About 700 years ago, nuns at a monastery in northern Spain had a book of music copied out by hand, probably so they could use it in their worship services. It was preserved in the convent for hundreds of years, largely unknown, before it was discovered again by researchers in the early 20th century.
The music preserved in that manuscript, which is known as the Las Huelgas Codex, will feature prominently in the Hurly Burly Ensemble’s spring concert, Vox Feminae, a Mother’s Day presentation of women’s medieval music.
“Much of medieval music is anonymous, so we don’t know who wrote it, but there is still a significant body of work of medieval music by women,” explains Katie Adamson, one of the newer members of the Ensemble. “In this concert, we’re featuring a mixture of music composed by women and for women in the context of the convent, as well as some music written by women for secular performances.
“We’re focusing on a range of music from women from different parts of society.”
The Hurly Burly Ensemble is a group of early music enthusiasts in Peterborough, and they currently present two concerts a year: one at Christmas time and one in the spring. Their repertoire is wide ranging, but stays rooted in some of the earliest musical traditions of Europe. “Early music has a very fluid definition,” the Ensemble’s director Tanah Haney says, “but for us, it’s music from the Early Middle Ages right up through into the Renaissance.”
The Hurly Burly Ensemble was founded more than 20 years ago. “We were interested in all things medieval,” Haney says of the original group, “from their clothing to the games they played and their history, and we wanted to focus on real medieval music, as opposed to music that was maybe inspired by early music but was more folky and modern. We really didn’t know what we were doing at first, but as we went along we became more and more informed.”
Early music comes to us preserved in fragile manuscripts, and it can often be a puzzle to discern exactly how it was originally performed. Medieval musicians and composers shared music orally and by memory, and they often neglected to write down more than brief notes or sketches describing the music. But scholarship over the last century or so has made it easier to reconstruct some of this music, and for those who play it and listen to it now, it can feel like a visceral encounter with a very different era.
“For me it’s almost a way to travel back in time, to get a feel for where people were during that time period,” Haney says. “It’s very hard to do that just from people writing down history, but if you start to look at the arts, and music especially, it’s really a neat way to be able to touch that part of our past.”
For Adamson, the Hurly Burly Ensemble’s music opens up a world that feels curious and alien. “There’s something about medieval Europe, at least to me, that really seems like another planet, and I love that,” she says.
The music of medieval Europe may sound a little foreign at first, but it still resonates today, and ensembles like Hurly Burly are keeping it alive, almost a thousand years later.
See the Hurly Burly Ensemble’s spring 2018 concert, Vox Feminae, May 13 at St. John’s Anglican Church Guild Hall (more info).