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Anonymous 4 Retrace The Steps Of Their 14th-Century Sisters

The vocal group Anonymous 4.
Mark Kwiatek
courtesy of the artists
The vocal group Anonymous 4.

In their liner notes for their newest release, one of the four women in the a capella group Anonymous 4, Susan Hellauer, says that they are following in the footsteps of "much-older sisters." How much older? 800 years.

All the music on Secret Voices comes from the Codex Las Huelgas, an anthology of 13th- and early 14th-century polyphony and song that was compiled at a convent in northern Spain, the Cistercian Santa Maria la Real de Las Huelgas in Burgos. The manuscript was rediscovered in 1904, and in recent years has proved a very rich vein of material for early music performers.

Founded by King Alfonso VIII of Castile at the urging of his wife Eleanor of England, this convent became both a mausoleum for the royal family and a convent for royal women seeking the religious life. The women of the abbey enjoyed a remarkably free and self-directed existence – some claim that for centuries, the abbess was able to perform clerical tasks that are, in orthodox practice, set aside for priests only, including saying Mass and hearing confessions.

While the Cistercian code emphasizes a life of ora et labora – "prayer and work" – and discourages music, the existence of this manuscript proves that these nuns enjoyed marvelous and difficult vocal music. While it's assumed by most scholars that the nuns of this abbey sang the glorious music found in the Codex Las Huelgas themselves, some claim the nuns hired a male choir to sing for them. However, one of the selections Anonymous 4 includes here appears to refute that notion rather bluntly: "Sing out these and other such things,/you cloistered virgins,/ golden nuns,/you are fitted for this/because you were born to cultivate polyphony."

This is extremely refined music. Just listen to the rhythmic and harmonic intricacies of "Ave Maris Stella":

If you're already a fan of Anonymous 4, who released their first album in 1993 and still retain three of their four original singers, you'll be well aware of their unearthly purity, perfect precision and inviting style of programming (for 'Secret Voices,' they have arranged the music to evoke a day at the convent, from first light through darkest night). If by chance you haven't yet made the acquaintance of this fine group – who are as close to superstars as the early music community comes – you are in for a remarkable treat.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.