musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

"Veiled Desires"
Ensemble Peregrina/Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett
concert: Oct 23, 2019, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

[Chastity] anon: Casta catholica, conductus; Tamquam sponsus, antiphona; Virgines egregie, sequence (two settings); HILDEGARD OF BINGEN: O dulcissime amator (symphonia virginum); O pulcre facies (antiphona de virginibus)
[Temptation] anon: Cil bruns/In seculum, motet; Nonne sanz amour/Moine/Et super, motet; Michael BEHEIM (1420-1472): Ain beispel von ainer eptissin
[Deceased sister] anon: Kyrie/Iesu parce ei, litany; O monialis concio, planctus; Salve Regina/Virgo mater clemens, antiphona
anon: Awe meiner jungen tage, song; In virgulto gracie, sequence; Joliement/Quant voi/Je sui joliete/Aptatur, motet; Li debonaires Dieus, chanson; Nus ne mi/Nonne sui/Aptatur, motet; Plangit nonna fletibus, planctus; Quant se vient en mai, song

Lorenza Donadini, Hanna Järveläinen, Anna Miklashevich, Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett, voice; Jane Achtman, vielle

In the 16th and 17th centuries, various composers wrote variations on a song that was very popular at the time, and whose melody - often with different texts - disseminated across Europe. The song was known as La Monica, and is about a girl who was to become a nun, but did not like that idea. This refers to a then common subject, as monastic life played an important role in church and society. Some girls and young women did not have much choice, for others it was a vocation. These two sides of the coin came to the fore in a programme of music from the 14th and 15th centuries under the title 'Veiled Desires', performed by the Ensemble Peregrina, directed by Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett, during a short tour through the Netherlands from 23 to 26 October. I attended their concert in Zeist, a town east of Utrecht.

The ideal of womanhood was the Virgin Mary. Therefore the first section of the programme was devoted to music about her, for instance from the Roman de Fauvel and the Codex Las Huelgas. The variety within the programme was reflected by the inclusion of the antiphon Tamquam sponsus from Wroclaw/Silesia and two pieces by Hildegard of Bingen, the symphonia O dulcissime amator and the antiphon O pulcre facies, which closed this part of the programme. Hildegard certainly was one who looked at monastic life as a vocation. Her life illustrates that it offered many opportunities for women, they probably did not have outside of the monastery, such as the development of their artistic and intellectual skills.

Not all women were happy with their fate. The music in the second section attested to that; it was called 'Temptation', and included songs about very worldy desires of women. Some of these were expressed in dreams, but there were also songs about experiences which were certainly not in line with the purposes of monastic life. One of these was a song in the vernacular by a certain Michael Beheim, a German Meistersinger of the 14th century, whose Ain beispel von einer eptissin shows strong similarities to the songs by Oswald von Wolkenstein.

The convent was a world of its own, and nuns were assumed to stay away from daily life in the world outside the convent. However, death did not halt at the entrance of the convent. This was the subject of the third chaper. In the centre was O monialis concio, a planctus from the Codex Las Huelgas about the death of the abbess Doña Maria González de Aguero around 1340. It was preceded by a troped Salve Regina and followed by a litany, with the appropriate text "Kyrie eleison", another piece with tropes.

In the last section, the contrasting feelings of nuns came together, under the title "In prison". It opened with a complaint of a girl who is forced to become a nun, Awe meiner iungen Tage, a song in the vernacular from the 13th century. The same kind of feelings are expressed in some of the next pieces. Interestingly, in Li debonnaires Dieus, the two sides of the coin are expressed. It is a curious mixture of the sacred and the secular. The programme ended with In virgulto gracie, once again taken from the Codex Las Huelgas, in which the monastery is portrayed as a "garden of grace".

The Ensemble Peregrina specialises in music of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, whose performances are based on thorough research of the material. One aspect is the pronunciation of Latin and other languages, for which the ensemble turns to specialists in the field. It also aims a an optimal communication of the text to the audience. That came impressively off in the two pieces in the vernacular, which were performed in a declamatory style, in the way of a story teller. Most of the music is monodic, but sometimes such pieces were performed with several voices, singing in unison. In some cases a solo voice sang the stanzas, whereas in the refrain she was joined by the other singers. In some items the singers were supported by Jane Achtman at the vielle. The repertoire is technically demanding; in an interview Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett explained that the songs in the programme are not performed in the convents anymore, because they are technically too complicated. Therefore one needs specialists like the singers of the Ensemble Peregrina, who delivered marvellous performances. Apparently, their aim of bringing the music as close to the audience as possible was achieved, judging by the reception from the listeners.

For those who would like to hear this programme: an extended vrsion has recently been released by the German label Raumklang.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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