Yesterday we visited the Carmelite convent in Vic together with a group of colleagues doing research into conventual culture from a variety of perspectives: Verònica Zaragoza, Marc Sogues, Aurelia Pessarrodona, and Mercè Gras, who organised the visit.
We were able to listen to the singing of the Hour of Sext in the impressive convent church, and to examine several seventeenth-century manuscripts preserved at the convent archive, such as books containing the Masses and Offices founded at the convent, books of professions, and books including lyrics of villancicos, ensaladas and romances to be sung. After having lunch in the parlour, we met the community of nuns through the grille. It was interesting to have a talk with them and to know more about their daily routine and their musical activities. They even sang and played guitars, tambourines and castanets for us.
It was a rare experience to be able to spend a day in a Carmelite convent; the nuns made us very welcome even though, as a cloistered order, it was was only possible to speak and listen to them through grilles. Listening to Sext was interesting: the nuns began with spoken prayers, which were, in effect, semi-sung, with a natural rhythm and cadencing that sprang from the words. At times, the voices spoke-sang a fifth or third apart, the division arising quite spontaneously from the natural speaking pitch of the seventeen nuns. The actual singing seemed very much in accordance with St Teresa of Avila’s instructions: on a single tone (with the occasional dip down to the note below at the ends of phrases), and in a manner that was modest and essentially inward-sounding rather than with any sense of vocal projection. The harmonium was played at the end in a couple pieces that sounded like Anglican hymns!
The extraordinary exuberance in colour, space and visual movement of the Baroque church interior provided a dramatic contrast with the absolute simplicity of the whitewashed walls and small, enclosed spaces of the parlour and locutory – or, indeed, of the unadorned exterior walls. Looking at the manuscripts was a treat: why copy the ensalada texts? To read, whether aloud or silently, at Christmas and ponder their allegorical meanings? What did the nuns make of their evocation of events such as fires, jousts, battles etc. and the inclusion of popular songs that they had presumably not experienced or heard from the moment they entered cloistered life? Did they have the 1581 edition of Flecha’s works to hand in the convent music library? And could they possibly have memorised all that music and sung them from the texts alone?
Many thanks indeed to Mercè Gras for organizing a memorable day. As a group of early modernists we hope to make our next outing to Sant Jerònim de la Murtra and to organize other events in the future.