei shows the simple but very elegant crossing and folding of the two voices. Then the hymn Stabat iuxta Christi crucem, a magnificent monodic plaint of a musical style which is typical of the Cistercian convent in Las Huelgas, is to be heard, and the two-part offertory Recordare virgo mater in the Las Huelgas-organum-style with three double-strophic tropes at the end. The polyphonic Sanctus to follow, also for two voices, seems to announce the new style of the 14th century ars nova with its rhythmical rather independent parts. Agnus dei is a plainchant with two polyphonic tropes of Aquitanian style with voice crossing, whereas the second trope O Maria virgo has inspired the title of the recording.
The mass closes with the communion Beata viscera Maria in d-mode from the gradual of Gaillac and the troped Benedicamus domino Cum cantico cum iubilo. This Benedicamus domino from Las Huelgas is the only three-part chant of this recording and a solemn ending of the programme with its reprise of the Deo gratias. The melodic and rhythmical transcriptions of the plainchant, the Las Huelgas compositions and the cantiga will be published simultaneously with the recording.
The Las Huelgas Monastery in the Middle Ages
Las Huelgas – the word may stand for a place of rest,
but even more probably a pasture. The royal monastery, having been
mentioned since 1187, is situated at the river Arlanzon, near Burgos. A
foundation of the king of Castile Alfonso VIII (1158–1214) and his wife
Eleanor, the monastery has a double function: a place for the infants
and ladies of the high aristocracy and a pantheon of the royal family.
The convent was officially incorporated into Citeaux in 1199, but
continued to play a very important role among the dozen or so female
Cistercian convents in the kingdom. Eleanor, daughter of the great
Eleanor of Aquitaine, sister of John Lackland and Richard the
Lionhearted, mother of Blanca of Castile and grandmother of Saint
Louis, had an outstanding role, during this promotion of the female
monasticism which might have been inspired by Fontevraud. The celebrity
of Las Huelgas in mediaeval monasticism has to do with the exceptional
power of its abbess, who reigned over a large territory by giving
permits to preach, to confess, to celebrate and even by installing
This, coming little by little, was a rather astonishing range of power for a woman in that period. From at least the end of the 12th century this power in the spiritual domain, in a church completely dominated by men, provoked several scandals. In this context, we can understand the reasons of the condemnation of the abbesses in the dioceses of Burgos and Palencia, blessing their own nuns and "having the presumption to preach the gospel in public", by pope Innocent III in 1210. The pope reminded them that "even if the virgin Mary has been worthier and more excellent than all the apostles, it has not been to her that the Lord handed over the keys of the kingdom of heaven". Officially, all the female monasteries dependent on Las Huelgas had to send their representatives to a general chapter resembling the one held in Citeaux. The Las Huelgas congregation acted partially like an autonomic Cistercian congregation which was unknown in the church until then.
As the centuries passed, the Las Huelgas monastery continued to play an important role for the Castilian monarchs. Ferdinand III, Alfonso XI, Henry II and John I were armed there as knights in a particular original ceremony with a statue of Saint James. Other kings, such as Alfonso X, Alfonso XI and John II were crowned in Las Huelgas. We also know about very solemn marriages celebrated there, like the one between the infant Fernando de la Cerda and Blanca of France, daughter of Louis IX. As a place of staging for the royal power, the Las Huelgas monastery is also an example of artistic syncretism.
The sepulchres of the kings, queens, princes and princesses of royal blood were often decorated on the inside with sumptuous oriental tapestries. In the church was also kept a magnificent banner, told to be the one taken from the Moslems by the Christians during the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.
One of the chapels called Claustrillas, constructed at the very beginning of the foundation, showed the Almohad style in all its purity. And, of course, the music occupied a place of honour in this permanent expression of beauty destined for the glory of the Lord and the kings.
Patrick Henriet is professor for Mediaeval history at the University of Bordeaux III
Abbaye Blanche de Mortain